Signs of the Times
Recession TV: Sesame Street introduces new “food insecure” muppet, while 2 BrokeGirls struggle
Everyone’s favorite neighborhood welcomed a new member. On the Sesame Street special, “Growing Hope Against Hunger,” we met Lily, a 7-year old muppet facing “food insecurity.”
While it may sound like a delicate way to label an eating disorder, the term “food security” is actually the official USDA term for “access to food” — and the governmental organization determined that, in 2010, 14.5 percent of American households were considered food insecure at one point during the year, meaning that they did not consistently have access to enough sustenance for an “active, healthy life.”
Sesame Street’s decision to highlight the issue was prompted by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization operating in tandem with the show. Sunday’s PBS special on hunger, according to the network, was intended to both highlight the severity of this issue — particularly for families with children — and also provide a relatable role model for kids in less-than-ideal economic situations.
It’s not the first time a kids' show has used at-risk characters to illustrate important current events (the “Very Special Episode” construct was created for this), but it’s certainly a sign of our dim economic environment that the hunger epidemic is so common in kids’ lives that this special, and this character, represent a norm.
Other shows present different takes on financial instability. Shameless, for example — Showtime’s remake of the same-titled British series — explores the daily existence of the Gallagher family, a downtrodden Chicago clan headed by alcoholic single father Frank (perfectly portrayed by William H. Macy). The show deals with touchy topics like turning to crime to pay bills and scamming disability, showing grim snapshots of a lifestyle that’s not uncommon for many urban families.
Portraits of “The American Experience” aren’t always so grim. Roseanne, for example, did a great job of sympathizing with the hardscrabble Conner family, keeping things more humorous than weighty (barring some dim later episodes and Dan’s eventual heart attack, of course). More recent series, like Weeds, embody the same general spirit — a hard-working mother trying to provide for her family — just with a different twist. (Of course, “hard-working” is open for interpretation in dealer diva Nancy Botwin’s case, but her motivations are all ultimately fueled by fear of poverty, so we’ll count it.)
And sometimes it’s hard not to laugh at how rough things can be. Targeting a different demographic, the early-to-mid-20s group of post-grads facing debt and widespread un- and under-employment, 2 Broke Girls is a parody based on some pretty topical premises. Kat Dennings’ street smart Max, one of the Broke Girls in question, spends more than 40 hours a week waiting tables while also baking cupcakes for extra cash in her free time. Her new coworker, Caroline (Beth Behrs), dons the uniform after her formerly rich father’s Ponzi scheme leaves the socialite a penniless urchin.
Of course there's the other side: our obsession with the absurdly rich. While some might prefer to wallow in serious dramas, watching, say, The Wire as a reminder of how bad things could be, many prefer the escapism that voyeuristic shows like Real Housewives provide — though there’s something deeply unsettling about realizing, as you and your roommates are huddled around a 13-inch laptop watching illegally downloaded shows because you can’t afford cable, that there’s a 4-year old in Malibu with a 52-inch flat screen and more pairs of shoes than you’ll own in a lifetime.
It’s no news that television reflects our reality, but it’s interesting to note the importance of relatable, realistic characters. While our new muppet friend Lily doesn’t represent a breaking TV trend, she is another in a long line of fictional characters created to “appeal to the masses,” like Roseanne before her.