Downsized debuts tonight on WE at 9 p.m. Eastern. The Fairy Jobmother airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime.
The Fairy Jobmother and Downsized act so well as a question and answer for each other that there's really no reason to review them separately. The first asks, "Why are you unemployed?" and comes up with a bunch of bullshit answers. The second answers that question quite brusquely (and surprisingly well) with a, "Because the entire fucking country is, you idiot." An intriguing article recently posited that what America needs for these hard times is a new Frank Capra, someone who can unite us both in our sense of despair and our sense that things will get better if we just muddle on through somehow. Both of these series attempt to take on that mantle, but The Fairy Jobmother essentially fails by trying to pretend that unemployment of nearly 10 percent is merely a long series of personal issues. Downsized, for all of its faults, at least seems to understand that things are damned grim, and there's nothing most families can do about it but suck it up and hope family togetherness will be enough.
Early on in Fairy Jobmother, a remake of a British series also starring the titular Jobmother, Hayley Taylor, Taylor arrives at the home of Shawn and Michelle Aughe, a small-town California couple that's been out of work for years and is struggling with the fact that their unemployment insurance will soon run out. Shawn was discharged from the Navy, while Michelle's been a stay-at-home mom to the couple's two children since they were born, and the financial strain, even though the two appear to be living fairly frugally, has gotten to the couple. It's evident that they're both psychologically and physically exhausted, and the world increasingly seems like an unwelcoming place to them. They're in danger of slipping through the cracks, and, indeed, Shawn has just stopped applying for work.
Taylor waltzes into this situation and asks the two why they're unemployed. I'll bite.
From the late '90s on, a combination of politicians in love with deregulation and the financial wizards who egged them on created a false demand for real estate, inflating a gigantic bubble that drove the U.S. and, later, the world economies into the stratosphere, giving people who couldn't necessarily afford property humongous houses and creating an elaborate shell game where junk assets that these financial wizards KNEW were junk assets were bundled together and passed around between various companies like a hot potato to drive prices ever upward. On the other hand, the demand for real estate continued to skyrocket, even as few seemed to step back and suggest that there was, realistically, a set limit on the number of properties Americans would buy. Naturally, this basic supply and demand problem began to become unsustainable, the system cracked under the strain of too many products and not enough buyers, and everything collapsed in 2007 and 2008.
Since employment is a lagging indicator, people began to be laid off in late 2008, peaking (we hope) with 10 percent unemployment about 18 months later. Since then, the economy has slowly stabilized and begun to tick slightly upward, but the benefits have mostly rained down on the investor class that largely caused the disaster in the first place. Because most families either don't have money to buy products or are saving up in case their jobs are lost, there's a lack of demand for new consumer product on the market, which means that workplaces still are unable to hire new workers at a rate that would substantially depreciate the number of unemployed. There's a glut of money on the market (some of it introduced by the Fed), but that money has yet to trickle down in the way of jobs or cash or anything because no one's sure anyone will spend it, rather than save it.
And that's why the Aughes don't have jobs, Charlie Brown!
(And, yes, I realize this is grossly oversimplified, but I hope I've hit enough of the major points to give you the basic idea. I also realize that pretty much every American citizen bears some blame for what happened, but we'll get to every families' debt-ridden contributions to the crisis when we get toDownsized.)
This is not what the Fairy Jobmother would tell you. No, no. The Fairy Jobmother would tell you that the Aughes don't have jobs because they don't have confidence and because they live in a messy apartment, where they let their dogs poop on a poop pad. It has nothing to do with the fact that Shawn's skills tend toward manual labor in an economy that's skewing further and further away from manual labor. It has nothing to do with the fact that the town they live in just has NO JOBS available. It has everything to do with the fact that these two just don't want it enough, that they've allowed themselves to get dragged down into a morass of depression and daddy issues (and dog poop) and haven't spent money on expensive things like nice hairstyles to better impress potential bosses. Their unemployment is THEIR FAULT and has nothing to do with any larger factors beyond them. When Shawn and Michelle don't send out resumés, it's a sign of their weakness, not a sign of the fact that no one in town is hiring and they've emerged from an educational system that's left them largely unprepared for the world they now live in.
To a degree, I can sympathize. I quit my last job in 2008, right before Lehman Brothers collapsed and took what was left of the economy with it. I quit for a freelancing gig that would only last four months, but I was sure it was the right move. I was miserable at my old job, and I knew I would be in the future. Instead, I fell into a year-long struggle with overwhelming guilt, depression, and general sloth. I sent out resumé after resumé without hearing back, and I increasingly became convinced I'd never work again, that the world had turned and left me stranded in a messy apartment in Long Beach, California. I'd talk endlessly with my parents about not having work, and they would admonish me about just having to keep putting myself out there, to keep having confidence in myself and my abilities, then ask why I'd quit my old job in the first place or why I wasn't moving home to South Dakota to work at one of the jobs they knew of there. Even though I knew what they were saying was right on some level, that I would eventually pull myself up, it was still infuriating, as if a giant, systemic collapse was entirely my fault, that I could find a job if I just tried the right combination of factors.
And what's weird is that the things that led to me getting a job were the things that the Fairy Jobmother pitched to the Aughes. I joined a volunteer organization just to leave the house and meet people (though on Fairy Jobmother, it seems more like she's gotten the Aughes to work at a dairy farm for free, for some reason). I tried to put on a brave face for the world (though Taylor seems to sell getting a job as a series of strategic lies and performance tics). And I just started bugging the editors of some of my favorite publications on Facebook, just as Taylor insists the Aughes keep calling potential employers about their resumés (though at least I had clips to send out, while the Aughes just keep calling to say, "Hey, have you hired me yet?"). Eventually, yeah, I landed a job in a terrible economy through personal gumption and stick-to-it-iveness.
But I was someone trained to fill an incredibly specific but increasingly popular niche (TV criticism) and exploit that. I wasn't looking for construction work or something where I could work with my hands, like Shawn. I wasn't looking for a data entry position or a retail job, like Michelle. The Fairy Jobmother ultimately fails because it sells Taylor's prescription for the Aughes (and my prescription for myself) as something that can save an entire nation. It's just the latest show to suggest that what the country needs isn't more government or lower tax rates for big corporations but, rather, more reality shows. And yet, by not taking a political position at all, The Fairy Jobmother inadvertently becomes incredibly political: It argues that the only thing wrong with America are all of these damned lazy people sucking up unemployment benefits without bothering to look for work. The show doesn't really mean to imply this, but it can't help but do so when it also doesn't bother examining just why these people might not be able to find work beyond their personal issues. Like too many reality shows, The Fairy Jobmother reimagines the human race as a giant, unending self-improvement project both on a micro and macro scale, then mistakes the fact that it tips the scales in favor of itself simply by being on television as real insight.
Here's what I mean: Late in the premiere of Fairy Jobmother, both Shawn and Michelle get calls back from the employers they magically managed to get interviews with (because I'm sure the TV cameras and the potential for bad publicity had nothing to do with this at all). The two go out on interviews, and Michelle does poorly, while Shawn does well but isn't quite right for the job he's looking at, which requires someone with more specialized skills. And yet the guy who interviewed Shawn likes his moxie so much that he calls up the local auto dealer and gets him a job as a car salesman, while the dairy where the two volunteered earlier in the episode just "happens" to call up Michelle and offer her a part-time job, so taken were they with her typing skills. Taylor pretends to be surprised as she says that she wasn't expecting that at all, but everything happens so quickly and so conveniently that it's obviously staged.
And even if it's not, the Aughes have one, big advantage: They're appearing on television, and nobody wants to make people cry on television. If reality show cameras followed around everyone who's applying for jobs, there would be a much lower unemployment rate (particularly since we'd have to hire so many more cameramen), but that's not exactly a solution to the crisis. (A second episode of The Fairy Jobmother is marginally more interesting, as it examines the stresses placed on a marriage by long-term unemployment, coupled with the double whammy of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, but it has most of the same issues as this one.) The Fairy Jobmother is so offensive because it wraps its ideas in an outright lie and tries to sell that lie as all you need to overcome your own problems. It's an emptiness, masquerading as truth.
Downsized, on the other hand, is a much more honest and interesting take on recession TV. It's about what happens when a formerly well-off family has to cope with the fact that the global financial correction has come a-callin', and not everything is going to be as easy as it was. Laura and Todd Bruce are two attractive 40-year-olds, raising a blended family with seven children in Arizona. Todd owned an immensely successful contracting business during the boom of the real estate bubble, and he points out early in the show that the family went through $15,000 to $18,000 per MONTH at the height of his success. Now, his business has fallen apart, and he's stuck looking for day labor in a real estate market that will never be what it was, while the family lives on Laura's limited teacher's salary. To make matters more complicated, Todd's children's mother is doing well enough financially to buy her kids nice gifts (like a car), leaving Laura's kids feeling just a bit jealous and fostering resentment in the family. The Bruce-Rumsey (Laura's kids' last name) family has already lost one home and in the premiere, they're facing down the fact that they don't have the money to pay the rent on their new home. Will all nine people have to move into a tiny apartment?
Downsized is fascinating because it's genuinely heartwarming, yet still depressing as fuck. At its core, it's a sitcom about a blended family that takes care of each other, very like The Brady Bunch as played by the Joads, but it's also a show about people who lived beyond their means for many, many years and now have no earthly idea how to live within their means. The family has a food stamp card that no one knows the balance on (leading to the saddest funny scene you'll see all year, where daughter Bailey lists everything she was able to buy with the remaining balance), and it's obvious from how the family still indulges in certain creature comforts that coming up with a strict budget and sticking to it hasn't been a part of this process. As such, they're continuing to leak money, even if it might be able to patch things up on Laura's salary and what Todd's able to scrounge up from occasional construction work. (Oh, and on whatever WE paid the family to be the center of a reality show, but the series doesn't want you to think about that.)
Downsized takes a while to get going, as introducing all nine personalities in the family takes some time, but by the end, it's become weirdly winning, even as it gazes deep into the heart of economic despair. As Laura and Todd are forced to go to various people to ask for the $300 they need to pay the rent, the show becomes uncomfortable and squeamish, particularly in a late-episode phone call between Laura and her step-mom. And yet something about struggling through this time has pulled the family closer together as a family, uniting the kids as siblings, not just people who live in the same house, and creating paternal bonds between Laura, Todd, and the kids. When Laura talks about all of the things the family still has that a lot of families don't, it could seem trite, but the show makes it seem somehow old and wise, as it does when she talks about how maybe the kids living through this will help them cope with tough times ahead, like she and Todd have been unable to, having lived their whole lives when things were flush.
To be sure, there are the usual reality TV deus ex machinas. If you buy that the way the premiere ends had nothing to do with the producers of the show contriving a happy ending, well, I highly doubt you've watched television before, and there are a few too many scenes played for goofy laughs, particularly involving the kids, who occasionally seem as if they're going to stumble into that famous episode of The Brady Bunch where the kids raise a bunch of money by winning a talent show. But there's something essentially true at the center of Downsized that isn't present in The Fairy Jobmother, something that argues that the only way to cope with despair is to pull tighter together and just try to be a little better at loving your family and scraping by as best you can. The Fairy Jobmother is about wishing your problems away by just believing hard enough. Downsized is ultimately better because it's about the shock of realizing everything has changed and it might never go back, but, hey, at least you have each other.
The Fairy Jobmother: F