Bad Economy Infiltrates Prime Time

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The current state of the economy will take a long time to make it onto the big screen. But TV has a quicker reaction time, so a few current programs have already begun to incorporate rough times into their plots.

ALEX COHEN, host:

From NPR News, it's Day to Day. Who among us isn't feeling the crunch from the sorry state of the economy? Critic Andrew Wallenstein is not immune. He feels it so much, he says, that it's starting to affect the way he experiences movies and TV shows.

(Soundbite of movie "Revolutionary Road")

Unidentified Woman: (As Realtor) Now, the place I want to show you is a sweet little house, sweet little setting, simple, clean lines, good lawns, marvelous for children. It's just around this next curve.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: And there it was in the new movie, "Revolutionary Road" - a spacious colonial house with cute, red shutters. I fell in love with it, as did Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who play the nice couple who move in. But just when I started to get comfortable thereā€¦

(Soundbite of movie "Revolutionary Road")

Ms. KATE WINSLET: (As April Wheeler) And with the money we could get from the house and the car, longer than that.

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Frank Wheeler) What we could get for the house? Sweetheart, what are you talking about? Where are we going to live?

Ms. WINSLET: (As April Wheeler) Paris.

Mr. DICAPRIO: (As Frank Wheeler) What?

WALLENSTEIN: I'm with you, Leo. I mean, we just got here, right? But no, "Revolutionary Road" tells us to escape the beautiful suburbs because it's stifling and oppressive with all its materialism and tackiness. And to that I respond, did you see the cabinetry in that house?

In all seriousness, I truly did not connect with "Revolutionary Road" because I couldn't get my mind around what was so horrible about suburbia. The set design left me envious more than anything, a function of how these tough times are warping my perception of entertainment. I'm sure I'm not alone. Prime-time TV series are clearly trying to respond to the zeitgeist, which films can't really do because of a much slower production cycle.

On shows like "Ugly Betty" and "The Office," the businesses at the heart of their stories have been seen in recent episodes reflecting the fiscal crunch. Just listen to last week's episode of "The Office," in which the CFO at Dunder Mifflin tries to get a sense of just how the bumbling Michael Scott is somehow succeeding.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. ANDY BUCKLEY: (As David Wallace) Here's the thing - Michael is doing something right, and in this economic climate, no method of success can be ignored. It's not really time for executives to start getting judgmental now. It's Hail Mary time.

Mr. STEVE CARRELL: (As Michael Scott) Hey, what say we order up some pasta?

WALLENSTEIN: As the television industry heads into development on next season, you can bet there will be less fare that celebrates fantastical wealth, like "Dirty Sexy Money" or "Lipstick Jungle," and more blue-collar stories in the mold of, say, "Roseanne." The recession is even hitting home on TV for the filthy, stinking rich. My favorite reality show, "Real Housewives of Orange County," on Bravo, can usually be counted on to depict enough carefree overspending on everyday essentials, like yachts and motorcycles, to leave you slack-jawed. But there's even belt-tightening going on in the lap of luxury, as you'll hear in this scene featuring Jeana, owner of a palace-sized home.

(Soundbite of TV show "Real Housewives of Orange Country")

Ms. JEANA TOMASINA: (As Herself) My electric bill last month was 2,900. I was ready to shut the power off at the house and just make the kids use candles.

WALLENSTEIN: A TV programmer must walk a fine line these days. They're used to feeding us "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," but there's risk of breeding resentment when the disparity is too great between fantasy and reality.

COHEN: Andrew Wallenstein is the deputy editor at the Hollywood Reporter.

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