'Downsized': Recession Television Invites You To Pass Judgment And Feel Safe Television touching on a recession is just like television the rest of the time: it has a lot invested in letting you sit in judgment of other people's problems.
NPR logo 'Downsized': Recession Television Invites You To Pass Judgment And Feel Safe

'Downsized': Recession Television Invites You To Pass Judgment And Feel Safe

The cast of Downsized: Todd Bruce, his seven children and stepchildren, and his wife Laura. Rahoul Ghose/WeTV hide caption

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Rahoul Ghose/WeTV

The cast of Downsized: Todd Bruce, his seven children and stepchildren, and his wife Laura.

Rahoul Ghose/WeTV

The story of Downsized, which entered its second season on WeTV a week ago, has a lot in common with other reality shows about large clans. The Bruces are a blended family — Todd and his three kids, Laura and her four kids. All the kids except Bruce's 11-year-old are older teenagers, so the house is a mess of yelling, fighting, long showers, after-school jobs, and other drama.

But the theme of Downsized isn't just the big family; it's the economic crunch suggested by the title. Bruce used to be a building contractor, but he lost his business. Laura works as a teacher, but that doesn't bring in much money. They both have custody of their kids, so they're currently trying to support themselves and seven children primarily on Laura's teaching salary (and, presumably, whatever they may get in child support).

They've lost two properties to foreclosure, and Todd has declared bankruptcy. The show represents We's attempt to follow a family that's having to cut back in every way, from fewer activities for the kids to moving into a rental house.

There's one big difference, of course, between this family and other money-crunched families: they're on television.

In fact, as the second season started last week, the new issue that had flared up between Todd and Laura was that they had gotten a chunk of money for doing the show's first season, and they'd used it to pay some debts. They had about $18,000 left, and while Laura wanted to save it, Todd is itching to buy a house, primarily because he hates renting on principle. Laura, on the other hand, says that with seven kids to take care of, it would be good not to spend every dime they have and leave themselves with no cushion at all. And if they buy a house, they explain, it's going to have to be in Laura's name, because Todd's credit is shot because of the bankruptcy.

Todd, nevertheless, strong-armed Laura into hauling out to a "fixer-upper" he had his eye on that they could maybe get into if they spent the entire $18,000 on the down payment. He argued that they would then be making mortgage payments lower than their rent. It's an understandable conflict, certainly: he wants equity and thinks renting is throwing away money; she's more worried about having a little money in the bank if they need it.

But then, as in all unscripted shows, the weird little issues arise that invite the viewer to nitpick what the family is doing. The "fixer-upper" is a three-bedroom, 1700-square-foot house — for two adults, six teenagers, and an 11-year-old. One of the reasons Todd wants to buy a house is that they have a parking problem at the rental house because three of those six teenagers now own their own cars — that's largely what they do with the money they make at work, is pay for gas. (They also pay their own cell phone bills.)

When Laura's daughter Bailey came home in last week's episode with a car she had bought with the entire contents of her savings account — a car she bought in a parking lot without showing it to a mechanic, her parents, or anyone else — she created this new crisis. Now they had to buy a house, because the homeowners' association (HOA) where the rental house is located won't let you park cars on the street.

Todd's solution is to buy a house. Laura's solution is just to pay whatever the HOA fines are. (Neither one of them seems to have thought of, "Require the kid to sell her car, on the basis that you don't have a constitutional right to a parking space at your parents' house, and if you don't get their permission to buy a car without having a place to park it, you have yourself to blame.")

It has seemed at times like Downsized would have some promise as an exploration of the hard choices involved in the family's situation. Certainly, as long as the kids can buy cell phones and cars, this family is — relative to much of the world — not all that hard-up. But their problems are substantial and structural. Seven kids, six of whom are at or close to the age where they want to park a car at your house is the bad luck of (1) Laura having triplets, and (2) the two of them marrying each other instead of people with fewer or differently-spaced children. They do have some serious problems that aren't as simple as "stop being dumb."

But the draw of the show is the opportunity to second-guess, and that's why every tiny debate can be picked apart indefinitely. Nobody would look to a family this unusual for real ideas; it's just a different kind of gawking at wealth — a kind of backwards Real Housewives. Instead of wondering why people waste their abundant money, we're invited to wonder why they waste their scarce money: Why are they buying that house? Shouldn't they be making the kids save what they earn? Should everyone in this house have a cell phone under these circumstances?

It would be a more interesting show if they were making smaller moves instead of arguing about whether to buy a house. It would be more useful; it would speak more to the sacrifices they're making. Big clashes are characteristic of unscripted television, but much of budget-cutting is in the day-to-day.

There's no entirely obvious answer for this family, in truth. They'll make some more money from the show, but this is basic cable reality, and it's not going to pay for a house, a few vehicles, and 28 years of college. As much as the network tries to make this about a compassionate look at a family's struggle, the heartbeat of a show like this is in the tsk-tsking that it invites.

Tsk-tsk, I wouldn't do that. Tsk-tsk, my kids would be more grateful. Tsk-tsk, that fool wants to buy a house? Tsk-tsk, that lady wants to keep renting? And of course, the most important one: Tsk-tsk, that would never happen to my family.