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Lasting recession works way into pop culture

In the new HBO series "Hung," Thomas Jane plays a man who is feeling the impact of the recession, and making some unconventional choices to deal with it.Chuck Hodes / HBO

The new HBO series “Hung” premiered this summer with scenes of abandoned Detroit factories and a voiceover lamenting how the city has gone to seed — along, we soon learn, with the life of the show’s protagonist, Ray Drecker.

Drecker is a guy many Americans can relate to these days. A star athlete in his youth, he now finds himself struggling: divorced, behind on his adjustable-rate mortgage and worried he might lose his job as a high school basketball coach because of budget cuts.

“Sex and the City” it is not.

As the recession drags well into its second year, the battered economy is being reflected in all aspects of popular culture, including television shows about tough times, "chick lit" books offering penny-pinching tips and movies about downsized executives.

Even long-running pop culture icons have not been spared. On "The Simpsons," Homer and Marge were forced to sell their house after their mortgage payment skyrocketed, characters at “30 Rock” grappled with budget cuts and the boys from “South Park” were taught a lesson in the dizzying effects of the financial crisis.

Barry Ritholtz, author of “Bailout Nation” and an investor who runs a popular financial blog, said he used to see pop culture references to hard economic times as a contrary indicator. That’s because most recessions since World War II have been so short that they were over by the time they were portrayed on television or in movies.

But this time, he said, the recession has dragged on long enough that financial issues already have been reflected in every aspect of entertainment, from soft sales of concert tickets to favorite television characters cutting back on lavish dinners.

“On the one hand, it’s good when it becomes part of popular culture because people are talking about it and thinking about it,” he said. But on the other hand, “It’s bad when people are obsessing about it to the point of absurdity.”

Indeed, in past downturns popular culture often has been seen as a way to escape from, rather than delve into, economic problems.

Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, notes that shows such as “Dynasty,” which portrayed an opulent lifestyle, thrived during the economic hard times of the 1980s, while elaborate musicals were popular during the Great Depression.

“If you’ve got a loved one dying of cancer, you may not want to watch, as your entertainment, movies of loved ones dying of cancer,” Thompson said.

'Hung' hangs on economic themes
Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming and West Coast operations, said it was largely coincidence that “Hung” went into production just as the economy was faltering. But the show's writers have taken the opportunity to work the recession themes more heavily into the plotline, he said.

In one scene, Drecker laments taking out an ARM on his parent’s house “that’s now got a hand around my throat.” In another, a character who plays a personal shopper explains that “my ladies are so loaded, they’re recession-proof.”

Lombardo noted that it’s far from the first HBO show to delve into difficult subject matter.

“Our programming, although hopefully being entertaining, is grounded in reality,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been a company that’s looked for escapist programming.” 

It’s not just premium cable channels like HBO that are reflecting the recession. From sitcoms to dramas, many shows have made reference to the economy, and experts expect to see even more when the new TV season launches in the fall.

The Fox show “Til Death” will have a story line about a character who is having a difficult time finding a job because of the weak economy. Fox also is working on a reality show, “Someone’s Gotta Go,” in which a worker gets laid off at the end of each episode, although an air date hasn’t been set.

Next year, Ben Affleck will star in a new movie, “The Company Men,” about the aftermath of a corporate downsizing. Activist filmmaker Michael Moore’s new movie, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” will be about the global economic crisis.

Chick lit meets financial self-help
Even so-called chick lit, novels that traditionally are more escapist in nature, are addressing the economy. A new book by author Sarah Strohmeyer, “The Penny Pinchers Club,” tells the tale of a suburban shopaholic who embraces frugality because she is afraid her husband is going to leave her, leading to a pricey divorce.

Strohmeyer said she was inspired to write a book dealing with financial themes after watching how many people were getting caught up in both the housing craze and consumer consumption. Like the novel’s protagonist, she also admits to having had a soft spot for shopping.

While in past recessions many people have seemed to want more escapist literature, Strohmeyer said she had the sense that this time around the economic changes were significant enough that people would want to see a story they could identify with.

“I don’t think we’re going to get out of this saving habit very soon,” she said. “We feel like burned girlfriends.”

Still, her genre is of the lighter variety, so Strohmeyer said she had to pepper her book with less serious themes or risk alienating her readers.

“A little romance, some sex, people get distracted,” she said.

And, in fact, while Strohmeyer was bracing for strong reactions from real-life penny pinchers, she said so far most of the feedback she’s heard has been about the book’s sex scenes.

“That’s what people react to. They don’t really care about the penny-pinching thing,” she said.

'Affordable luxury'
While novels, television and movies typically have longer lead times, Thompson said the economy has for months been playing a major role in other forms of popular culture, most notably advertising.

“If I hear the phrase 'affordable luxury' one more time …” he said.

Thompson, the pop culture professor, also is seeing the economic hard times reflected in celebrity culture, with fewer stars talking openly about their lavish lifestyles or flaunting their shopping habits when so many are suffering.

Ritzholtz, the author, said economic conditions also are evident in what is missing from television.

“Two or three years ago, every other show was ‘Buy this House,’ ‘Flip this House,’” Ritholtz said. “Now, the shows are, ‘How to get this damn house off your hands.’”

Lombardo, of HBO, said he laughs now at pitches he received just a few years ago glamorizing rich investment bankers or high-powered fashion magnates.

“We’re not seeing those shows these days,” he said.

That said, Lombardo's network has continued to air shows such as “Entourage,” about a hot actor and his pals, with few references to the recession.

“The cars are no smaller this season than last season, and, you know, that is that show,” he said. “That show (deals) with a certain aspect of modern culture which I do think, realistically, hasn’t really readjusted itself to the economic realities the middle class is facing.”

'Sex and the City' without the shoes?
Lombardo and others also believe that a show about any circumstance, rich or poor, can be a success if the storytelling is good enough. Nevertheless, he said a show like “Sex and the City,” which was a hit among many ordinary women even as it epitomized the excessive consumption culture of its era, might be scripted somewhat differently now.

“If that show were being written today … I would imagine Carrie would not be out buying shoes all the time,” Lombardo said. “That would sort of be off tone and make her less relatable to working women, who found her very relatable at that moment.”

Still, even as he fields more pitches referencing current economic issues, he said he’s careful to steer clear of any show based solely on the recession. He worries that such a show won’t have the staying power to keep audiences interested in five or seven years.

“You have to deal with reality when you’re doing a show,” he said. “At the same time, you’re looking for universal themes and characters and drama that will live beyond current events.”

Experts say even if the economic malaise continues to drag on, Americans may grow tired of spending all day worrying about their job and their mortgage, and then turning on their TV at night to see fictional characters doing the same thing.

Already, some are seeing signs of that fatigue. Ritholtz said he’s noticed that late-night hosts such as Jon Stewart don’t talk as much about the financial meltdown as they once did. It's a sign, perhaps, that complex financial issues aren’t as interesting to many Americans as they were a few months ago.

Thompson said the degree to which the recession has a lasting impact on popular culture will likely depend on how long the economic pain lasts. But, he said, the greatest examples may not be seen for years, when more movie scripts and serious literary works reflecting on the recession start to emerge.

He noted that the Great Depression ended up serving as fodder for everything from John Steinbeck’s contemporaneous “The Grapes of Wrath” to the television show “The Waltons” in the 1970s.

“(The recession is) highly dramatic, complex and just dripping with stuff for fiction and art, and I think there are probably a few masterpieces brewing as speak,” he said.