Weeds first appeared on the Showtime network in 2005. It’s a sitcom with a twist. The protagonist, Nancy Botwin, who lives in the Stepford wives-like suburb of Agrestic, is newly widowed. Despite her outwardly conservative neighbourhood, Nancy turns to growing and selling cannabis to make ends meet.
Breaking Bad, produced by AMC, is about a chemistry teacher, Walt White, who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Facing terminal illness with no insurance and no savings, Walt turns his chemistry skills to cooking crystal meth to pay for his treatment and provide for his family after his death.
Not to be left out, HBO have produced Hung, the story of Ray Drecker a middle-aged high school baseball coach whose house burns down leaving him in dire straits. So, Ray turns to male prostitution to keep a roof over his head.
There are no prizes for spotting the pattern here.
Why are these shows appearing now? In harsh economic times, the shows probably resonate with a declining middle class, who have been hit hard by the extension of deskilling, downsizing and outsourcing to the professions.
These comedies also offer a sense of rebellion. They ironically reject a system that is increasingly ruthless, hypocritical and unjust. After all, these characters are just entrepreneurs in a world where all business is amoral.
There is also a play here on the pressure to maintain middle class appearances despite falling incomes and a lack of security. Most of the dramatic tension in these shows comes from the characters’ need to hide their vices and preserve a sense of middle class normality for their families, neighbours and colleagues.
These shows are comedies, not Ken Loach films, so you can't expect social realism from them. Yet, they trade on the fact that they are dealing with life’s harsh realities. It is hard to be funny and edgy at the same time. Sitcom is about escaping everyday life but being gritty demands a degree of realism. The problem is that the clash between the two, sometimes horror followed by laughter, reduces the shows’ themes drugs, prostitution and cancer to simply being dramatic devices.