America's leading television programs among high-end TV consumers -- "The Office," "30 Rock," and Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" -- may make us worry about the state of Americans' work lives. Why do they revel in these mockeries of the American work place?

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, April 25, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Americans Hate Their Work Lives

The three highest-rated television programs among Americans who earn more than $100,000 annually are (in order) "The Office," "30 Rock,"and Donald Trump's "The Apprentice."

The first two comedies are parodies that mock the work place; both portray totally -- sometimes frighteningly -- out of touch bosses whose emotional impact for themselves and their employees is tremendously negative.  Indeed, the story lines are invariably the emotion toll the workplace and social interactions there exact on the characters.

At one point, the boss on "The Office" -- played by Steve Carell -- seriously contemplated suicide. The executive on "30 Rock," portrayed by Alec Baldwin, is a constant prod to anxiety and self-doubt on the part of the female lead, played by Tina Fey. Fey, Baldwin, and Carell are surrounded by humorous acters who vary from the extremely idiosyncratic to the troubled to the truly emotionally unbalanced.

What's so funny about that?

Trump's "Apprentice" is, of course, a horse of a different color. Here an autocrat rules over the lives of people -- consisting of 2nd-tier show-business, sports, and other former celebrities -- who live in fear of being fired (and no longer able to earn money for the charities they represent) based on a single bad performance or the enmity of co-workers. Trump seemingly gathers all his data in a single group meeting after the performers complete a business-related task, forms an instant opinion, and dispatches one or another ex-star. The damned are then shown offering face-saving excuses to allay their humiliation (which often reinforces story lines from their actual lives) on their lonely nighttime limo ride to the airport.

And viewers -- generally well-heeled Americans with good-paying professional jobs -- enjoy these shows?

Why?

They may be displacing their own workplace anxieties by reveling in the discomfort experienced by others (albeit not real employees like themselves).

They may be secretly relishing the puncturing of their bosses, as caricatured by Baldwin (a man with his own emotional and life baggage) and Carell (who is typecast as an out-of-touch sad-sack). We don't really need to fear or be concerned about how these people view us -- they're such pathetic laughingstocks themselves!

But what does it say about the lives of upper-echelon professionals in America that these are the leading fantasy outlets for their feelings? Was it better when they identified -- at long distances of time and place -- with TV sheriffs and gunslingers? Or does it indicate a greater willingness to live within their own skins?

Yet, somehow, it doesn't seem like a healthy place to be emotionally.

Including identifying with an irrational, obnoxious tyrant like Donald Trump, who is currently giving a good imitation of a serious presidential candidate.