Ever notice how spacious and cozy Penny's apartment is on "The Big Bang Theory"? Sure, it's rather small and she often has a whole load of laundry spread around the space, but she has an entire living room, a breakfast bar, a separate bedroom, and a spacious bathroom. Let's not forget that she also lives in Los Angeles and works at a chain restaurant for a living.
The median income of a family in the Los Angeles area in the last few years has been around $52,000 according to the U.S. Census... $52,000. Let's assume that Penny is on the lower end of that scale, making far less than that $52,000, maybe more like $20,000. With rent prices in LA she is probably hurting pretty badly every month to pay for that space.
Penny's not the only television character to have a fantastic living space and a rather low-paying job in a large city. Fox's new show, "Ben and Kate", features a single mother, around the age of 26, who somehow rents an entire house and raises a six-year-old daughter on the wages of a bar waitress. Hmmm... Let's not forget the classic poor youth sitcom, "2 Broke Girls" in which one of the girls (admittedly the formerly-rich of the two) complains about the big, spacious kitchen in their comfortable, shabby-chic loft in New York as some scrappy, low-end, rat-infested space.
Even Nick on "The New Girl" who works in a popular bar as an actual bartender, someone likely to garner quite a few more tips than Penny or anyone on "2 Broke Girls", shares his living space with three other roommates in order to make ends meet. The physicists with departmental salaries on "The Big Bang Theory," right across the hall from Penny, have to share their apartment.
So, what are these shows telling the main audience watching them, mostly composed of 20- and 30-somethings? It seems to suggest that not only should we be able to pull in a small income from waiting tables and other hard, exhausting, low-paying jobs, but we should also be able to rent a huge, safe space, and have time to go out with friends and spend our money on cute outfits and cocktails.
I realize that television shows are not geared towards the realist genre, and they shouldn't have to be. Television was never going to be the new wave of Dutch Golden Age Masters. We're not trying to watch the television version of Upton Sinclair's dark sketch of human misery, "The Jungle," at 7pm on Tuesday night.
Sitcoms are made for comforting entertainment at the end of a long day. They are written to soothe the conscious and tell us stories that make us laugh and relax, so we shouldn't be bombarded with images of realistic-sized apartments with gigantic flaws, such as ancient over-used carpets and moldy bathrooms. Fine, point conceded.
The downside to this trend in television is that it can often create the sensation that young people still setting up their careers and working at entry-level jobs should also be living a fabulous, cushioned life in big apartments, with new furniture and clothing. That's a lot of pressure and adds to the sense that if you can't accomplish the plush life as a recent college graduate or a young person in an entry-level position, you just aren't trying hard enough.
In this case, a touch of realism in shows like "New Girl" and "The Big Bang Theory" could really add to the value and merit of the shows themselves. They might remind us all that even the fabulous characters on the shows face a bit of hardship, rather than presenting us with a constant contradiction between their wages and their lifestyles. This idea that value is directly tied to the ability to work and buy things is also deeply tied to current political rhetoric.
In this common form of rhetoric, people are only valuable citizens if they can purchase things, items, space, and time. Workers should work, refrain from complaining, and continue to purchase items repeatedly. If someone cannot do so, he or she is often categorized as a social pariah, one of the 47% of people who are lazy and "dependent" on government, according to Mitt Romney. Yet, when you turn on the television at the end of a 10-hour day at Walgreen's all we see are flashes of fancy apartments held by waitresses, bartenders, and poor youths in Los Angeles and New York. These luxuries, like spare time and gigantic apartments, aren't the reality for working America, which includes seniors, college graduates, and people with marketable skills.
It's truly a fractured message that the world of entertainment, along with its twin sibling, politics, has been sending to us all. Along with the perfect, unattainable female figure portrayed in fashion magazines and movies, I think the perfect living situation has also become an unreachable ideal that has set up the constant pressure to be a purchasing, consuming, constantly-needing-stuff adult in a bid to prove that you are contributing to society.