How the workplace became the star of TV

Whether in the kitchen or finance world, work-centric shows have rocketed in popularity. This entertainment is hitting the sweet spot for audiences in spades.

In Carmen Berzatto’s frantic kitchen at The Bear, you can slice through the tension with a butter knife. While the Roy siblings tussle for power at Waystar Royco, the fists-out conflict seems strangely familiar. The trading floor at Pierpoint & Co leaves you dizzy and breathless, and the cringe-worthy awkwardness in the teachers’ lounge at Philadelphia’s Abbott Elementary is palpable – is this what went on behind the scenes when you were at school?

Work-related themes have taken centre stage in television and film; beyond characters simply having jobs, the workplace itself has become core to the action, serving both as a setting where the drama unfolds as well as the source of the conflict itself. Often, it even feels like a character in its own right.

Work has always shown up in entertainment, of course. Comedy classics from the early 2000s, such as 30 Rock and The Office – both now burned into the cultural zeitgeist – reflect the layered and relatable nuances of the work experience. Police procedurals and legal dramas like Law & Order SVU and Boston Legal also ruled for decades, offering a look into the mystery of work done by few. 

Now, however, interest in these types of workplace-centric shows is thriving like never before, especially in a world where our relationship to our professional lives have changed.

Throughout the past few years, Hollywood is telling more and more stories of work, featuring professions across industries – think food and education, marketing and finance and far more. Mocumentaries and corporate-failure documentaries are also thriving and utterly impossible to resist; TechCrunch called docuseries The Dropout, based on the downfall of Theranos, “like watching a car crash in slow motion”.

There are two main reasons audiences are clamouring to see work onscreen, say experts.

The first is escapism, which has often been a core tenet of how we consume television. Now, as workplace-centric entertainment rises, it can give us a glimpse into more of “how the other half lives” than ever, says New York-based talent consultant Alexandra Mossa of Mossa Projects.

In shows such as Industry, a peek into the others’ work lives can be alluring to viewers (Credit: BBC)

“We’re being served workforce entertainment of all different kinds – it’s more about the foray into places that you aren’t rather than places that you are,” says Mossa. “At the end of the day, no matter where you are in the workforce, you probably want to watch something that has nothing to do with your everyday profession.”

While escapism persists as a central theme in the pull of work-centred entertainment, experts also say people are feeling an irresistible pull towards many of these shows as they tap into the dissolving boundaries between daily life and work. People feel seen through this programming that reflects their own layered, nuanced and sometimes aggrieved lives. 

The dramatic shift in the work landscape – and people’s complicated relationship with it bleeding into their home lives – has opened the door for the workplace to become a star. “When you have shifts in the nature of things, it creates an opportunity that is ripe for storytelling,” says Joseph Patel, the New York-based Grammy and Oscar-winning filmmaker and producer behind Summer of Soul, directed by Questlove.

Hollywood didn’t simply pull these stories out from the heads of clever writers and producers, however. Rebecca Rivera, an adjunct professor of media and communication arts believes organic clips on social media laid the foundation for the emerging visibility of workplace entertainment. She says it created a sort of testing ground for the cultural stickiness of work-related topics.

“I think these stories are more prevalent now because, during the pandemic, many employees re-evaluated how they were spending their time, and they were not shy about sharing this content through social media,” says Rivera.

Workplace review sites such as Glassdoor and other social channels have made it increasingly frictionless for employees to share their work experiences – even enabling them to parody their day-to-day routines, or live-quit their jobs with a flourish. This has opened the door to relatable and entertaining content. “I watch Abbott Elementary, The Bear and Emily in Paris, and I wonder how much this kind of programming might have started as a 30-second TikTok,” says Rivera.

Many people want to feel seen on screen, watching their own triumphs and struggles reflect in the characters in entertainment, like on Abbott Elementary (Credit: ABC)

Many people want to feel seen on screen, watching their own triumphs and struggles reflect in the characters in entertainment, like on Abbott Elementary (Credit: ABC)

That spirit of art imitating life – and vice versa – may also be driving these shows’ popularity in another way. Many people have moved from full-time work to freelance and consulting as the economy has contracted throughout the last few years, or switched jobs entirely during the Great Recession. 

“It’s been a bit of a delicate dance for both talent and companies,” says Mossa. “In 2021, we got into a scarcity period where people were working on whatever they could to make money. And in 2022, we had more emphasis on wellbeing and workers’ rights. I’ve seen people who left major tech companies because they were morally cognizant of who they worked for and who they represented on a daily basis.” 

Recent entertainment has reflected this tumult in spades; we’ve been through Industry to WeCrashed; the Morning Show and The Dropout. In the United States there’s a teacher shortage, which Abbott Elementary helps us contextualize with a laugh.    

These programmes are thriving across both cable and the now-dozens (and sometimes dizzying number) of streaming destinations. They’re floating to the top of each platform’s home screen – think Apple TV+, Hulu, HBO, Max, Netflix and Amazon – based on algorithms that bubble up what audiences are craving and eating up.

As ratings skyrocket, the sometimes-record numbers show viewers want to immerse themselves in these settings. In May, Succession’s fourth and final season finale drew in 2.9 million viewers during a holiday weekend, according to The New York Times; Deadline reported in June that Season 2 of The Bear debuted as the most-watched premiere of any FX series on Hulu, which has more than 40 million paid subscribers. The latter especially resonated with audiences – roiling alongside the show’s drama were viral online conversations about what it’s really like to work in the service industry.

These shows are minting stars, too, vaulting little-known actors into household names. The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, who previously wrote for the comedy What We Do in the Shadows, now has more than 300,000 followers on her personal Instagram, and has snagged features in W Magazine and The New Yorker. She’s also landed a recurring role in the wildly popular Abbott Elementary.

Now that work is TV’s newest rising star, experts suggest this kind of entertainment shows no signs of slowing. These workplace television shows and films are simultaneously hitting the sweet spots for their audiences – they’re relevant, relatable and entertaining stories for those who desire an escape from their intense day-to-day routines, and also emotionally-charged programmes that enable workers to feel seen and heard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *