Last updated: November 17, 2012 9:08 am

As not seen on TV

It’s hardly ever like real life, so why are we so fascinated by workplace drama on television?
Romola Garai as producer Bel Rowley in the BBC’s retro newsroom drama ‘The Hour’©BBC Pictures

Romola Garai as producer Bel Rowley in the BBC’s retro newsroom drama ‘The Hour’

After a long day at work there is nothing we like better than watching other people spending long days at work on the television. Tonight Sarah Lund returns for a third round of gloomy Danish sleuthing in The Killing, while earlier this week The Hour began its second nostalgic waltz around a 1950s BBC newsroom. Elsewhere you can watch management consultants fornicating and ripping off clients in House of Lies, a slick mix of love and litigation in The Good Wife and, best of all, evidence that work makes unstable people even more so as mad-eyed CIA agent Carrie Mathison gets ever closer to the edge in Homeland.

Workplace telly now comes in every variety: grittily realistic; madly exaggerated; contemporary; beautiful 1960s Madison Avenue nostalgia. As well as straight, it can be funny. The best three TV comedies of the past year have all been based at work: Armando Iannucci’s two political shows The Thick of It and Veep, and the Olympics sitcom Twenty Twelve, starring Hugh Bonneville as the bumbling “head of deliverance” Ian Fletcher.

Though there is far more of it than there used to be, workplace telly is not exactly new. In the 1970s the two programmes I watched even more religiously than Top of the Pops were Crossroads, set in a modest Midlands motel run by the ever-reasonable Meg Richardson, and Dallas, set in an immodest Texas ranch owned by the ever-unreasonable oilman JR Ewing. The difference was that the work in those shows was a mere prop. We never believed anyone ever actually stayed at the motel; equally, the oil in Dallas was just a loose proxy for money. What both shows were really about was what most telly drama back then was about: screwed-up family life.

Now it is screwed-up working life that preoccupies us. We’re even starting to get interested in the work itself – up to a point. What we really can’t get enough of is the way colleagues relate to each other: the rivalries, the lust, the power struggles, the dysfunctional friendships. And the sex.

Simple sex on the telly stopped diverting TV audiences decades ago: what we demand now is complicated, compromised sex and the very best place for that is at work, as General Petraeus has shown us. It’s hard to imagine sex more complicated or compromised than in Homeland, when CIA agent Carrie falls in love with the man she thinks is a terrorist hell-bent on launching an attack on the US. Unless, perhaps, it’s the sex in House of Lies, where the senior partner of one firm more or less rapes the senior partner of another in the lavatory of a posh restaurant – the twist being that she’s his ex-wife.

This sort of sex isn’t even pretending to be realistic. But then neither, when you look closely, is anything else about workplace drama. In fact, the unreality is the main appeal: what I love about these shows is not that they remind me of what I’ve been doing all day, but that they don’t remind me of it in the slightest.

So the best way to understand the workplace TV craze is not as a busman’s holiday for office workers but as an exercise in wish fulfilment. Consider first how these offices look. In real offices there are humdrum lines of desks, functional ceiling tiles, coffee stains on the carpet and pasty colleagues in ill-fitting clothes. But in US-made TV dramas everything is sleek and glossy. Even in the apparently realistic Danish political drama Borgen, rooms have high ceilings and beautiful proportions, and prime minister Birgitte Nyborg never looks anything less than glamorous in that understated Scandinavian way.

Still more of a visual treat are the nostalgic programmes. The pleasure of The Hour (which otherwise lurches along uninterestingly compared to the latest real-life drama at the BBC) is the sight of the manual typewriters and the Bakelite telephones, and the look of Romola Garai (as producer Bel Rowley) in that gorgeous red suit.

The second way in which TV fails to resemble office life is in its lack of restraint. How thrilling for us, for whom workplace indulgence is a cappuccino in a paper cup and a bar of Kit Kat, to fantasise (or feel scandalised) about the drinking and smoking in Mad Men. Even after watching five seasons of it, I haven’t tired of the cigarette lighters and the whiskey decanters on the G-plan-style sideboards. In fact, I rather regret that the writers are moving us into the late 1960s and LSD instead, where the wish fulfilment element is less obvious. I have no desire to be, like Roger Stirling and his friends, crawling around on all fours hallucinating.

. . .

CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in ‘Homeland’©Wenn

CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in ‘Homeland’

Even more exciting than booze and fags is the lack of any checks on behaviour. Most obviously, there is bottom-pinching and overt sexuality, which rings precisely no bells from modern office life, where sexuality is buried well below the surface. But what appeals to me more is the overt rage. In real offices anger is taboo: people tend not to swear at their underlings and almost never lose their tempers. In three decades I think I’ve witnessed three proper meltdowns, and none as wonderful as the rantings of Malcolm Tucker in earlier seasons of the The Thick of It. To listen to him spit: “Get over here. Now. Might be advisable to wear brown trousers and a shirt the colour of blood,” is deeply therapeutic.

In Veep, the rage works even better because it is on the lips of a pretty woman, who doesn’t have the excuse of being modelled on the incendiary spin doctor Alastair Campbell. In one scene she yells thrillingly at her staff: “I am the vice-president of the United States, you stupid little f*****s!” And when they’re not raging, these people are super-articulate. This too rings no bells. In real offices, talking has been on the way out for well over a decade, passed up in favour of emailing and tweeting. But, especially in the elegant scripts written by Aaron Sorkin, the characters open their mouths and great torrents come out.

When newscaster Will McAvoy is asked in The Newsroom why America is the greatest country on earth, he lets rips with a 400-word monologue that begins like this: “Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know, and one of them is, there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labour force, and number 4 in exports ... ”

What people actually say at work is halting, inarticulate and filled with jargon. We almost never say what we really think for fear of getting into trouble and because we haven’t worked it out yet. But the most unrepresentative thing of all is what people are actually doing. The staples of TV drama have always been crime and hospitals, which are both about people dying in horrid ways. Most people are not detectives or doctors, and the nearest they get to death at work is boredom. Neither are they prosecutors, vice-presidents or newscasters. They aren’t even advertising copywriters or management consultants.

There is no drama set in engineering, in marketing, in insurance, or in any of the things that most people actually do. Ordinary work is only considered fit for comedy. There was The Office, based in a mundane paper company in Slough. There is The IT Crowd, about a geeky IT department, and Trollied, set in a supermarket.

In these shows people talk in the same clumsy way they do in real offices. When asked what he likes about his job, the supermarket manager replies with the greatest management cliché ever: “The thing I love most about Valco is the people. I’ve got great people skills.” Then he goes on: “I’m quite good with tall people, and smaller ones. And larger ones, as we do get a few eaters here ... ”

In the Olympics comedy Twenty Twelve, the setting might be less recognisable but everything else feels uncomfortably real. The jargon, the incompetence, the narrowly averted disasters, the faulty video conference equipment are all hilariously familiar. Most uncomfortably, Twenty Twelve is cruelly accurate about women. The three most senior females dislike each other and fill just the roles that women tend to occupy: PR, “sustainability” and “legacy”.

These three are more representative than female characters in most of the other shows. Far more glass ceilings have been broken on TV than in real life: there is a woman vice-president in Veep, a woman prime minister in Borgen, and in almost all the other shows a woman has a top position.

This might be uplifting, were it not for the fact that almost all of them turn out to have a screw loose. Ever since Ally McBeal, the 1990s legal drama in which the ditzy heroine used to see dancing babies, dotty working women have been a TV staple. But the modern version is harder and more dangerous. The top management consultant in House of Lies appears to be a dipsomaniac; Carrie in Homeland is bipolar; Saga Noren in The Bridge is autistic.

I rather relish this corrective to the prevailing view that women make for more nurturing managers. Show after show is careful to point out that successful women can’t have it all. There is a running theme of departing (handsome) husbands fed up with workaholic wives, and scores of neglected children.

The final message – to women and men – is a dark one: that work is compelling and dangerous, more instantly appealing than our home lives, but that in the end it will screw us up and fail to give us what we want.

Reviewing the most recent Mad Men, playwright David Hare observed that the show was about “the restlessness of capitalism, the way dissatisfaction is inseparable from attainment”. In reality, work is neither as good nor anything like as bad as that. But the constraints, coffee stains and banality that make it perfectly pleasant are simply too dull to be made into anything that would work on primetime TV.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Life & Arts on Twitter

More FT Twitter accounts