The National Bureau of Economic Research claims that the recession ended 16 months ago, but try telling that to the average American family. After all, in these nervous-making times, that family—2.3 kids, 2.9 TV sets—likes to unwind by watching reality shows every now and then and again and again, and now we've got two new ones about broke people struggling in a broken economy. In terms of genre, The Fairy Jobmother (Lifetime, Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET) is technically a makeover program, and Downsized (WE, 9 p.m. ET) is a docu-soap, but both are really competitions about fighting off broken spirits.
The Fairy Jobmother, adapted from a British show of the same name, follows the model of Supernanny—that child-rearing-rehab spectacular—with a diligent slavishness. The jobmother is "employment expert" Hayley Taylor, who enters the scene with an accent straight out of a Mike Leigh movie and a personal style well outside the bounds of good taste. Her signature accessory is the hopeless neckerchief. During the first episode, there were a number of points at which Hayley, tending to a welfare-dependent California couple, arched an overplucked curve of eyebrow at their bad decisions and defeatist attitude.
"There's a lot of luhv in this house," Hayley said in her initial assessment of Shawn and Michelle and their young daughter. Also, there was a lot of squalor. Shawn had been out of work for three years, and Michelle for five, and in their compound depression, they'd let their standards of housekeeping slip. The greatest attempt at order involved the delicate piling of dirty dishes in and near the sink. I need to believe that the detail of the dog poop in one corner of the bedroom was a crass invention of the show. I wonder who the poop wrangler was, and if that's a union job.
The self-esteem issues, like the living room, were manageably messy. At one point early in the show, Shawn stormed mutely out of the house for some reason. When Hayley sat him down at the kitchen table, he gave an explanation too unaffected to rate as psychobabble. It was humble psychoeloquence: "Every time I get upset about something, I always think about my dad, and I don't want to be nothing like him." Hayley's lessons in interview techniques—firm handshakes, decent BSing in response to the "biggest weakness" question—were part of a larger rehabilitative regimen. The jobmother uses some tough love here, a soft touch there, and a puzzling quantity of eye shadow.
Just beneath its surface The Fairy Jobmother is a show about marriage counseling. Downsized, meanwhile, is notably blatant about documenting an Arizona's family on-going project in self-directed family therapy. Many lingering shots of wedding bands. Very much communicating about communicating. Sample dialogue: "I want to reassure her that her feelings are valid."
This is the Bruce family, and they're a highly likeable bunch. Even the teenagers quit being snotty every once in a while. The wife, Laura, is a first-grade teacher who brought two kids into this second marriage. The husband, Todd, is a building contractor—or at least was in the distant era when people in the Southwest still contracted building. He has primary custody of his five kids, and all the kids get along OK, which is to say that honest love alternates with operatic sneering. The family once lived high on the hog. (In an opening montage, the hog is a represented by a sushi-sashimi special.) "When we first got married, we used money to make the transition a lot smoother," says Todd. "We were spending fifteen, eighteen thousand a month." Laura's response? "We were?"
Now, they've got two homes in foreclosure, and the dramatic crisis of the series' first episode concerns a scramble to make the rent. When Laura calls her father to borrow money, her level of self-remonstrance is only topped by her concern that she's worrying him. Then Todd tells her to call back and say that they don't, after all, need the loan, even though an excursion to the Coinstar machine has still left them short. The day is saved by one of their sons, who sells his baseball glove to cover the last $100. Clearly, the family is strong enough that, with a little luck, they'll be just fine in the long run. However, I worry about the show's short-term prospects. Either the Bruces' fortunes will improve, in which case the show loses its reason for being, or they will continue to decline, in which case they'll run out of stuff to sell.