Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign lionized small-business owners, casting them as pistons of the economy, the men and women who built America. On television, meanwhile, while lots of characters are doing it for themselves, they’re mostly presented as immature dolts who couldn’t otherwise hold down a job.
Who are these TV entrepreneurs? On Raising Hope, Burt runs a pool and lawn-care business. Don’t Trust the B___ in Apartment 23’s Chloe is a freelance nightlife guide—at least during the U.N. General Assembly. On Suburgatory, George is a self-employed architect, while Dallas owns and operates a crystal store. On Bunheads, Fanny runs a dance studio, and for the moment at least, Up All Night’s Chris is the brains of his brother-in-law’s contracting company. Cougar Town has at least two small-business owners: tavern owner Grayson and novelty baker Laurie. USA series often revolve around owner-operators: Royal Pains has its concierge medical practice, Necessary Roughness its therapist’s office, and Psych its detective agency.
That’s a fairly random sampling, more or less off the top of my head. It doesn’t include criminal enterprises, like Walter White’s and Jesse Pinkman’s meth business in Breaking Bad, because crime is a somewhat different matter. (Walter and Skyler White’s money-laundering car wash might count—but it’s hardly a glowing image of American small business.) Nor does it take into account otherwise unemployed people who work for free (like consulting detective Sherlock Holmes on Elementary and Person of Interest’s Reese and Finch), or working schlubs who invent million-dollar products, like CSI:NY’s Sid Hammerback, who sold his high-tech pillow to a Japanese company for $20 million and still shows up to work at the crime lab every day.
Occasionally, new business ventures are a sign of maturity: 2 Broke Girls’ Max and Caroline have always had a cupcake business, but a couple of weeks ago they rented a storefront, turning a kitchen-table sideline into a serious enterprise. On Parks and Recreation, Tom Haverford, whose previous startup, Entertainment 720, succeeded only in burning through an enormous quantity of capital, put genuine thought and effort into launching Rent-a-Swag, “high-end clothes rentals for teens, tweens, and everything in betweens.” In both cases, these plot twists feel like a way to reset—a chance to branch out from the now all-too-familiar diner and apartment sets on the former, and to make Tom a little less of a deluded loser on the latter.
But most of television’s entrepreneurs are maladusted loafers. Perhaps the clearest example of the small-business-owner-as-slacker trope is on Happy Endings, which features three owner-operators: Alex runs a laughably unsuccessful boutique, Dave owns a food truck, and Max is a self-employed limo driver (and occasional bar mitzvah hype guy). Those three also happen to be the least self-actualized characters on the show.
On fictional TV shows, the only truly successful small business I can think of is Olivia Pope’s crisis-management firm on Scandal. Of course, her company is profitable because she works around the clock. If Cougar Town’s Grayson wanted his bar to be a success, he’d have to spend more time working there and fewer hours hanging out in Jules’ living room drinking wine with the cul-de-sac crew.
And that explains television’s contempt for entrepreneurs. Unless—like Scandal— the show is all about said business, it’s just another character trait. “He has highlights put into his goatee, he’s one-sixteenth Navajo, and he owns a food truck!” “She’s got the morals of a pirate, she doesn’t wear panties, and she shows visiting diplomats a good time when they come to New York!” “She’s a white woman who was in a black college sorority, she spoils her daughter rotten, and she has a store full of crystals!”
It’s the same reason the stars of reality shows tend to be self-employed dabblers: No one wants to watch people signing payroll checks, making cold calls to land new business, or ordering inventory. Succeeding in business takes hard work and focus. Entertaining television requires lots of down time for complicated relationships and, usually, irrational behavior. What works in real life often doesn’t work on the small screen.