In that context, watching Sheila’s meeting spiral out of control feels almost as subversive and revelatory as Terkel’s book. The problem arises when the show attempts to explain what, specifically, has gone wrong to make that eruption possible. Try as it might to stay close to the workers, the series can’t resist its periodic voice-overs, in which Obama delivers industrial-grade doses of information over spiffy archival footage of domestic workers or the movie “Wall Street” or the economist Milton Friedman. The scripts touch on all sorts of systemic forces, from the workers left out of the New Deal to the macroeconomics of the decline of the middle class.
The fact that the show needs to reach all the way back to the New Deal era underlines a key problem: America’s perception of its own workplaces may be astonishingly out of date, steeped in denial about just how profoundly things have changed. The series wants to hang around working people, as Terkel did, to understand their hopes and dreams and contradictions. But it also wants to put forward an argument about what’s happened to American workers that involves catching the viewer up on several decades of complex changes — all presented by a politician who, you can’t help noting, happened to be in charge of the country for a key stretch of the time being explored.
Did politicians participate in all that denial? This issue goes unaddressed, but the series does touch on the idea that popular media has long neglected the workplace. Television, Obama argues at one point, used to be full of representations of working and middle-class people and their jobs — say, in Norman Lear shows like “Good Times” or “All in the Family.” After the Reagan era, though, popular shows tended to follow upscale professionals, or to look more like “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” portraying people who lived comfortably despite being vaguely or fancifully employed. The nation’s jobs have shifted from industrial to service work, but even that seismic change — a work force now epitomized by nurses, waiters, retail clerks, delivery drivers — is rarely reflected in the stories we consume. Neither are developments like the erosion of job security, the rise of erratic scheduling, the invasive workplace surveillance — changes that marked Obama’s very own era in the White House.
“Obtuseness in ‘respectable’ quarters is not a new phenomenon,” Terkel writes in his book. He offers the example of Henry Mayhew, whose 19th-century reports on working people in London “astonished and horrified readers of The Morning Chronicle.” The writer Barbara Ehrenreich later cataloged the way journalists and scholars “discovered” poverty in the 1960s after the breathless enthusiasm of the postwar economy cooled. (“We seem to have suddenly awakened,” the critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in a New Yorker review of one book on the topic, “to the fact that mass poverty persists.”) It’s easy to sense something similar in the audience for a documentary like “Working” — a sudden, belated understanding of the indignities creeping up toward even the most insulated professionals, and a growing sense of the workplace as a site of urgent, high-stakes conflict.