On a recent episode of Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show,” the television host Alex Levy is conducting a live television interview with a therapist when things take a turn toward the personal.
With millions of home viewers watching, the therapist asks her to complete the sentence “I feel most alive when … ”
“When I’m working,” Alex replies, with zero hesitation.
The therapist responds: “Why only at work?”
Alex, played by Jennifer Aniston, looks stunned. The interview has taken her into uncomfortable territory, and it takes her a moment to gather herself.
The tension between personal needs and professional ambition is a common theme of the current crop of workplace shows, a dependable television genre that has found new popularity at a time when millions of people have changed their relationship with work — whether by switching jobs in the “Great Resignation,” organizing their workplaces or fighting for remote work flexibility.
Alex and her fellow workplace TV protagonists struggle to separate their professional identities from their true selves. They’re wondering if they can excel in their chosen fields without letting their jobs eat them alive.
On Hulu’s “The Other Black Girl,” the assistant editor Nella Rogers learns that there is danger in deciding to “bring your whole self to work” — contrary to the messaging of corporate diversity managers.
On Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso,” the perky soccer coach who gives the show its name has a series of panic attacks that seem to arise from the guilt he feels over having taken a job thousands of miles from where his son and ex-wife are living.
Carmen Berzatto, the genius chef on Hulu’s “The Bear,” finds himself locked in a walk-in refrigerator at the end of the show’s second season, unleashing a stream of curses as he castigates himself for having allowed his personal life to get in the way of his ambitions.
In many ways these characters reflect the feelings of millions of restless workers of recent years. Some 50 million Americans are now doing their jobs from home, at least part time, and many have grown attached to the flexibility. Others have been job-hopping or fighting for higher wages. And so far this year, some 472,300 workers have gone on strike, up from 58,100 two years ago.
When managers began insisting that employees return to the office in the wake of the pandemic, hundreds of workers walked out of Amazon’s headquarters in protest, and dozens of Apple employees signed petitions demanding permanent flexibility.
Across industries and companies, workers have been asking how much of their lives they are willing to give over to their bosses.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, plenty of employers subtly and not so subtly communicated that a workplace could be a substitute for home. Silicon Valley executives offered their employees free meals, lavish happy hours and on-site Zumba. The underlying assumption seemed to be that workers didn’t have to leave the office to find community, which some interpreted to mean that they never should.
Human resources executives encouraged employees to dress as “your authentic self” (per emails to Meta’s recruits), further blurring the boundaries between the private person and the worker who is expected to trade more than 40 hours a week for a paycheck.
But is it wise to “bring your whole self to work” when you may be feeling sad, frazzled or in the mood to loaf? And what if the real you has values that don’t align with the aims of the company you work for?
Those tensions are at the heart of “Severance,” whose employees come to realize the mysterious entity they work for is up to no good, and “The Other Black Girl,” in which Nella suffers professional consequences after confronting the publishing house’s literary star about a racist depiction in his latest book. Hazel-May McCall, the company’s “other Black girl,” had promised to support Nella’s righteous stance, only to step back at the crucial moment.
“You just have to be the person they want you to be,” Hazel-May tells Nella at one point.
Workplace shows have long been a television staple, but the characters who populated earlier programs in the genre seemed to get very little work done. Jim, on “The Office,” sticks Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O; Kenneth, on “30 Rock,” insists that he has to marry an envelope before he licks it.
There is less goofing off in the workplace shows that have been among the most talked about programs since the rise of streaming. The main characters tend to be dead serious about their jobs, nakedly ambitious. Carmy, of “The Bear,” desperately wants that Michelin star; Alex, of “The Morning Show,” would be crushed if her Nielsen numbers were to slip; even the sweet-natured Ted Lasso would be sorely disappointed if the people around him didn’t consider him the very model of the modern-day boss.
A rare old show that focused on coldblooded strivers was the NBC series “L.A. Law.” Given the current appetite for workplace shows that actually show the work, it’s no wonder that it’s making a splashy return to Hulu next month, with all its 172 episodes remastered.
The characters on that series have their 21st century equivalents in the members of the Roy clan and their acolytes on HBO’s “Succession,” probably the buzziest workplace show since “Mad Men.” In almost every episode up to its finale last spring, it presented one hideous variation after another on the theme of how people intent on corporate maneuvering end up cannibalizing their deepest relationships and betraying those closest to them.
At one point, the back-room operator Tom Wambsgans, in the middle of a typically brutal argument with his wife, Shiv Roy, tells her that she would make a bad mother. He doesn’t realize she’s pregnant when he says this. In a milieu where the distinctions between personal and work selves are hazy at best, he seems unable to fathom who she might be when detached from her ruthless corporate persona.
The notion that we might be able to separate the people we are at home from the people we are at work is made literal in the sci-fi series “Severance.” Its main characters have undergone brain surgery to sever their work and personal selves: the nonwork personas are called “outies,” the workplace versions are “innies,” and neither has any idea what the other is up to. When the protagonist’s two selves begin to bleed into each other, he is distraught — and he assumes a leading role in a workers’ revolt.
For Carmy, on “The Bear,” there is little separation between life and work, and he seems to believe that excelling at his job must come at the cost of personal misery. Flashbacks to his family’s household Christmas celebration on Season 2 of “The Bear” show his mother making everyone around her suffer as she prepares a sumptuous feast. It’s clear that she’s a wonderful cook, but the ambience around her meal leaves something to be desired. (After much screaming, fighting, fork-throwing and tears, she crashes a car into the side of the house.) Carmy’s challenge is to push himself to greatness in the kitchen without repelling anyone who might want to get close to him.
It’s a problem he has yet to solve by the season finale, when he is reciting a soliloquy of self-loathing in the locked walk-in refrigerator on the opening night of his restaurant. He blames the fact that he has been too involved with his new girlfriend — too content, too soft, too much in love — to give the workplace the intense level of attention it requires.
When the slightly less tortured Ted Lasso faces his own work-versus-personal-life crisis, he goes in the opposite direction, deciding that he must leave his job in England so that he can be a better father to his son, who is in Kansas.
The “Ted Lasso” team and Apple have been coy about whether the series will return for a fourth season. But if it does come back, and if it continues to follow the ups and downs of its titular character, it might be a tough sell. A show about a contented father who has hit upon the correct approach to work-life balance doesn’t seem like the kind of thing people want to watch these days.