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Best Of

The Search for Work-Life Balance Powered TV This Year

In 2022, TV centered the struggle to keep your job from killing your personal life (and vice versa).
  • The Bear, Severance, and Hacks (Photos: FX/Apple TV+/HBO Max; Primetimer graphic)
    The Bear, Severance, and Hacks (Photos: FX/Apple TV+/HBO Max; Primetimer graphic)

    If the TV we consume is in any way a reflection of the lives we've been leading, then it's no wonder that so many of the most significant TV shows of 2022 reflected an intense struggle to separate characters's work lives from their personal lives. After the COVID pandemic sent so many people into work-from-home situations that even now haven't entirely reverted back to office lives, notions of business hours and personal time have been bleeding ever further into one another.

    On TV, where coworkers have been surrogate families for decades, and characters's dedication to certain jobs (cops, doctors, superheroes) has blurred the line between the personal and professional, this is all a bit old hat. But what felt particularly pertinent in this year’s TV offerings was how many shows placed the struggle (and the success or failure) to separate work and personal life at the center of their narratives. With increased demands from our jobs to devote our time, creativity, and head space to the capitalist machine, there's greater anxiety about burnout, and this year’s TV directly tapped into that feeling.

    Two of the buzziest and most acclaimed new dramas took on the destructive power of a job that has become your life and the extreme lengths someone will go to extricate themselves from it. In The Bear, FX took the plausibly comforting concept of the family-run restaurant and turned it into an ever-tightening vise grip of tension around lead character Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White). It wasn't just that the financials for that greasy-spoon sandwich counter were a disaster; it was how much of Carmy's already fragile and traumatized sense of self he'd invested in his own culinary talent, and the idea that he could come back home and turn that family heirloom of a restaurant into something not just successful, but excellent. One of the most compelling aspects of The Bear is how its characters strive so earnestly to turn something that could be good enough into something transcendent and worthy of the time and heart they put into it. Just as compelling are the times that capture how devastating it can be when it all goes wrong.

    With Severance, we got the year's most head-on dramatization of the struggle to balance our work selves with our "real" selves. The solution that the culty maniacs at Lumon came up with was to separate those two selves entirely via a medical procedure that allows people to clock out of their own psyches every time they clock into work. It's Twilight Zone-esque in its simplicity, the impossible but logical extension of the idea that you can just mentally check out of a job that's killing your soul. Where Severance became brilliant was in exploring the surreal and often terrifying implications of such a technology — creating two separate selves, one completely subservient to the other. The "perfect" work-life balance achieved by a person's "outie" is predicated on chaining their "innie" to a desk for all eternity. Much more so than whatever sinister industry Lumon is dabbling in, that simple human tendency to shortcut our way into victimizing those we cannot see was the show's masterstroke in its rightly celebrated first season.

    Of course, the struggles to balance a job and a life didn't always have to be so heavy. Hacks had a good bit of fun with Ava (Hannah Einbinder) surrendering more and more of her life to the Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) project, to the point that when Deborah sued her, she just sat there and took it like it was a freshman hazing ritual. And Ava wasn't even Deborah's most overly invested employee this season. After getting promoted to CEO at the end of Season 1, Poor Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) spun out in all directions. Taking that job had meant losing his boyfriend; missing his boyfriend meant getting a puppy; accidentally booking Deborah on a lesbian cruise meant he was left home alone; loneliness meant going out clubbing all night, which led to his puppy accidentally ingesting his Adderall. And after that particular disaster, what was the solution to getting Marcus back on track? Taking over as Deborah's tour manager. Marcus is still very much a work in progress, balance-wise.

    Genres that had historically been rife with characters over-personalizing their jobs took a more thoughtful approach to taking work home. Police detectives have been taking their cases incredibly personally for as long as their have been cop shows, but a show like Under the Banner of Heaven took a long, hard look at what that might mean. Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) tied himself into knots while investigating the double murder of a young woman and her baby from within a fundamentalist sect of his own Mormon faith, unable to keep himself separate from the implications of the belief and family structures he'd always held sacred. But in the end, it's Pyre's detective partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) who ultimately has to tell Pyre to separate himself from the case if they're ever going to solve it. Pyre white-knuckling his connection to his faith only keeps him from seeing the basic facts of the case clearly. It was honestly rather thrilling to watch a TV show take the stance that detectives should take their cases less personally.

    Overly familiar working relationships are often (and unsurprisingly) a source of strife on TV, and that didn't change in 2022. For at least one show, the solution to this was taking a step back. Harley Quinn's third season saw the budding new relationship between Harley (Kaley Cuoco) and Ivy (Lake Bell) straining under the stress of them working together on Ivy's plan to destroy Gotham. But rather than power through it and risk ruining their relationship, they ended up agreeing to keep the romance and ditch the working relationship, even if it meant Harley not being a supervillain anymore.

    Boundaries were so hot in 2022! On Abbott Elementary, Janine (Quinta Brunson) had to learn that work friends aren't necessarily real friends, though it was heartening that she and Jacob (Chris Perfetti) ended up both. Even on The Real World: Homecoming, in the belly of the genre that defined unhealthily mixing up your TV gig with your real life, the reunited New Orleans cast members made a fourth-wall-breaking point to maintain their boundaries. Well, most of them did. While Julie went and Rumplestiltskinned her way around the house trying to gin up reality-TV-worthy storylines (even if those storylines made it seem like she might be cheating on her husband), her former roommates like Melissa and Kelley made it incredibly clear that they were not about to engage in any trumped-up reality TV drama that would only end up following them home (in the form of negative fan feedback) after the show ended.

    We even got a little bit of optimism on the work-life balance front this year. Characters like Sam (Bridget Everett) and Joel (Jeff Hiller) on Somebody Somewhere were leaving their boring little jobs at the office where they belonged and creating queer performance spaces (euphemistically called "choir practice") to nourish their souls. Maybe the talented but dangerously stressed out chefs on The Bear could have benefitted from a little choir practice of their own. There's always next season to try to get that balance right.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Severance, Abbott Elementary, The Bear, Hacks, Harley Quinn, The Real World Homecoming, Somebody Somewhere, Under the Banner of Heaven