Television shows are notorious for featuring characters who have unrealistic relationships with their finances. Take Friends – how could they all afford spacious New York apartments despite not holding stable, high-paying jobs? New Girl is in the same vein; even with four roommates, it did not make fiscal sense for the main characters to afford their loft, with at least one of them being unemployed at all times. This trope isn’t exclusive to “friend-hang” sitcoms; for instance, in Emily in Paris, how was Emily able to own all those designer clothes on a junior-level salary?
“Home Economics,” the latest sitcom from ABC, intends to reject this pattern by explicitly focusing on money. This show centers around the three Hayworth siblings, who each fall into a different income bracket. The youngest, Connor (portrayed by internet personality Jimmy Tatro), runs a private equity firm and is part of the 1%. The middle, Sarah (Caitlin McGee), is a therapist for at-risk youth, who is barely making ends meet. The oldest, Tom (portrayed by Topher Grace, yes, Eric Foreman from That 70s Show), is an author who is squarely middle-class and had been comfortable financially, up until his twins were born and his latest book did not do well as anticipated. The show seems to hinge on some familiar tropes that make sitcoms feel comfortable and easy to watch, namely the “siblings as foils” dynamic of the family members being starkly different from each other despite sharing a genetic makeup. However, by exploring this familiar dynamic through the lens of finances and by explicitly exploring social class, the show seemed refreshing in that it hinges on a topic that television seldom explores. So I decided to give the first two episodes a watch.
The show, which premiered on April 7th, begins with Connor moving back to San Francisco, closer to his two siblings after having been somewhat estranged from them both geographically and financially. Sarah had been recently laid off laid off and is struggling to find a job, and Tom, after his latest book doing poorly, decides to write a memoir about his family without telling his siblings, and is debating with his wife, Marina, whether or not to ask Connor for a loan. Connor also reveals that the reason why he moved to San Francisco and to be closer to his family was that his wife left him – seemingly to demonstrate that money does not solve all your problems.
The first two episodes were entertaining, and I enjoyed watching the plots unfold. But the jokes at times feel cheap and not particularly clever. There’s a lot of stale physical comedy, like Tom falling off a treadmill, and Tom knocking over a side table and falling out of his chair as he navigates Sarah’s cramped apartment. Many of the attemps at comedy feel exaggerated, or like the writers need to spell out for the viewers that they’re trying to make a joke. Considering the show’s family-centered premise, I would have preferred if the humor came from revealing fundamental thuths about familial relationships and real adult problems, rather than silly dialogue or over-the-top situations.
The dynamics between the three adult siblings also feel played up for laughs; while I understand reverting to a younger version of yourself when dealing with your siblings, the ways in which the three Hayworths interact with each other just feels immature and unrealistic. This is particularly the case in the second episode, where the Hayworths are invited to a wedding of a family friend. Connor is asked to give a toast to the groom, and he commissions an unenthusiastic Tom to write it for him. Conflict and angst ensues in a way that feels unnecessarily dramatic given how low-stakes the situation truly is. To make matters worse, the tension between Tom and Connor comes to a head when Connor delivers a toast that’s passive-aggressive toward Tom, and out of anger, Tom ambushes Connor’s toast, and the situation de-escalates into a physical fight. It feels painfully middle-school. Perhaps if the siblings were aged down roughly five years, and if maybe if only Tom, the oldest, had children, the Hayworths’ childlike, sibling rivalry-esque back-and-forths would feel a bit more organic and age-appropriate. It feels as though the show hasn’t committed enough to the adult characters being parents (a la Modern Family), though they’re clearly meant to be older and at least somewhat more mature than, say, the late 20s/early 30s ensembles of Friends, New Girl, or How I Met Your Mother.
The show also utilizes a lot of, what I can only describe as “fake-woke humor.” Not only are these jokes just not good and try-hard, but the show does attempt to position itself as progressive (namely, through dealing with social class and through featuring an interracial lesbian couple in the main cast), and these jokes undermine that. At best, these jokes feel like performative attempts to seem “with the times,” and at worst, they read as jabs at “PC culture” and “social justice warriors.” For instance, when Connor’s daughter Gretchen offers to show her cousins her dolls, they immediately ask her what the doll’s pronouns are (to be clear, I’m all for sharing pronouns but they played it as a joke in this instance). Or when the adults are discussing Tom’s latest book, Sarah interrogates him about why there aren’t any women characters. While this is a valid criticism of a lot of literature written by men, the line delivery and the context felt like it was written with the intention of belittling Sarah – not Tom – by positioning her as a caricature of an “outspoken feminist.” When it comes to integrating discussions of social issues into casual dialogue in a way that’s humorous yet serves as effective social commentary, Home Economics is no Superstore, and it completely falls flat on its face.
Another glaring issue I had with the show was with how the financial situation of Sarah, and her wife Denise, is portrayed. Sarah and Denise are supposed to represent the lowest end of the social class ladder. But as two college-educated women who went into relatively respectable, albeit lower-paying, occupational fields, their social status and financial situation doesn’t feel that much less precarious than that of the middle-class Tom and Marina. Sarah and Denise are also portrayed as being “crunchy-granola,” and less materialistic as personality traits, although the writers may have done this intentionally to demonstrate how they seemingly don’t care about money as a facade or a coping mechanism – it’s too early in the show to tell. For instance, in the second episode, the Hayworths attend a wedding of a childhood friend, and Sarah and Denise reflect on their decision not to have a wedding ceremony. They justify it as a choice and a protest against the patriarchal wedding industrial complex, but there are undertones of disappointment in not being able to afford a lavish ceremony due to their own financial situation and their parents’ lack of support at the time.
To name Sarah and Denise as “barely making ends meet” rather than as being on the lower end of middle class, feels a bit out of touch. Their situation is portrayed as more circumstantial, rather than exploring and revealing the very real institutional barriers to getting out of the cycle of poverty. I’m not sure if this critique would be best rectified by categorizing Sarah and Denise as middle class and framing the conflict around Tom and Sarah vs. Connor, as opposed to Tom vs. Sarah vs. Connor, or by portraying Sarah and Denise as struggling more. Either way, their portrayal does not feel true-to-life in the way that the show wants it to.
Plus, in a heteronormative society with institutions that discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals, same-gender couples may face financial challenges that heterosexual couples do not, and in fact, according to the 2019 census, couples in which both partners are women have a higher poverty rate than both opposite-gender couples and male couples. So while Home Economics does have a lot of room to delve into the nuances of LGBTQ+ vs. straight couples when it comes to family formation and workforce participation, from what I’ve seen of the show, I don’t trust it to do this topic justice from a sociological standpoint.
It’s also worth mentioning that, by focusing on three siblings, the show serves to deemphasizes the extent to which generational wealth and the circumstances a person is born into factors more into their socioeconomic status than the choices they make as adults. The racial dimension to socioeconomic status in America is left largely underexplored as well.
Although Home Economics has some flaws that make it not live up to its 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m still going to tune in next week. There is a lot of room to have some taboo conversations about money and social class and explore various family dynamics, from fraught to heartwarming, all while maintaining a comedic tone. The premise has a lot of potential – I’m just hoping that the actual episodes can live up to it.