Monday, April 25, 2011

Service economy anxiety pt III, or good help is hard to understand

Over the past couple posts, I’ve been writing about America's collective uneasiness with our long shift to a service-based economy, citing a range of examples that seem to express what I'm calling our Service Economy Anxiety. I've written about our collective desire to nostalgically celebrate the skilled trades (through the artisanal movement and elsewhere) as well as the frequency and volume of complaints about customer service on social media platforms. But the richest and most dynamic cultural expressions are often produced by artists and writers who intuitively tap into this underlying anxiety as a source for their work.

I think I first noticed the popular expression of this anxiety in Louis CK's now famous "Everything's amazing and nobody's happy..." riff on Conan (here). His monologue focuses on how the amazing advances in technology have made us impatient with just about all kinds of service, including the technological replacements for personal service.

But once I got sensitized to the importance of customer-service content in popular culture I started to see these scenes everywhere.

Just last night, watching a TIVO’d episode (Season 3, Epi 4: Mitten, cited here) of Nurse Jackie, I saw the indomitable Edie Falco pretend to be a restaurant manager in order to confront an arrogant customer berating a waitress for failing to get his order right. The waitress/customer confrontation is pretty standard fare, almost an iconic representation of social relations of any era. (Think Five Easy Pieces to Seinfeld)

But you don't have to very work hard to see how this scene is particular to our current cultural moment: 1) Edie F isn't an irate customer but a service vigilante, stepping to address an injustice, like the Consumerist come to life. 2) Eddie's nurse’s uniform positions her as an iconic leader of the service professions 3) most most revealing of all are the dynamic of the scene. In order to make her case, she turns to the arrogant customer’s dining companion and asks him if he’s a client. When the dining companions replies that he is, Edie then asks him if he wants to do business with an asshole like this. He replies, “No...Actually, my daughter is a waitress.”

Past versions of this would have likely called out the differences between between the two rich white guys dressed like lawyers or bankers and the women serving them. But in Nurse Jackie the distinction is collapsed to make a point about shared social responsibility. Don't be assholes to service pro's; after all, they are all somebody's daughter. (And yes I'd argue the gender politics are no accident either, but that would require another post).

Nor it need hardly be mentioned—though I’ve mentioned it before—that the show Nurse Jackie is itself all about privileging the nurse’s work of attentive personal care over the work of the self-interested and generally flawed doctors--the higher-status experts, who are the professional equivalents of the assholes Nurse Jackie castigates in the restaurant.

But the freshest and funniest take on our service economy anxiety has to be this year's 6-part IFC special Portlandia. The source of most of its comedy—as my clever wife first pointed out—is the social confusion and blurred roles caused by our service economy.

Virtually every one of the first six episodes has at least one scene that represents a character perplexed by how they are supposed to behave as a provider or receiver of service. Portland's notoriously lefty social politics create the raw material for this confusion, but the confusion extends beyond political correctness to the nature of the work itself. In scene after scene, service providers and recipients stumble awkwardly back and forth across line of uncertain authority, trying to figure out who is actually in charge. Often, the service provider tries to redefine the role to something other than service: they want to be friends or educators or therapists, almost anything but old-fashioned servants.

In the opening episode, a waitress at a progressive, lefty café doesn’t just tell the diners that their chicken is local, free range and “all across the board organic” but actually produces its “papers,” which documents its pedigree. (Clip here under "Is it local?") "His name was Colin," she tells the diners, the series' creators and co-stars, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, but of course even the papers don’t satisfy Fred and Carrie who leave to “check out” the farm on which Colin was raised.

In another episode (clip here), a spot-on parody of the Ace Hotel (renamed The Deuce), the show mocks the boutique hotel chain’s notoriously crappy service with Carrie playing a hostess, trying to bond with customers angry over the lack of attention even though she’s the one who has failed to serve them.

And then there is episode 3 in which Fred and Carrie discover that their maid is in fact their favorite artist and cultural hero—indie songwriter Aimee Mann. The most slapstick representation yet of our current confusion about our roles as service purchasers and providers, Fred and Carrie fall over themselves trying to ingratiate themselves with the hired help. They might be paying but they aren't in charge. In Portlandia, capital is no match for cultural capital.

In the final episode, W+K (which seems to have some involvement in the series) pokes fun at itself by documenting Carrie’s first day on the job at the famed agency (clip Wieden and Kennedy). While there are a handful of obvious jokes about hipsters trying to signify how cool their job is--birthday parties for dogs and dodge-ball brainstorming sessions--the deeper social comedy is about our newly uneasy relationship to our co-workers.

In her first moments on the job, Carrie is invited to sign a birthday card for a woman she has never met. The show plays up the artificially intense emotion for comic effect (this is advertising’s job after all: instant affect!) but the creepiness lingers, and should be familiar to any of us who have worked in environments which strive to erase boundaries between professional and personal life. Throughout the scene as Carrie is bombarded by increasingly personal questions and requests, her puzzled expression seems to ask: Who are these people anyway? Are they my colleagues? My bosses? My friends? My family? Is this a job, a lifestyle, a cult, or what?

Versions of these anxious questions are ones the show poses over and over again.

It's easy to forget that it wasn't always like this, but you want to be reminded just how uncomfortable we are our new roles, just read a novel from the first half of the century to remember how comfortable we—or our English friends—once were feel telling servants how to behave.

The distinction between providers and receivers of service was once clearly divided along class and then professional lines. Those distinctions are now long gone. We're all serving somebody now. We have adjudicate our roles in each and every interaction as we simultaneously try to pretend that something more meaningful (an education, a relationship, a bond, enlightenment) than just plain service is happening.

It's exhausting of course but no one said customer service was easy.


Ferko said...

I've seen exactly one episode of Portlandia, and it was that scene in the restaurant that stayed with me, brilliant.

You know, when 5 easy pieces came out, that scene in the diner was probably so much more loaded with meaning, a defining moment for the was almost a political expression....and now it would simply be just another episode of dining road far we've come.

sk said...

It is funny to think that Jack's mocking rebukes of the waitress in Five Easy Pieces could play as defiance of convention. As you suggest, it would be hard to make the scene represent much besides crankiness now.