Sunday, June 22, 2014

Everybody Hates Chris is One of the Most Underrated Shows of the Last 10 Years



If you've listen to my views on either television shows or being poor in America, you've heard me talk about Everybody Hates Chris.

Everybody Hates Chris was a brilliant sit-com that aired from 2005-2009, co-created and narrated by comedian Chris Rock. The show is simply about Chris Rock's experience growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s. I genuinely think it's one of the most underrated shows of the last 10 years.

What the show does so brilliantly is tease out the complexities of being poor, being black, and being a kid who's coming of age in a way that's both funny and insightful. For me, it's the "being poor" part that really gets it right. The social effects and consequences of being poor by American or New York standards are just so complicated, and if you've never been there yourself, it's impossible to understand how interlocked all the problems of being poor are.

My favorite episode is about food stamps (season 1, episode 9 "Everybody Hates Food Stamps"). The video at the top of this post is an excerpt from the show, but watch the full episode to really see how many problems arise from having to spend food stamps. A second clip from the last nine minutes of the show is below.

As the clip above shows, the episode starts out with Julius (the father) finding $200 of food stamps. The mother, Rochelle, doesn't want to spend them because she's a "ghetto snob," a term so rich with meaning that it could take 800 words or more to unpack it alone. Anyway, if Julius spends the food stamps, the family will be stuck with $200 worth of terrible food. So Rochelle surrenders.

She goes to the grocery store. Now, I don't have access to the complete episode, but if I recall, she goes out of her way to shop at a different grocery store than her usual, local one because she's afraid to run into someone she knows and be seen using food stamps, which would be beyond humiliating. See, in some neighborhoods and cultures, how others see you isn't just a matter of pride. It can be debilitating, socially. (For example, there's a story from an Australian woman who moved to India, brought her cat along, and cleaned the cat's litter box. Her neighbors and cook saw she took out the litter herself, and word spread. Pretty soon, local merchants were refusing to do business with her. Not only was she dirty for taking out the cat's poop, but she was also seen as taking away jobs from the lower class. In India, you're supposed to hire someone to do the dirty work. And you can't just ask your cook or regular housekeeper to take out the litter, as that's beneath them. You have to hire an appropriate person for the job, or suffer the consequences of your local fruit seller refusing to sell you fruit.)

Back to Rochelle. If I'm indeed right that she travels to another grocery store, that means she unnecessarily spends extra time and resources getting there. But at least, because she's paying with the found food stamps, she can afford some luxury and fills her shopping cart with name-brand goods. As she's about to pay for about $100 worth of groceries, a friend who just happens to be in that store spots her and says hello. Rochelle panics and pays for the groceries out of pocket instead.

Back at home, Julius, is reveling at having an excess of $200 in the family budget. Maybe he'll take a day off work, he says. Maybe the whole family should enjoy a night at the movies! Rochelle could even get her hair done at the salon with the extra cash. Needless to say, Rochelle can't tell Julius what happened.

As a result, Rochelle tries to sell the food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar, which is a terrible business deal, and she knows it, but she has no other choice at this point. If her friends and neighbors see her trying to sell food stamps, the consequences would be even worse than being caught spending them.

Rochelle is about to make a deal with a woman when her friend spots her. Rochelle is able to deny it fast enough and change the subject, so she doesn't get caught. But the potential buyer happens to be the friend's hairdresser, and lo and behold, she has a clear calendar for the next hour, if Rochelle wants to get her hair done, which she genuinely does, but can't afford to do. To save face, however, Rochelle takes the appointment.

So she's lost a ton of time, is down $100, and is now about to spend even more money that she doesn't have in the salon.

At the end of the day, the family is sitting around the dinner table discussing their plan to go to the movies tonight. Rochelle finally cracks and admits what happened. Julius deftly notes that at least she still has the food stamps, but of course, she does not. She paid for her salon appointment with them for 25 cents on the dollar. As the show closes, the lights go out, as the other expense Rochelle was supposed to pay with the extra money was the electric bill.

The plot is intricate but tight. And it's genuinely reflective of how one small problem can cascade into a series of related problems, which happens all the time when you're poor. If your car breaks down, you can't get to work. If you can't get to work, not only do you lose a day's worth of pay, but--let's say you work in food service--now you also can't get the 20 employee percent discount that you were counting on to buy dinner for your family tonight. So you scrape together the few dollar bills and quarters that you can find and have just enough to buy a pizza and have it delivered, but of course that expense is much greater than what you would have paid for two days' worth of food from your employer. Also, because you spent the singles and quarters on pizza, your kids don't have any lunch money for tomorrow. On and on it goes.

Too few movies and television shows tease out the real complexities of being poor in America, but Everybody Hates Chris nails it, and I think in general the show was completely under-appreciated for doing something so important so well.

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