Television is often lamented for its propensity to exaggerate the mundane and the ordinary. Yet when it comes to something as routinely downplayed and unfairly pooh-poohed as our daily work—the “rat race,” the “grindstone,” yadda-yadda—I wonder if television’s over-the-top tendencies might be just what we need to reorient our thinking about the broader significance of our work.
As I’ve argued previously, we face a constant temptation to limit our economic endeavors to the temporal and the material, focusing only on “putting in our 40,” working for the next paycheck, and tucking away enough cash for a cozy retirement. Whether we know it or not, plenty of transcendent activity is also taking place in such efforts, whether through our service, creativity, productivity, collaboration, relationship-building, or plain-old ordinary exchange. How we think about the greater significance and spiritual potential of our efforts is bound to impact how we behave in our daily efforts, either pushing us in the direction of earthbound toil or unleashing us further toward transcendent ends.
If, as Lester DeKoster puts it, work is the “meaning of our lives,” whether we’re scrubbing toilets or selling high-priced widgets, it would seem that such a striking and all-encompassing reality deserves at least a little drama. Thus, below is a select list of my favorite TV shows that draw out some of these features (some more sincerely and effectively than others). None are “Christian” in any explicit sense, and each involves its own share of tasteless theatrics and contrived scenarios, but each nevertheless illuminates some untold truths about the significance of our work beyond the merely material.
(Tip to producers: Add a concerted focus on the will of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to any one of these shows, and that Emmy is a shoo-in.)
5. Dirty Jobs
Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe is passionate about “celebrating hard work and skilled labor,” and by trying his hand at some of the dirtiest jobs in the land, from coal miner to sewage sifter to animal-husbandry parts-grabber, he has drawn enormous attention to some of the less celebrated and most essential jobs around. Each has its own unique requirements and pay scale, but plenty of Rowe’s undertakings involve manual labor that we might be tempted to label “undignified” or “dehumanizing.” Yet even the persistently cheery Rowe—who is surely well paid for his toil—is rarely able to outdo the positive attitudes of these workers. These are folks who ooze with passion, pride, and an acute awareness of the pressing needs they are meeting in their local communities and society at large.
Additional observations can be made on the particular form of stewardship that occurs through manual labor. As Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster observe, “The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Hand work makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart.” For more, see Jordan Ballor’s Acton Commentary on Dirty Jobs.
4. Restaurant Impossible
In Restaurant Impossible, chef Robert Irvine and his team of restaurant-restoration wizards are tasked with turning around failing restaurants with only $10,000 in their pockets (riiiiiight). Although the formula gets more polished with each and every episode—e.g. Irvine always starts off as the screaming dictator only to predictably conclude as Robert the Benevolent Kleenex Dispenser—the show nevertheless directs our attention to the terrifying and highly likely prospect of failure to which every entrepreneur exposes himself, as well as the full implications of such failure beyond financial ruin.
In each situation, financial problems are closely linked to deeper personal struggles: broken trust, lack of leadership, nasty attitudes, entitled mindsets, pride, stubbornness, or any number of features completely out of their control (e.g. the death of a loved one). Likewise, in nearly all cases, the owners show particular concern for the welfare of their employees and their family members, often breaking into tears over the prospect of letting others down. For these owners, the success of their businesses is about much more than wealth creation and personal achievement; it’s about striving for a basic level of flourishing in their communities and across each relationship they build along the way. Although the results vary when the cameras leave the kitchen (surprise surprise), Restaurant Impossible shows us that most business owners are driven by much more than material gain and narrow self-interest.
3. Diners, Drive-ins and Dives
Yes, I know: another restaurant show. But whereas Restaurant Impossible demonstrates transcendent significance in the workplace through dramatic shifts from failure to triumph (or so we hope), Diner’s, Drive-ins and Dives offers a nice foil, showing something a bit more mundane in its locomotion yet more satisfying in its stability. Much like Irvine, pointy-haired host Guy Fieri typically confines his microscope to small, single-location restaurants with owners who have left Industry X to “do what they love,” regardless of the economic costs. The difference? Success.
Such success might normally be shrugged off as the evidence of wise resource management (which is, of course, a big part in all this), but it quickly becomes evident that these restaurants mean much more to the owners than line-item blurbs in the investment portfolio. These are folks who beam when discussing their favorite burger or best-selling chili, finding tremendous meaning and fulfillment in every sauce they concoct and every customer they serve. And the energetic bustle of overly grateful customers says it all. I’ve visited nearly a dozen of these locations and they have always been as vibrant as the show puts forth. By highlighting the successes of these small local businesses, DDD teaches us that the best part of creating that new variation of greasy meat is often the customer community that you cultivate in the process.
2. Shark Tank
In Shark Tank, a select panel of millionaire and billionaire investors contemplates whether to dump their cash into new products and services presented by up-start innovators through short and punchy pitches (I smell a producer). Some may be surprised to see this on the list, as each episode is crammed with statements like, “Shut up and tell me how I’m going to make my money back!?” Indeed, the show’s semi-manufactured villain investor, Kevin O’Leary (i.e. “Mr. Wonderful”), wears his shortsightedness and greed as a badge of honor.
But as with the shows previously discussed, the positive features here are more often found among the up-start entrepreneurs themselves than in the bombastic hosts (who do admittedly shine on occasion). As we begin to learn about their personal journeys—what they’ve done thus far, the risks they’ve taken, and in the end, what decision they make about the future of their respective enterprises—we see how deeply meaningful this work is to these innovators. Quite often, guests walk away from outrageously high offers for reasons ranging anywhere from “I’ve worked too hard to give this up completely” to “I just don’t feel comfortable with it.” In any case, despite Mr. Wonderful’s continuous harping on the surface-level ins and outs—which have their time and place—there is far more at play in the hearts and minds of these investors and entrepreneurs than a narrowly defined bottom line. There’s something raw about risk and the faith it requires that brings with it a whole heap of mystery beyond the material. Shark Tank tells that story well.
1. Undercover Boss
If there’s one show that illuminates the bulk of these features—the dignity of work, the power of vocation, the drive toward relationship-building and community cultivation, the meaning that comes from service and sacrifice—it’s Undercover Boss, in which business leaders from large corporations spend stints of time working undercover alongside their lower-level employees. Covering the spectrum from blue-collar to white-collar, from low-level grunt to high-ranking dragon slayer, Undercover Boss teaches us how powerful and meaningful a good worker’s labor can be while also reminding us of how easy it can be for us to discount it or downplay it or forget it
Whether or not each CEO’s now-predictable end-game response is actually genuine, we can’t help but get wrapped up in the lives of these workers and appreciate what their work means to them, to their employer, and for the rest of society.
For more on restoring a proper view of work and meaning, see Work: The Meaning of Your Life.