Obama's new Netflix series smooths out the rough edges of capitalism

Last week, Netflix released a new short series with an admirable goal: to create empathy for people searching for meaning at all levels of the corporate ladder. “Work: What we do all day” is a four-part documentary produced by Michelle and Barack Obama. While this isn’t their first entry into the entertainment business for the couple, who once sat in the White House, the former president, who interviews subjects and even serves them piping-hot catfish lunches on camera, is trying out a new job here : TV presenter of the show.

The series, coined by “Salt-Fat-Acid-Heat” Director Caroline Suh follows the everyday lives of 12 people who work in three industries across the United States: home care, hospitality and technology. There’s an automated driving founder celebrating his company’s IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, a domestic helper who makes $9 an hour but is relieved to have an alternative to cutting up chicken thighs at a slaughterhouse, and a CEO of a luxury hotel that… administers crowd control during the Met Gala. The first episode focuses on young professionals, and the following three episodes gradually move you up the career ladder, all the way to the C-suite.

As narrator, Obama frames the vignettes with thoughts on automation and job insecurity shrinking middle class and wealth inequality. It sounds meaty on paper, but there’s a disturbing bone structure to the whole thing. From the outset, the former president establishes a philosophical premise that seems utterly incompatible with a project designed to foster empathy.

“Let’s face it,” Obama says in episode 1. “There’s always someone at the top of the ladder and someone at the bottom.” That’s especially true in capitalism, and we shouldn’t pretend it’s otherwise.”

Usually people say “let’s be honest” when they want to reveal truths that no one wants to hear. But is it true that inequality is an inherent part of human nature? Is that something that “we” all agree on? And what political goals does this assumption serve?

Although Obama specifically mentions the inspiration For the show, the Netflix series presents Working, the 1974 collection of interviews that catapulted author Studs Terkel to fame a clouded view of the world of work compared to Terkel’s more concise view. When you read Terkel’s book, you have to experience everything his subjects say in the mental solitude that only you and the quiet pages have: from a farm hand telling how his thumbnails fall off while picking lettuce, to a Nurse Admitting That She Isn’t I make a point of listening to patients’ stories.

Obama’s “Working” wears down the boundaries of his material. In the first episode, a scene in which the home care worker listens to a nerve-wracking training video — “Wash your hands frequently where there is liquid: urine, stool, sputum,” her boss says in the recording — is interspersed with hilarious jazz runs underlaid . In the same episode, hotel workers in pressed uniforms compare their old jobs (pick tomatoes, slicing fruit) to their current positions over lunch in the hotel’s basement, leading me to wonder why the show doesn’t feature the work people are trying to escape from. You don’t see the true “end” of the chain that Obama mentioned. One has to imagine that if the series actually portrayed fruit pickers, as Terkel did in his book, one would be a little less accepting of inequality.

Later episodes don’t deal with the issue of inequality any better, although they do make some references to excessive CEO pay and the profit-maximization philosophy propagated by economist Milton Friedman. The CEOs on the show are all of the “good” variety: in an interview with Natarajan Chandrasekaran, whose company owns the hotel featured on the show, Obama praises his thoughtfulness and sense of duty to the common people. But of the three CEOs covered in the episode, only one mentions their salary: not an outrageous $40,000, give or take. The conclusion of the series finale comes in handy for a centrist politician who consistently champions it against structural changes to American society: that it is up to the individual “good” people who have the power to make things better.

When inequality is inevitable, it’s no big deal to launch your Netflix show while writers fight for better wages and working conditions. If inequality is inevitable, you don’t need to imagine a world without inequality. Instead, it is enough just to passively say that, as Obama concludes in Works, “we” should perhaps do something to soften the limits of inequality.

It’s also odd that Obama is actively promoting the show a streaming service This is currently being pilloried by striking members of the Writers Guild of America for a business model makes writing jobs unsustainable. Though Obama uses the rhetorical “we” when addressing responsibility for the plight of some issues, he remains silent on the plight of WGA writers struggling to survive in a world of stagnant wages and growing economic immobility. This despite the fact that I am a Senator he stated unequivocally“I stand by the writers’ side.”

In the current context, this series feels like a waiver of responsibility (some would even say crossing pickets) by the former leader of a world superpower; But even without her, there’s a grim haze lurking in the show’s politics that’s hard to shake for anyone paying attention.

Reach Soleil Ho: soleil@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @hooleil

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