By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; C01
It's taken some time, but the Great Recession has at last produced a commendable reality show about the tug of shame and recompense that accompanies foreclosure, bankruptcy, underemployment, and the half-truths we tell ourselves about the economy and our personal values.
The show is WEtv's arresting "Downsized," which premieres Saturday night. It follows one family through money woes but also, bit by bit, chronicles the depressing loss of their middle-classdom. By no means a pure documentary, "Downsized" often feels as if Dorothea Lange had turned her lens on a downtrodden Brady Bunch: There's a tender and no-nonsense tenor to it, which is a welcome switch from most of reality TV's junky tropes. And since Saturday night on cable has curiously become a time in which we can communally fret about finances (a la "The Suze Orman Show" and "Til Debt Do Us Part") "Downsized" also offers the viewer a smidge of hard-knocks catharsis.
Here is the Bruce family of Anthem, Ariz. -- a Phoenix exurb -- already well-wedged between their stucco-covered rock and a hard place: The 40-year-old husband, Todd, is a prideful, barrel-chested housing contractor who went belly-up in the real-estate mess. His business fell from what he says was an annual revenue of $1.5 million to zero. Hoping for a turnaround, he went bankrupt using his credit cards to meet his employees' payroll.
His wife of five years, Laura, also 40, teaches first grade in a public school, earning $39,300 a year. Between them, Todd and Laura have seven children from their previous marriages, all of whom are among the most expensive kind of people in the world: American tweens and teens. They live together under one Spanish-tile roof -- a 2,800 square-foot rental house that costs $1,700 a month. (The Bruces lost their much larger house to foreclosure in 2009, as well as a condo Todd bought as an investment property at the height of the market. With those losses went a host of luxuries -- golfing, vacations, mall binges and some, but not all, of the usual array of electronica.)
"Downsized's" cameras arrive in the late spring of this year to find Laura and Todd sweating the rent, for which they are a couple days late and $300 short. During a break in the school day, Laura calls her father to see if he will loan them some cash. Todd, who has spent the day trying to get paid for some freelance construction work he did earlier in the month, is angry when he finds out that Laura has asked her family for help. "I've been told what a big idiot I am. . . . I don't necessarily need to hear that all over again," he says.
At the dinner table, Laura and Todd tell their children about the shortfall. The teenagers approach the family's straits in different ways. They're all sharing bedrooms and must pay for their own phone plans. One son sells his expensive baseball glove to come up with $100 to chip in. One daughter works part-time in a restaurant; two of the triplets work at a snack bar at the school baseball field, where they tend to snack away their equivalent earnings.
Todd's two children spend weekends with their mother, where the finances are apparently brighter, and they return from these visits with new clothes and other reminders of middle-classdom. When Heather comes back from her mother's house with a used car (her 16th-birthday present), her stepsister Bailey, also 16, can only sit and seethe with understandable jealousy.
Already I can hear you tuning up your tiny violin -- the one you keep handy for white suburbanites who don't appear to be sick or starving. What's new about "Downsized" is that it asks us to get to know the Bruces in a patient and unfolding manner, rather than quickly dismiss them with broad strokes.
We aren't told everything about them upfront, and do keep in mind that the Bruces were compensated for their willingness to lay their lives bare. (A publicist for the show told me that the Bruces were paid a "standard reality-show fee [which] they received after taping was complete." That's fine, but it will get trickier if "Downsized" is a hit and another season then becomes the Bruces' bread and butter.)
The couple's financial picture comes into much sharper focus in next week's episode, when Laura and Todd visit a financial planner who quickly pronounces them dirt poor. He also tells them to cut further into their budget (the family still likes to eat out several times a month) and that Todd, for all his reminding us that his business used to take in $1.5 million a year, needs to swallow his pride and look harder for work. "Anyone in Phoenix could have made $1.5 million [during the housing boom]," the financial guy says, unimpressed.
Like any reality show, "Downsized" is prone to some of reality TV's tendencies to futz with chronology and situational verity. But what it thankfully does not seem to have in store is a miracle worker who will descend upon the Bruces, like Lifetime's recession-era new series, "The Fairy Jobmother," and offer advice and marching orders (often in a British accent). Whatever happens to the family, one can only hope it doesn't involve a free home makeover, a vacation trip or the visits from magic closet organizers who overpopulate this genre.
As "Downsized" progresses, its audience will hopefully find ways to commiserate and criticize the Bruces, who still cling to an incomplete set of suburban fantasies. My own beef came when Todd, in his quest to make ends meet, cashes in a mound of loose change collecting in his closet, but unwisely takes it to one of those grocery-store coin sorters that skim off 8 to 10 percent of the total.
Then, while at the financial planner, Laura and Todd include on their list of debts a sum of $3,000 cash that they've "borrowed" here and there from their underage children. I think even Dorothea Lange would have rolled her eyes at that concept.
(one hour) debuts Saturday at 9 p.m. on WEtv.