I’m not sure this proves very much, but I was surprised to have a conversation the other evening – at the BAFTA premiere event for this, in fact – in which it proved a bit controversial. It’s this: most TV drama is workplace drama.
This isn’t simply about the setting or format: the cops ‘n’ docs shows are superficially all workplace dramas, after all. But the definition goes much wider than that.
There is, after all, a limited number of ways in which conflict can be generated; and no conflict means no drama (conventionally speaking, anyway). Sex, romance and other aspects of personal relations are a massive source; material self interest is another; and the demands of a job or vocation are also a huge source.
So, where the conflict comes from is key. Soaps are not workplace dramas: the characters interact by virtue of inhabiting the same precinct, and conflict arises from that interaction on its own. But beyond soaps, I reckon you can call a lot of things workplace drama: the conflict arises from the need to do the job.
I’m going to go into my DVD collection at random and get a few titles now. OK, here’s what came out.
The Sopranos is a workplace drama: the conflict arises from Tony trying to be a successful mob boss and successful family man at the same time (neatly here, there is clearly demonstrable internal and external conflict along these lines as, for instance, Tony at first tries to keep his profession secret from his daughter, and also unburdens himself to his therapist).
This Life is about a set of 20something lawyers… but it’s not workplace drama. It’s the classic houseshare drama – the conflict arises from the characters’ personal relationships, and work considerations occasionally intrude on them, not the other way round. Similarly, No Angels, despite being touted as starring “naughty Northern nurses” it is really about a group of friends who share a house, and happen to work together as nurses – its creator Toby Whithouse explicitly defended it in such terms against criticism from the Royal College of Nursing. Another Whithouse Creation, Being Human, is also really a houseshare drama, and was first conceived as such – the characters were housemates long before they were supernatural beings.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: classic workplace drama. The conflict comes from Buffy’s vocation; take that away, and you’ve not got a show.
Cracker: like Casualty, this is a riff on “physician, heal thyself”; accordingly, it’s a workplace drama – the healing vocation is central to generating the conflict.
Shameless: you could argue that the characters are essentially engaged in scrounging and scamming, and the conflict arises from it, therefore it’s a workplace drama. But that would really be stretching it; it’s a family drama, much like Only Fools and Horses (the dodgy dealing usually generates the comedy, but not so often the substance of the plots other than the frothiest).
Blackpool: conflict arises from Ripley’s business ambitions – clearly a workplace drama.
Class Act: the characters are pretty dedicated to scamming as a way of preserving their lifestyles, so this probably is a workplace drama.
Taking a few non-randomly chosen examples (OK, I’ll admit the Sopranos and This Life choices weren’t really random – the others were, though): Grange Hill is clearly a workplace drama, as the conflict arises from school life – they don’t get paid for it, but going to school is what the kids do dans la vie (the French idiom is probably much more useful and descriptive, actually!). Byker Grove, by contrast, is not one: the kids know each other via the Grove, and are very seldom seen at school. The Wire is obviously a workplace drama – not just for the cops, but for the drug dealers. Star Trek is a workplace drama (Doctor Who isn’t – I can’t honestly argue saving the universe is somehow the Doctor’s vocation).
Does it matter? Perhaps it’s a useful way for the writer to think about what sort of show they’re writing without getting dragged into rigid cop/doc/scifi/etc. genre categorisation, while still keeping things accessible for a reader. Perhaps also it provides a focus on what matters to the characters. Or perhaps it’s just stating the obvious.