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Review: 'Get to Work' focuses on painful economic realities

The chronically unemployed Americans in this new Sundance reality series might be harder cases than many of today's job-seekers, but their struggles teach something.

August 12, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Rob Carmona, right, and one of Strive's participants in the Sundance Channel original series "Get to Work."
Rob Carmona, right, and one of Strive's participants in the Sundance… (Chris Ragazzo, Sundance…)

It is odd, though perhaps not surprising, that just as one sub-genre of reality television revels in bad behavior — conspicuous consumption, the petty rivalries of wives and friends and parents — another attempts to chronicle the various paths to personal transformation, perhaps even redemption.

Like its evil twin, this subset tends to operate in primary colors, deconstructing the problems and solutions into TV-accessible narrative arcs in a way that is often irritating and sometimes dangerous — as soon as they made it "Celebrity Rehab," it was clear the emphasis would not be on recovery. Still, shows like "The Biggest Loser," "Intervention" and even "Teen Moms" put faces and names to larger social concerns.

So it was only a matter of time for economic anxieties to find a showcase. "Undercover Boss"often directly addresses the problems of working and middle-class Americans, and now "Get to Work," a new show on Sundance Channel, takes on the issues facing the chronically unemployed, creating a cross between"American Idol" and"Biggest Loser" for the workplace-challenged.

Each episode follows a class enrolled in an employment-training boot camp. Strive is a national program dedicated to teaching some pretty hard cases the basic skills required by the working world. "Get to Work" follows the four-week classes run by Second Chance in San Diego, where the staff is not afraid to "fire" a participant for lying in class, demand that those returning late from a 10-minute break either stand or buy back their seat, or tell a young man who is clearly trying to turn his life around that in his first attempt at a mock job interview, "You are telling me exactly why I shouldn't hire you."

Class leader Rob Smith does not waste time bemoaning the state of the economy; the reason many of the people in his class are unemployed is because they have bad attitudes. They do not know how to deal with authority, they do not understand the concept of time or professional rigor, they don't even know how to shake hands correctly.

In a time when many Americans have lost their jobs due to no fault of their own, this emphasis on personal shortcomings seems, at times, a bit tin-eared. But Strive is not designed to serve the recently downsized. Many of the people in the class have struggled with addiction, many have done time, many have been fired or quit in petulance repeatedly. But then, so have members of the staff.

Smith cops to his own previously troubled employment history; Veronica Lopez reaches out to students with her own stories of homelessness and addiction; and Chase Campbell was incarcerated more than 25 times, or so says his bio, before straightening out his life. A former meth addict, Chase oversees the program's drug tests, and when, in the pilot, a participant is cut from the program after testing positive for opiates (he took a couple of OxyContin because he had a headache, he says), Chase is neither judgmental nor sympathetic. "That was your choice," he says calmly, before giving him the boot.

Because this is television, certain personalities in each class emerge — in the pilot there is a mouthy guy who is playing the system, a former gang member who wants to be able to support his daughter and her mother, and an angry recovering addict who still thinks she's captain of the high school soccer team. Unlike other behavior modification shows, however, "Get to Work" follows a preestablished program and none of the exercises or tests is played competitively or for dramatic affect.

This is also the Sundance Channel, which still puts a premium on the realities of reality. All of which makes "Get to Work" a clear and necessary window onto a certain segment of the population most usually dismissed or over-romanticized. Beyond the emotional pull of the individual stories, "Get to Work" breaks down a certain us/them barrier, showing with painful clarity the holes left by the absence of family structure and education.

Some of the Strive participants honestly don't know how to maintain eye contact or speak in complete sentences, and they often veil this lack with sarcasm or anger. As with the drug test, the show and the staff neither condemns nor coddles; they simply teach.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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Get to Work infobox 8/13/12

'Get to Work'

Where: Sundance

When: 10:30 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language).

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