The Curious Case of TV Network Executives Not Seeing the Gold in Temp Worker Characters

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TV has for some reason not looked to the inherently entertaining dramatic and comedic possibilities of a temp worker who finds himself (or herself!) working in a completely different environment every week to the degree that you would expect. Network executives are supposed to know better. Yeah, I know; that was an observation that can be undermined with five simple words: the existence of Duck Dynasty. But just because some TV executives would be dumb enough to find anything remotely appealing–or even just not completely repulsive–about the people on Duck Dynasty does not mean that the majority of them can’t learn from the lessons of television’s past. Temp workers have been at the center of the premise of more shows than have hirsute rednecks expressing uninformed political opinions in the all-but-inscrutable language of backwoods patois. Why not build on that positive image of TV history?


The first TV show to try making hay out of a temp’s lifestyle of showing up in a different place every week traces all the way back to 1963. For almost exactly one year to the date between premiere and final airing, “Grindl” saw star Imogene Coca working for Foster’s Temporary Employment Agency and trekking from one workplace to another every week. One week Coca’s temp worker Grindl might be a maid and the next week she might be sitting in the box office at the local movie theater. Why no network executive has seen how such a set-up could be exploited for copycat programming is one of life’s great mysteries.

Joe’s World

A good three decades or so later, “Joe’s Life” showed up on ABC. This show was originally set between the recession of the George H.W. Bush administration and the economic turnaround experienced during the Clinton administration. In other words, “Joe World” struggled to reflect the rise of temp work as not just an alternative, but a necessity for survival. A temp job was the only option left for a good many Americans. Not for Joe, of course; he was a nighttime cook. But during the day, while Joe stayed home to take care of the kids, his wife Sandy was out working as a temp. No job security, no paid vacation, no insurance. What Sandy did get was the opportunity to meet new and interesting people every week.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

It doesn’t come up very often, except in the theme song before some episodes, but it is worth remembering that Mike Nelson was a temp. Actually, it does come up to a great degree occasionally in some episodes where the theme song does not even remind you. Mike Nelson may well be the poster boy for the worst possible experience of being a temp. He got blasted into space where his only companions are robots and where he is forced to watch bad movies. Some of them not really as bad as they are made out to be. What could be a worse experience for a temp than showing up for a job one day and getting blasted into space. Then again, Mike gets to travel through time and space and that sort of counts for a vacation, I guess, which puts him well ahead of most temp workers. He’s also got a steady supply of food and seems to be fairly healthy, so, in reality, I guess you could make the argument that Mike Nelson actually has it better than some temp workers.

Nancy Drew

Not that version you’re thinking of, but the 1995 version of “Nancy Drew.” Nancy was a temp worker in New York and those temporary employee opportunities always managed to land her smack dab in the middle of a mystery that needed solving.

King of the Hill

In a way, one could say that a substitute teacher is the most iconic of temp jobs. You might be temping in a history class one day and out on the playground as a P.E. teacher across the town the next. Peggy Hill was the winner of the Substitute Teacher of the Year Award for Tom Landry Middle School three years in a row. Despite the significant negative component of barely being able to speak the language, Spanish class was her forte. And yet, over the course of the 13 seasons of “King of the Hill” Peggy Hill temporarily taught science and organic farming in middle school, geometry in high school and even passed herself off as a nun in order to teach at a private Catholic elementary school.


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