"Get to Work," the new Sundance Channel unscripted series premiering tonight, August 13th, at 10:30pm, would make for an interesting pairing with Marc Levin's doc "Hard Times: Lost on Long Island," which premiered on HBO last month. With unemployment so commonly being expressed and described in numbers, it can start to take on an abstract quality, to seem a looming problem that floats separate from the actual jobless friends and family in your life and the tangible troubles they may be experiencing.
Both "Hard Times" and "Get to Work" put a face on unemployment and examine how it can chip away at one's sense of self -- the former by exploring joblessness in the unexpected milieu of the upper middle class New York suburb of Levittown, while the latter turns to the other end of the spectrum, to people who've been to jail, or have struggled to overcome addiction, or who have been in and out of homeless shelters, and who are in a last-chance program to help them find employment.
"Get to Work" is set at the Second Chance workforce training program in San Diego, which follows the STRIVE model (offered at over two dozen organizations around the world) and is a ferociously no-nonsense bootcamp that puts its participants through drug tests, cooperation exercises and mock interviews and boots them out if they're not willing to try their hardest. Each hour-long episode follows a new group of students through the program, showcasing different aspects of the class. What's intriguingly clear from the beginning is that while some subjects will come through better for the experience, the matter-of-fact intructors have no patience for anyone who isn't actually dedicated to getting job.
The teachers' willingness to throw people out becomes a defining (and refreshing) aspect to the program -- they have no interest in coaxing people into wanting employment when there are plenty of others in the room who desperately seek a steady paycheck and need no convincing. The instructors are high school-level strict with their students -- an early test involves letting everyone out for a ten-minute break and then calling out those who are even a few seconds late -- but the need for this kind of rigidity becomes apparent given the difficulty some classmembers have with authority and with rules.
Executive produced by Matt Sharp and Jeff Grogan ("Intervention"), "Get to Work" has a standard reality show look to it in the way episodes are shaped and edited that can be jarring given the nature of the subject matter -- the occasional resemblance to a competition series is uncomfortable considering that interviewees talk about how they'll be in danger of going back to jail or losing their families if they get kicked out. But the show also finds a good mixture of people who are earnestly looking to learn and a few others who aren't. One man gets kicked out of the class for drug use he refuses to fully own up to; another, a former gang member, faces the major hurdle of overcoming self-esteem so low he talks down his work experience in practice job applications, as if he's unconvinced he deserves the chance. At its best, the show underlines how difficult just getting and keeping a job can be when you come from unstable circumstances or have a troubled past to overcome, even when you're anxious to pull yourself up into something better.