Spongebob may have tackled a few hot-button social issues in the past, such as conservation, global warming, and masculinity, but none of these compare to the comeback he made last night in the ratings by getting fired. That's right, Spongebob got fired and the episode brought in 5.2 million viewers. The money-conscious (and sometimes heartless) Mr. Krabs fired the best fry cook on children’s television to save a nickel—that’s right, five underwater cents.
After being canned, Spongebob made a pilgrimage to every restaurant in town, from the Taco Sombrero to the Piehole to the Noodle Hut, and at each he made a Krabby Patty out of their respective foods--and consequently got fired again. He eventually realized that his skills are uniquely suited to Mr. Krabs’s operation, a saddening thought until Mr. Krabs hired him back.
This episode, with its portrayal of life as an unemployed Bikini Bottom dweller, struck a chord with both children and adults last night, garnering a whopping number of views. In the 18-49 age bracket, it was second only to Monday Night Football, which, let’s face it, tends to crush all Monday night TV shows during the NFL season. Since the show was otherwise in a ratings tailspin, this sudden influx of adult viewers proved that depictions of (even fiction, under-the-sea) unemployment matter.
As if the sheer number of adult viewers last night were not enough, there was an outright political debate following the episode, starting (as these things often do) with inflammatory comments by the New York Post and FOX News. The Post seemed to dismiss Spongebob’s predicament, stating that, “lest he sit around idly, mooching off the social services of Bikini Bottom, a depressed SpongeBob sets out to return to gainful employment wherever he can find it.” FOX News expressed similarly dismissive opinions, stating that Spongebob opts to “return to the workforce” instead of “mooching off social services in Bikini Bottom.”
The primary liberal retaliation to these conservative evaluations came from Media Matters, which called the Post and FOX out for, “using the firing of fictional cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants to attack the social safety net and those who rely on it.” This rapid-fire response to the comments on unemployment may be slightly knee-jerk, but it gets at the heart of the issue: how does Spongebob’s fictional unemployment affect the 11.3 million Americans currently looking for work?
So far, it has started a conversation about unemployment, not as a statistic, but from an unemployed person’s point of view. This may seem minor, but for the millions of unemployed and under-employed people in the US, any discussion of their personal situation on national television cannot hurt. Also, the representation of firing and unemployment in a TV show allows America to watch a microcosm of the recession and relate to it, then feel some sense of hope when Spongebob is rehired.
Regardless of the level of insult or gaslighting that comes from political media regarding this episode, at least it got adults talking about unemployment from the perspective of one person—or sponge.