LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Television audiences who thought the ladies of "Desperate Housewives" were troubled haven't seen anything yet.
When ABC premieres its new sitcom "Hank" during the season that starts in September, the show's out-of-work CEO joins a growing list of American male characters taking extreme measures to cope with recession, unemployment, housing troubles and soaring medical costs.
"Leading characters are doing things that a generation ago would never have been the activities of the protagonist of a TV show," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
"You could argue that when you have lost your job, the last thing in the world you want is to watch TV about people losing their jobs. But as it's a recession, TV executives think people want to see stuff about relevant issues, so they develop these kind of shows," Thompson said.
On "Hank," Wall Street big shot Hank Pryor (Kelsey Grammer) loses his job, sells his fancy New York apartment, moves to Virginia and must learn to make his own toast.
He follows in the footsteps of high school basketball coach Ray Drecker on HBO's new series "Hung," who finds himself divorced, broke and homeless, so he reluctantly decides to market himself as a gigolo to keep from having to live in a small tent on the grounds of his burned-down house.
And then there is chemistry teacher Walt White in critics' darling "Breaking Bad" on AMC, who suffers from terminal cancer and faces massive medical bills, so he uses his chemistry skills to cook up and sell the drug crystal meth.
"I think the story is very relatable in this economic climate where people find themselves without health insurance, without a job, and wondering what they are going to do and how they are going to provide for their family," said actor Bryan Cranston, who won an Emmy for playing Walt after the show's first season last year.
But being entertainment on television, the shows are not all doom and gloom. Both "Hung" and "Breaking Bad" have elements of dark comedy that transcend their bleak premises, and "Hank" is a traditional 30-minute sitcom starring Grammer of award-winning "Frasier" fame.
Creator Tucker Cawley said "Hank" was inspired by the failure last year of consumer electronics retailing giant Circuit City, which was for decades a family-run business.
"We will be touching on riches-to-rags things. But Kelsey's character doesn't look on the new situation as something people should feel sorry about. It's the kind of old-fashioned American optimism with which he views the world which hopefully will be appealing," Cawley said.
Grammer's character loses his maids, his yacht, his sub-zero fridge and his king-size bed, along with his blissful ignorance about the basic tasks of human existence.
"These are the kinds of things you can deal with in comedy. A sitcom about a big shot like Kelsey Grammer's character who is now having to make his own toast can really be therapeutic," said pop culture watcher Thompson.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Will Dunham