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Move over Studs Terkel: Obama's on the job in Netflix's modern take on 'Working'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow Netflix premieres a new four-part documentary series called "Working: What We Do All Day." It's a modern take on Studs Terkel's influential 1970s book of interviews, also called "Working." This TV version is hosted and narrated by Barack Obama. Our TV critic David Bianculli has seen all four episodes and has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Studs Terkel came out of Chicago as host of a long-running radio show. He interviewed people but became famous not by interviewing the rich and famous, but by talking and listening to ordinary folks. He wrote several best-selling books built around these conversations. One of them, which came out in 1974, was called "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do." Several years later, one of the readers of that book was a young man named Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORKING")

BARACK OBAMA: Sometime in college, I came across this book called "Working" by Studs Terkel...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINNERMAN")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Oh, sinner man, where you going to run to?

OBAMA: ...Which was a chronicle of people from every walk of life and what it was like for them to work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There is no one way to begin. It's arbitrary. What you want to find - I suppose the word is quintessential truth, the essence of a truth.

OBAMA: It was the first time anyone had really bothered to ask ordinary people directly what work was like for them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You believe that you're fairly paid?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm underpaid, but it beats not having a job at all.

OBAMA: This is right about the time where I became interested in trying to figure out what kind of work I was going to do.

BIANCULLI: This is from the opening introduction to "Working," but it might have served as the sales pitch at Netflix when executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama described their vision of a new documentary series. Their show would start with the issues confronted in Terkel's original book, then apply them to the present and the near future. Barack Obama's description in the opener grabs you, and from then on, this new "Working" series never lets go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORKING")

OBAMA: It was the 1970s, a new era of automation, global competition and offshore manufacturing, these huge forces being felt in people's lives, with a new profits-obsessed corporate culture starting to take hold.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINNERMAN")

SIMONE: (Singing) I cried, power...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It's all about this here.

OBAMA: Fifty years later, we're in another moment of explosive change - artificial intelligence, remote work, spiraling inequality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINNERMAN")

SIMONE: (Singing) Well, I run to the river.

OBAMA: It can be hard to make sense of where we are and where we're going. What if we pick up Studs' project for this new moment? What if we take three very different places and three very different industries? Home care, tech and hospitality? What if people we might never ordinarily meet invited us into their lives and told us about their ambitions? What if we started at the bottom and worked our way up?

BIANCULLI: The structure of this four part series is flawless. The first episode visits three people working for different companies in as many cities. Then the remaining three episodes spend time with new people at those same companies but higher up the employment ladder at a home care business in Mississippi, we meet a health care worker just starting out, then her supervisor, then a Washington lobbyist for the company, then the CEO. Another CEO named Chris (ph) is the head of a self-driving vehicle design company in Pittsburgh. He confronts the undeniable reality that his self-driving trucks will put some people out of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORKING: WHAT WE DO ALL DAY")

CHRIS: A bunch of people drive trucks. A bunch of people drive cars. What happens to them? My expectation is that if you are a truck driver and you would like to drive a truck until you retire, then you will be able to do that because we just have so much of a need for them. Do I think you should probably go and start becoming a truck driver today? Maybe not.

BIANCULLI: And while one visit to New York's Pierre Hotel ends up at the penthouse to visit that corporate owner, it begins in the guest rooms below, where a housekeeper named Elba (ph) describes her duties and some of the hotel guests she encounters. It's the documentary equivalent of "Upstairs, Downstairs."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORKING: WHAT WE DO ALL DAY")

ELBA: Fifteen single rooms every day. Sometimes, if you are walking in the hallway and you say good morning, people don't respond. But, you know, I don't pay attention. They have money. They dress better than me. But, you know, they are no better than me, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)

ELBA: Morning housekeeping.

BIANCULLI: Sometimes, these people tell their stories to the camera. But other times, director Caroline Suh brings Obama in to steer the conversation, as Studs Terkel would have. You see no Secret Service, no TV crew, just the former president sharing a home-cooked meal with someone or, in this scene with Randy (ph), the single mom health care worker, grocery shopping with her at the local Piggly Wiggly. Obama is pushing the cart with Randy's young daughter riding inside and making happy noises as they make their way down the cereal aisle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORKING: WHAT WE DO ALL DAY")

OBAMA: Do you have an idea in your mind about what work should be? - because some folks, like my mother-in-law and my grandmother - you know, their attitude was, I don't go to work to feel good or to get meaning or...

RANDY: I go to work to pay my bills.

OBAMA: I go to work to pay my bills. And I think younger folks - I think our attitude - you notice how I said our attitude?

RANDY: You're young as you feel.

OBAMA: But especially with your generation, I think, sometimes, people expect that they should feel fulfilled in their work, that paying the bills isn't enough.

RANDY: I just want to be at home on my porch in my rocking chair. My refrigerator's full. My bills is paid. My child is cared. That's the dream.

OBAMA: You're fine.

RANDY: That's peace.

BIANCULLI: Way back in 1982, the PBS series "American Playhouse" presented a musical version of "Working" with Turkel's interviews reshaped into lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of "Godspell" and "Wicked." James Taylor sang one song playing a trucker. Patti LaBelle sang as a cleaning woman. And Rita Moreno sang about being a waitress. That was an enjoyable, inventive offshoot of Turkel's original concept. But Netflix's new "Working" is much more important. It offers a wide view of the workplace, exploring the concerns and aspirations of people on all levels of the economic scale. It's the best TV documentary about jobs and workers since Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest Of Shame" on CBS. And that was more than 60 years ago.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new documentary series "Working," hosted by Barack Obama. It premieres tomorrow on Netflix. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the far-right extremist group the John Birch Society, which was active from the late '50s through the early '70s. My guest will be historian Matthew Dallek, author of the new book "Birchers: How The John Birch Society Radicalized The American Right." Dallek says the Birchers propelled today's extremist takeover of the American right. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on our show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT'S "SACK O' WOE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. FRESH AIR's co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT'S "SACK O' WOE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.