Given the times we live in, you’d think there would be more corporate satires on television, but there just aren’t. Aside from Jack Donaghy’s capitalist musings in 30 Rock and the odd episode of The Office, big business is overlooked in sitcoms. That’s why Better Off Ted has become not just a fine comedy, but the perfect comedy for our times.
Aside from the lame title, almost everything about the show captures the zeitgeist. The single camera and no laugh track is de rigueur for the modern 30-minute comedy, but here it’s mixed with an occasionally surreal edge that brings to mind the heyday of Scrubs, with titular Ted Crisp (a very dapper Jay Harrington) breaking the fourth wall and talking to camera. He guides us through the working life at Veridian Dynamics, a huge, amoral, multi-national chemical company that makes everything from “organic vegetables chock-full of antidepressants” to “a new generation of hurricane-proof dogs”.
We follow his working life, which is mostly spent dealing with a wonderfully unethical boss, Veronica (Portia de Rossi), and her pursuit of ever-bigger corporate profi ts; upholding the corporate motto, “money before people”, and dealing with put-upon scientists Phil and Lem who are charged with inventing whatever it is the company needs. Rebellious Linda provides the heart of the story and Ted’s moral compass.
The lunacy of corporate America is cut open with a fantastic touch that hasn’t regularly been done this well before. In the “Racial Sensitivity” episode, in order to cut down on wasted worker time they install motion sensors on the drinking fountains, but a flaw in the design means they can’t detect black people. The idea of separate “blacks only” water fountains doesn’t go down too well, so they hire white people to follow the black workers to activate the motion sensors for them.
But they are forced to hire another round of black men to follow the white men after they get sued for discriminatory hiring practices. They only scrap the plan when they realise how much all the extra staff are going to cost the company in health insurance, all the while forgetting that the problems stemmed from their own penny pinching in the first place. If you’ve ever worked for a big company then the core motives of corporate culture will ring true.
Among the meaningless awards in lieu of payrises and Kafkaesque demands for better results with fewer staff, you also see fake adverts for the company, which merge into the real ad breaks. These spoofs are increasingly indistinguishable from the medical adverts that run across America. This verisimilitude is a middle finger to the real companies whose dubious adverts punctuate the show. It’s a handy reminder that in 2010 it’s not just the politicians who need lampooning but also the big conglomerates whose interests they pander to.
The writers are alumni from some of the better American sitcoms (Cheers, Frasier, Family Guy, Malcolm in the Middle) and the result feels like a corporate Arrested Development. Unfortunately it also carries the same “critically adored but rarely watched” tag that meant Arrested Development was perpetually on the verge of cancellation. Catch it while it’s here as Ted will probably be canned too before long, given the low viewing figures. Because after all, it’s about the numbers and bottom line – just ask anyone at Veridian Dynamics.
For Esquire Magazine – for PDF click here – TV_Better Off Ted