“Jabberwocky” and “Secrets and Lives”
August 11th, 2009
In its first season, Better Off Ted was not so much a revelation as it was a pleasant surprise. Kept for midseason with nary a bit of hype, the show caught on with critics, and despite never connecting with mass viewers developed a cult following that earned it an against the odds second season. Of course, ABC then chose to air the remaining episodes from its first season as part of its summer lineup, a lineup which was dreadfully received and has seen numerous cancellations. In short, Better Off Ted might as well have been better off dead as opposed to airing during the summer, raising some questions about how the show could perform when it returns in November.
But what really captures me when watching Better Off Ted is that I don’t really care about all of these behind the scenes shenanigans – at the end of the day, this a very sharp comedy series with a host of likeable characters and clever storylines, and at no point did I find myself lamenting its strange route to this place when enjoying the two episodes that conclude the show’s first season order. I don’t think either episode was perfect, each having a few issues here or there, but the show is just so much fun that I don’t really think about all of the reasons not to get too attached, or to raise concerns about the show’s trajectory.
Instead, it’s six episodes of comedy I thought I wouldn’t see until DVD, conveniently placed in the summer months when nothing else is on.
“Jabberwocky,” the first of the two episodes, was probably the less gimmicky but in some ways the more interesting. I like episodes of the show that deal with the innerworkings of Veridian Dynamics, playing with the big business stereotypes, and I thought the existence of a secret project spreading like wildfire, and a presentation with no product that nonetheless inspires the employees like nothing tangible ever could, was all really well done. Combine with the idea that the company is promoting itself as “greening” its business (so as to help the often destructive mother nature) without actually doing it, and you have a storyline with plenty of great moments for the show’s central setting. “They prefer to look at it as a dream” was one of my favourite Veronica lines in a while (although it can’t live up to her deposition), and captures her and Ted’s dynamic well.
The problem with the episode is that it’s really not bringing anything new to the table: because it chose to connect Ted and Veronica’s desperate efforts to sell Jabberwocky despite not knowing what it was to Ted’s infatuation with Linda, it kind of seemed as if everything was an extension of that single idea. It’s a problem that moved into “Secrets and Lives,” although it’s not a huge problem: Anders and Harrington have chemistry, and Ted’s upstanding reputation makes him want to maintain it, and as a result lie to Linda about the various project and find a way to keep everyone happy. My issue is that it kind of takes the unique qualities of this episode and turns them into a spinoff of previous ones, and I’d like to think the show is good enough to avoid this. I like connectivity in my sitcoms, yes, but I like it to feel a bit more spontaneous than it did here.
Otherwise, the episode was your usual: Phil and Lem making ridiculous inventions (including unbreakable dinnerware, providing both firepower and fire to the proceedings), Veronica struggling to remain on top of information, and Ted desperate to play the straight man and almost succeeding. The one part of the episode that came out of nowhere was Ted and Veronica’s presentation, which felt funny and awkward in the beginning but then reached a whole new level when they broke out a choreographed dance routine. It seemed a bit of a stretch for both characters, really, but it was pretty darn funny, so who was I to complain?
It did seem a bit weird, though, to have the epic presentation of “Jabberwocky” be followed by the epicness of “Secrets and Lives,” to which it can’t really compare. Stirring the audience’s nostalgia for Arrested Development, Veronica serving as Mordor’s magician’s assistant was a really fun storyline that offered a nice coda to the season, albeit one that kind of overshadowed the episode before it. Portia de Rossi totally committed to the sequence, and the previous elements of her storyline (in particular her “slap everyone” form of coping with the lack of magical release) was similarly charming. There’s no question the de Rossi has been the real star of the show thus far, and it was good to have a final episode that emphasized this.
As noted, though, having Ted and Linda continue to go through a dance of “will they, won’t they” seemed a bit strange, not quite a real “season finale” note and yet not really anything new either. It was an issue of showing rather than telling, in the end: we never saw Linda break up with her boyfriend, and even with known actress Rachelle Lefevre (Of Twilight-fame, formerly) as Linda’s friend Rebecca we never got to see their date. Because we don’t actually know if they had chemistry, and don’t really get to see Linda’s date, it all just becomes a contrived scenario to get to that final scene where Rebecca realizes Linda is in love with Ted, and that this was all an effort to take him out of the picture so she could move in with her boyfriend and move on with her life. The show is just too breezy to deal with something like that, and it showed in the excising of anything legitimately dramatic in favour of scenes which could be boiled down to basic comic beats (the date being replaced by a retelling of the date to Rose, and thus evoking the previous boat gag as an endpoint).
In the end, it was a strong episode: Phil attempting to discover how his evil twin Byron McMurtrey has such an exciting life never really went anywhere, but it gave us a couple of nice Phil/Lem runners so it lived up to its end of the bargain. Combine with a healthy dose of Dr. Bhamba, and you have a recipe for an episode that isn’t the best of the season (I think we all know what that one is), but one that feels a fitting way to end the season ebfore the show returns in November.
- Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg had a conversation with Victor Fresco that relates to this episode in two ways. First off, the Linda and Ted stuff is supposedly toned down in the second season, which makes me pleased and yet a bit sad, as they do have chemistry. Secondly, amazingly considered the final sequence of this week’s episode, Fresco admits to having not watched much of Arrested Development before hiring de Rossi.
- I enjoyed the way the “Privacy Eliminator” (the facial search engine) helped tie together the various storylines in “Secrets and Lives,” and particularly the opening meeting: I loved both “Computer, or ‘Magic Box’” and Lem’s insistence that they remain on topic with “What the hell is this?”
- Not a single Lord of the Rings joke with a magician named Mordor? I guess I’ll let it go.
- Linda’s project update to Veronica was so marvelously out of context: “The worms are thriving, and I got Ted to drink urine!”
- I wouldn’t need an excuse to slap Gangster Mail kid, would I?
- The first row wearing ponchos at the magic show? Such a great attention to detail, and such an easy but great gag.
- I’m with Time’s James Poniewozik – wish that Will Arnett had been available to play Mordor.