Better Off Ted – “You Are the Boss of Me”

BetterOffTedTitle

“You Are the Boss of Me”

June 23rd, 2009

I realized when preparing for this post that I have never written about Better Off Ted before here at Cultural Learnings, which means that I am officially “part of the problem.” Suffering from fatigued ratings, but bolstered by critical raves and strong network support, Better Off Ted left the airwaves having aired about half of its 13-episode order to an uncertain fate that thankfully (and surprisingly) ended in a second season renewal with a return at midseason paired with returning Scrubs. Then, bizarrely, ABC decided to burn off the remaining episodes of that order in the summer instead of holding them over to air at midseason.

Dan Fienberg has a big discussion of all of that logic (short form: it helps the show fit into the window being provided at midseason, plus ABC isn’t the brightest network around), but right now I just want to rectify what has been a poor oversight on this part. I’m sure I’ve told anyone who asked that Better Off Ted was the sharpest new comedy of last season, arriving without much fanfare with a top notch cast, a humorous setup, and one particular hilarious episode (“Racial Sensitivity”) with which non-fans can easily be turned into converts (which ABC has smartly made available for FREE on iTunes, in both Canada AND the U.S. even), but unfortunately I’ve never taken the time to really sit down and write about the show.

So, a few months too late, let’s take a look at why Better Off Ted, and “You Are the Boss of Me” by extension, presents a case for the show’s high quality.

To be honest, as quite a few critics have noted, “You Are the Boss of Me” is not a particularly genius episode, struggling slightly with a scenario too far removed from the show’s normal environment. Sure, the show’s universe is wacky enough that a Medieval Fight Club seems more plausible than it really should, but there’s a point where it’s a bit too exaggerated a metaphor for Ted’s struggles with his ex-wife having temporary guardianship over his daughter Rose. Fienberg notes that the show expects Ted to be too funny, but I think the bigger problem is that Ted’s anxiety is too far removed from his job and the people around him. I thought that the episode where we actually spent time with Rose was effective at giving his character some depth, but this was just a bit too simple if a fine introduction to what is ostensibly the show’s lead character.

What the show often does so well is not feel as if it needs to create protracted situations like Medieval fight club, as the research and development side of things is usually enough of a catalyst for metaphor and character development for things to come together in the end. “Racial Sensitivity” worked so well because it just let a ridiculous situation grow even more ridiculous as each character became involved, and the more mileage the show gets out of its stock set of characters and events without introducing external stimuli the more impressive it seems. This one just seemed like it went one step too far in terms of branching out, and perhaps could have taken the episode own advice when it comes to the boss/employee relationship: there are times when you can go too far.

Still, that’s really a trifle of a complaint in the end: I mean, Medieval Fight Club was pretty awesome, even resisting the easy Fight Club joke that I had expected, and the way the storyline started as a diversion (complete with humorous costumes/titles) and quickly evolved into a bit of story for Ted was quite clever (even if I would have preferred to spend more time with Lem and Phil, who are definitely more fun to watch). Plus, as always, I enjoy how you expect Ted to be served his comeuppance by the neanderthal janitor, but Ted’s personalized anger results in him nearly killing the man. No, it wasn’t the best storyline the show’s done, but Ted needs to have his own storyline every now and then and I thought this was ultimately a fun way to do so.

More effective, though, was the tenuous friendship between Veronica and Linda, as Portia de Rossi continues to prove just how hilarious she really is. There’s no chance of her ever getting Emmy attention for this role (if she got none for playing Lindsay on Arrested Development, it’s not happening for this show), but she’s just so damn charming even while proving to be a terrible human being. Her use of Linda as her “brain toilet” (Linda’s term) was a nice little piece of comedy, as her confessions start out deep and end up extremely shallow (feeding her sister in her sleep even becomes present tense). And yet, that broad side of the comedy was nicely balanced by the fact that de Rossi never plays the character in an over the top fashion, and her hypocritical refusal to allow Linda to tell her anything about her own life was just the way to end the storyline having had zero net impact on the show’s dynamic but plenty of net impact on my enjoyment of the episode.

This is just a cast that can be put into any number of configurations and work out in the end. You can throw Veronica against Ted, Linda, Phil, Lem, or pretty much any minority (children, for example), and it’s going to come out funny either way. Similarly, Linda works well romantically with Ted, as a crazed counterpart to Phil and Lem, and here as an awkward friend to Veronica. You can mix up these combinations all you want, and there’s almost always going to be something funny coming out of it. This includes little things, like the discussion of bosses and employees as parallels to ventriloquists and their dummies, or something as broad (and humourous) as Linda and Veronica’s two very different responses to alcohol – Linda becomes dyslexic (“completely fit-shaced”) and Veronica falls unconscious. It’s just a really fun workplace to visit, which is pretty well the best kind of workplace comedy.

In the end, it’s not the show’s sharpest half hour, but it’s another episode that shows why such impressive versatility was rewarded with a second season, even with my shortsighted refusal to blog about it already. Either way, let this be your warning: if you’re reading this and not yet watching Better Off Ted, you need to do so immediately by any means necessary.

Cultural Observations

  • I thought they could have done more with the notion of elective brain surgery as a diet tool by making everything taste sweet – I like the R&D side of things better when they become storylines (meat blob) then when they’re little throwaways.
  • Speaking of throwaways, I enjoyed (as I almost always do) the Veridian Dynamics commercial: “Bosses. Necessary” is another winner.
  • The notion of Veronica hiring her grandmother as her driver was ridiculous enough, but when Veronica notes the death of her housekeeper as well I pretty much lost it.
  • “It wasn’t just the winning…it was the constant winning!” is going to be my new way of making fun of people who gloat. Oh, who am I kidding, it’s going to be my new way of gloating too.
  • So, bets on whether Linda’s late night leotard story was going to be as boring as Veronica thought it was?

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