Better Off Ted – “Battle of the Bulbs”

“Battle of the Bulbs”

December 22nd, 2009

How far can a show get on wordplay alone?

It’s a question that Better Off Ted seems to really want to answer, because there have been points early in the second season where there hasn’t been any glue to hold the one-liners together. Even the show’s corporate satire has been weaker than usual, as the Veridian Dynamics commercials have entirely disappeared and left behind a solid show with funny character and witty writing but not, unfortunately, the same comic sensation we fell in love with earlier this year.

And “Battle of the Bulbs” doesn’t fundamentally change this trajectory, although it works harder than past episodes at tapping into the show’s strong points while also managing to feel more cohesive. However, there is still something missing here, something that shows that Victor Fresco’s attempts to push the show outward from its first season bubble has largely proved an inconsistent experiment that relies heavily on the characters involved.

I know a lot of critics like to pick on Ted, suggesting that stories which rely on Jay Harrington to serve as their comic lynchpin are doomed to failure (or, relative to other comedies as opposed to Better Off Ted at its best, less successful comedy). And while I agree this is true, I think that Ted at the very least seems like a character whose normal life feels like something we can naturally extend to. I don’t blame the show for trying in its second season to extend beyond Veridian Dynamics, which perhaps explains why we’ve gotten stories for Linda, Phil and Lem which have nothing to do with the workplace, and maybe even explains why we’ve lost the Veridian Dynamics commercials. But while moving into Ted’s personal life seems like something logical for a straight man character, Linda, Phil and Lem are not straight men, and are at their best when they are cogs in the machine (whether accepting or challenging of that position).

So recent attempts to turn Linda into a children’s book author, or Phil into a sexual risk, or venturing into Lem’s love life or his relationship with his Mother, feel more wrong than Ted’s daughter Rose because it seems like we’re pulling these other characters away from where they work best. So perhaps the problem is less that Ted’s presence at the heart of these storylines creates an imbalance and more that Ted being central to a storyline like the eponymous light bulb project means that another character who should be there isn’t, and is left with a storyline that might be better suited for Ted. Sure, this still means that Ted is a problem, but he’s not the only problem, and the imbalance it creates is not limited to storylines where he is involved.

And for the first time this season, things felt fairly balanced here. Ted was involved in the project but was purposefully kept in the more level-headed and balanced role while Linda made her way through the bureucracy learning to be crazily confident and becoming more crazy than confident. And this let the show return to the always great pairing of Veronica and Linda, which let Portia de Rossi kill a long series of one-liners that represented some of the best wordplay of the season (especially the continued running joke about her force-feeding her sister in order to destroy her life). Linda’s rise through the ranks at the expense of her sanity (and the world’s population of polar bears) was a nice look into the Veridian bureaucracy: as a product tester (seven of which are required to change a light bulb), she is always listening to other people’s opinions as opposed to making her own, so she’s always seeking approval rather than actually able to take control of a situation to gain approval. So it said something about her character to fall into this project as she did, and to eventually fall out of it as she does made for a nice conclusion.

But Lem’s story just doesn’t work for me, both because it feels like such a sitcom trope (the son living with his mother, unable to gain her approval) and more importantly because it never felt that funny. There were a couple of moments where wordplay helped to raise the storyline’s standards, like Phil contextualizing the situation using moss and Dr. Bhamba actually talking about a hula-hoop competition before transitioning into a tale of pleasuring Stella Clifton. And although she wasn’t given much to do, I liked Khandi Alexander in the role, and I’m not averse to meeting more of the characters’ families. I just don’t know, with the show only around for so much longer this season (and likely forever), if I want to see Lem having stepfather anxiety and “Eww, my mother has sex” storylines.

What separates this episode from the last few, though, is that it starts to come together in the end. Ted’s dinner with Stella results in my favourite lines of the episode (Phil’s “Yes, I wish I had a third yes, and yes I don’t!”), and helps to bring all of the storylines together. And even if it was a rote heartwarming conclusion, the popcorn that pops in your mouth was a nice little touch, and it helped that everything tied into the idea of not searching for people’s approval. It’s a basic theme, and one that in Ted’s case was a bit forced, but it helped tie storylines together in a way that makes Lem’s mother more relevant, and that makes Linda’s more resonant, without prohibiting the Veronica wordplay that went throughout the episode.

I’d rather the entire show just stick to the workplace, where its strengths lie, but for now I’ll be happy with episodes that thematically tie together the tangential with the essential – wordplay’s pretty adhesive, but a little extra glue can’t hurt.

Cultural Observations

  • “You might be getting a live one” – I don’t know why, but that really made me laugh.
  • I’ll always remember Bob Hitler.
  • New tattoo concept? “A shark driving an assault vehicle through a herd of seals wearing chum pants.”
  • Moving beyond one-liners for a second, I liked the scene where Lem and Bhamba try to use their work (Lem’s toaster that accepts pizza bagels, Bhamba’s horrifying warfare devices) to impress Stella, as it clearly defines them based on their research. I don’t see this as reductive, I see it as these characters loving their jobs, so I think that’s one element of the story that helped bring it all together.
  • I’m a sucker for narrative jokes, so I liked Linda narrating her own sentences for the sake of clarity and Ted’s failed attempt to follow suit: scene was charming, and helped bring their journeys together.
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