“Beating a Dead Workforce” & “Change We Can’t Believe In”
January 5th, 2010
To define a show based on a single episode is unfair, especially when that episode is as great as Better Off Ted’s “Racial Sensitivity.” And yet, when the show came out of the gates feeling somewhat “off” this year, our collective go-to in terms of expressing our disappointment was lamenting that the show wasn’t reaching the heights of that episode. And while it’s understandable that we would want the show to live up to its best episode, and it’s true that part of the early season struggles (relative to the show’s standards, not comedy in general) have been the result of moving too far away from corporate satire the show does best, I think we need to stop judging Betted Off Ted based on that standard.
Except that we can’t. Watching an episode like “Beating a Dead Workforce,” you can’t help but feel that is an attempt at capturing the same greatness of “Racial Sensitivity,” trying to create another out of control corporate reaction to a particular problem. And while the episode has some great lines, and some enjoyable sequences, it just isn’t going to live up to that episode, so a potentially great episode feels just…solid. And when we get an episode like “Change We Can’t Believe In” that skews too close to basic “A/B/C Plot” Thematic sitcom structure, it’s just a reminder that the show now has two primary modes: a comedy which aims for something novel but feels (perhaps unfairly) just off the mark, and a comedy which delivers a funny take on largely pedestrian stories.
Neither show is bad – in fact, they’re both actually quite good – but neither show is “Racial Sensitivity,” and while I want to be able to get past that and enjoy the last few weeks we’ll ever have with the show for what they are, I just don’t know if it’s going to happen.
The idea that Gordon Jenkins’ death, rather than forcing Veridian to rethink the irony of forcing their employees to work without sleep on a machine which cures insomnia, would be spun by the company in order to increase productivity is a good one. And in terms of delivering some great bits of absurd comedy within the workplace setting, Veronica’s inspirational speech at Jenkins’ memorial service was a highlight, as was the elevator video that followed it. And the episode was stronger for its lack of a multi-part structure, allowing Phil and Lem, Linda, Ted, and more importantly Veronica, all be part of the same story. The show is always going to be at its best when all of the show’s characters are connected in a real way, and it means that no single character is going to be stretched too far (which, to be honest, is how I feel about some Phil and Lem stories). The episode didn’t try to create any additional plots, but still allowed Phil and Lem to get a spin-off story from the madness (with Lem becoming famous for being close to Jenkins) and gave Linda a story that was worth every second for “Sweep the Leg” alone.
But really, Portia de Rossi stole both of these episodes nearly single-handedly, so to some degree we can’t complain if the other stories in “Change We Can’t Believe In” never quite got off the ground (Ted and Chatty Ryan were particularly lifeless, despite involving a new life being brought into the world). While the world has fallen in love with Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester (for good reason), I lament the fact that de Rossi is being largely ignored by voters. I understand that Glee is a cultural phenomenon and that Better Off Ted is all but cancelled, but if you were to edit the show as “Better Off Veronica” it’s getting to the point where the rest of the show just can’t compare. Veronica makes every scene and every character better, and it’s largely because de Rossi is capable of selling both Veronica’s self-delusion and her disgust at the people around her. Half the time she’s basically talking with herself, like during two fantastic extended runs with Andrea Anders’ Linda where Veronica completely ignores everything she’s saying because she’s having a moment, or because she has decided to pretend as if what she said was, in fact, the exact opposite of what she actually said. And while these gags are quite solid on the page, like with Lynch’s dialogue on Glee, there is something in the delivery that commands our attention, and the show is in the upper echelon of comedies when they let Veronica loose on her employees.
The show is really charming even when its stories aren’t quite as compelling, and I love the idea of cafeteria staff being sad about everyone missing Fajita Day and the subsequent discussion of the hat happiness hierarchy, and the idea that the elevator once had soft core pornography about recycling. But it just seems like what the show does best (like scenarios like “Racial Sensitivity,” and everything from Veronica) is so good that the rest of the show can’t live up to it. That’s not, of course, why the show is failing: even being somewhat inconsistent, the show is easily one of the funniest comedies on television, and deserves millions more viewers and a chance at succeeding. But it does explain why there have been times where it has seemed like the show’s magic has been gone, even if moments later Veronica is suggesting that she and Ted are just like Gandhi.
And then we remember that although the show might never be able to duplicate its most successful episode, and that the show is disproportionately great whenever de Rossi is on screen, there’s some very funny people working behind the scenes that are crafting some very solid, and very enjoyable comedy. All we can do is enjoy it while it lasts.
- Finally, we get a Veridian commercial! “Friendship. It’s the same as stealing” isn’t the best one we’ve had, but we’ve been so starved (with none airing thus far this season) that I’ll take anything. If they’re going to do thematic episodes, the Veridian commercial is a good way to get that across – I have to wonder if the reason we haven’t had many this season is because of the writers running out of material or being cut for time.
- “I would like to unsubscribe from whatever you are doing right now” might have been Veronica’s best line in the episodes, but “the future is a cake that might never come” is just DEEP.
- I, like Phil, am curious what a beard of fingers feels like.
- I laughed a lot at Veronica’s lines, but Phil’s “is that an embellishment of the time I helped that obese woman with a hole in her head” response to the killer whale story slayed me.
- SWEEP THE LEG.