Better Off Ted – “Mess of a Salesman”

“Mess of a Salesman”

January 26th, 2010

Normally, we tend to view Better Off Ted as a sanctum of comedy genius, a show we measure in terms of how often we laugh more than anything else. Yes, the show has enjoyable characters, but it isn’t a show that we often consider at that level, at least not in terms of the lead in a review of this kind.

And yet “Mess of a Salesman” first brings to mind the word “sweet,” and not in terms of the use of the word as a synonym for “awesome” or “rad.” No, I thought that this episode was perhaps most defined by its sweetness, a winning quality that made what was potentially one enormous sitcom cliché (the no-good brother showing up and making the protagonist’s life hell) into something that never headed down that melodramatic path. While it meant that the episode was less ridiculous than usual, and perhaps less funny than the recent stretch of episodes, it was grounded in a way that shows the versatility to be found in this show’s universe.

By combining its usual corporate satire with some rather positive depictions of humanity and mentorship, the show may have stayed on the rails more than one might like, but I thought it was an enjoyable turn (if not quite the note the show should go out on, should this truly end up its final airing on ABC as is currently scheduled).

Basically asked to do a riff on his character from Warehouse 13, Eddie McClintock was well-cast as Billy Crisp, Ted’s brother. He fits the usual sitcom trope of the deadbeat brother, cycling through jobs and showing up to make Ted’s life more difficult. However, the episode ignores the usual conventions here in the fact that, for the most part, Billy is harmless: he is actually a good salesman outside of his penchant for sleeping with his boss’s wife, and he isn’t so much incompetent as he is motivated to success to the point of the occasional oversight. In fact, Billy more or less does a great job: he’s not working for Ted, he’s working for the supply company, so the work he does upselling Phil and Lem is exactly what he was supposed to do, if not quite what Ted would have preferred in terms of his success.

Ted chose, after all, to buy 3000 beakers in order to get him hired (which he didn’t have to do, and which Billy didn’t expressly ask for), and Billy did actually adjust his sales technique (in terms of cutting the grandparents out of the robot family) when Ted asked him to, so it’s not as if Billy was being dishonest: he just wanted to succeed, is all. I don’t blame Ted for being upset, considering that it was costing him money and distracting his scientists, but I don’t think Billy was doing anything wrong, and I thought the episode found a nice balance between the two sides of the coin. Eventually, Billy feels like he needs to stop being a problem for his brother and start helping him with his problems, but even though the episode never actually says it I do think that Ted became aware, eventually, that Billy wasn’t truly a deadbeat.

A lot of this was sold through the scenes of Billy spending time with Ted and Rose around their apartment, which earned the episode its “sweetness.” I kept expecting those scenes to devolve into some sort of joke, but they never did: McClintock and Harrington had good chemistry, and they sold the idea that there is a brotherly bond between them that was never undercut by Billy’s behaviour to the degree it could have been. I enjoy the stories in this universe that extend to the point of the ridiculous, but these two had a genuine relationship, and the story stayed grounded enough to maintain that relationship at episode’s end (leaving the door open for him to return in later…wait a minute).

Meanwhile, the episode was still plenty funny in its other two stories, as Phil and Lem discover the joy of doing things and forcing others to “deal with it” while Veronica and Linda play Bad Cop/Good Cop in order to raise funds for Veridian’s charity. I thought both stories had their moments, but ultimately Portia de Rossi as Veronica stole the show yet again, with her machine gun-toting fawns and her finding horrible things deeply funny. That said, that Linda/Veronica market was as good as it always is, so she wasn’t alone, and Phil and Lem had some of the better asides in the episode (especially the reveal of what they had bought the second time around: the robot/wind experiment cracked me the hell up). It was interesting, though, that Veronica managed to find her heart in the same episode that the show goes for a more “sweet” tone, which furthers my theory about the sweetness being particularly memorable in the episode (although, one hundred and crazy percent would tend to limit the sweetness a little).

As noted above, this is the last episode of Better Off Ted scheduled to air, and on that front it wasn’t quite up to par: while the stories connected, I did think that there was some dead air in the Billy/Phil/Lem side of things, and I think that the corporate satire in terms of the charity (which tells people about how they do a few good things as opposed to doing a lot of good things) probably could have been introduced earlier for maximum effect. However, if the last image we get of the show on ABC in the immediate future is that short Veridian commercial confirming their opinion of corporations and charities, I’ll be satisfied if, you know, also deeply angry about the fact that no one watched.

Cultural Observations

  • My favourite scene in the episode was easily the back and forth between Phil and Lem’s unique way of processing information, and then Ted and Billy’s way of processing emotions. It was a nice little role reversal, and really pegged the characters and how they interact with one another.
  • I was hoping they’d have a better punchline for what Veronica thought a fawn was, as I had presumed that was the joke all along: one small disappointment in an otherwise satisfying story, though.
  • Speaking of which: headbutts are awesome.
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