“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).
“The Importance of Communicationizing” and “The Long and Winding High Road”
January 12th, 2010
It might just be that we’re reaching the home stretch of Better Off Ted’s rushed second season, or that news this morning that ABC isn’t officially cancelling the show just yet has provided a false sense of hope, but tonight was the first set of episodes where I rarely felt myself comparing the show to its finest moments, or feeling like the show was missing opportunities. I don’t think it’s because “The Impertence of Communicationizing” and “The Long and Winding High Road” were perfect episodes, but they had a nice rhythm to them that didn’t create dead zones which could make them feel complacent, and they dealt with concepts (word play and one-upmanship) that the show has always gotten some great mileage out of.
In fact, if you were going to levy a single criticism of the double-header, you could perhaps argue that the episodes were almost too similar to one another, placing Ted as the moral centre amidst an environment more willing to engage with the low road. However, the show never places too much of each story on Ted and Ted alone, which allows the comedy around him to remain the star, and on that front the episodes offer enough diversity and hilarity to come out a winning pair.
More than One Way to Steal a Scene: Thievery in Television Comedy
January 6th, 2010
Last night, when watching Better Off Ted, I tweeted the following:
When I made the comment, I was really only trying to say that while I enjoy Lynch’s work on Glee (for which she could well win a Golden Globe in under two weeks) I believe Portia de Rossi is doing some stunning work on Better Off Ted that is being comparatively ignored by the major voting bodies (I’m with James Poniewozik: we need to ensure she remains consistently employed on sitcoms for all of time). However, a few alternate suggestions for television’s best scene stealer made me realize that I was commenting less in terms of who is the better actor, and more on what precisely I consider “stealing a scene.”
The Chicago Tribune’s always spot-on Maureen Ryan made a case for Nick Offerman, whose Ron Swanson is an unquestionable highlight on Parks and Recreation. And my immediate reaction was that, as great as Offerman is and as hopeful as I am that he receives an Emmy nomination later this year, I don’t know if I consider him a scenestealer. Of course, as soon as I say that, she comes back with the example of Offerman simply raising an eyebrow and demanding your attention despite an only observational role in the scene in question, making me look like an idiot.
However, I’m going to argue that our differences of opinion on this issue are not simply the result of my poor memory or our subjectivity when it comes to what we enjoy on television, but rather the result of the various different ways one could define “stealing a scene.” Based on different intersections of acting, writing, and cinematography, I would argue that we all have our own impression of what this term means, as we all have our own readings of each individual show and who the scene in question actually belongs to.
Which is why I didn’t initially consider Nick Offerman a scene stealer, and why I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“Trust and Consequence”
July 13th, 2009
The truth of the matter is that Better Off Ted’s summer ratings have been less than impressive, and that the consequence is that the show likely isn’t making much of an impression heading into its second season in the fall. However, right now, I don’t care. The real truth of the matter is that the show remains absolutely fantastic, with a laugh ratio that most comedies can only dream of.
“Trust and Consequence” was another example of the show’s ability to take one idea and run with it. This wasn’t an episode that was about a particular series of plotlines, but rather one event that creates logical consequences that are all quite humorous, with jokes piling onto jokes in a way that makes the conclusion where everything comes to a speedy end feel both clever and like leaving a great story while its quality is still high.
I don’t have too much to say, but some thoughts after the jump.
“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.