If I told you that there was a TV show about an amoral corporation that treated its employees like disposable peons while pushing dubious technologies onto an unsuspecting public, you’d probably assume that the show was a recent invention. And if I told you that it was a sitcom that satirized subjects like institutional racism and the way companies led by white men use a patina of diversity to cover for their problematic practices, you might even think it was trying too hard to be relevant, pandering to our present.
Except Better Off Ted came out in 2009.
The ABC sitcom ran for just two short seasons during the Obama presidency, but it often feels as though it could have aired yesterday. The show revolves around the exploits of Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington), the handsome head of research and development at Veridian Dynamics, a giant conglomerate that produces everything from cutting-edge smart bombs to pharmaceuticals, as well as consumer products with questionable side effects. A doting single dad and beloved manager, Ted clearly means well, but is caught in the impossible position of serving a company that decidedly doesn’t. “I know it’s hard to accept that giant companies don’t care about people,” his sociopathic boss Veronica Palmer (Portia de Rossi) tells him. “I know how hard it was for me when I first realized it, when I was 8.”
Ted does his best to protect his employees from the company’s designs, which include working them past human endurance and experimenting on them with new products. When Veridian tries to pressure nebbishy scientist Phil (Jonathan Slavin) into cryogenically freezing himself to test their technology, Ted advises him to refuse. “They can’t force employees to participate in human experiments,” he notes. “They lost that court case.”
Many of the show’s plotlines feel like they were ripped from more recent headlines. In one episode, the team concocts a facial-recognition technology that makes everyone’s past and present life instantly searchable. (“With this technology, we have finally defeated privacy!” crows one of the scientists.) In another, the company installs energy-saving motion sensors on everything from lights to toilets, only to discover that the devices don’t see Black people, in an amusing illustration of how such technologies tend to fail when it comes to darker skin, and the way seemingly neutral systems can have deeply disparate impacts.
In lesser hands, this sort of satire might come across as preachy or pedantic, but Better Off Ted is produced with a light comic touch. Every member of the main cast is sympathetic, portrayed as cross-pressured cogs in an unfeeling machine, rather than one-dimensional heroes or villains, making the show a pretty apt representation of our current reality. It doesn’t hurt that every actor, down to the recurring secondary characters, is perfectly cast. Portia de Rossi is masterful as Ted’s domineering but damaged boss. Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett are hysterical as Phil and Lem, a neurotic duo of maybe-mad scientists, caught between their desire for technological progress and their occasional horror at what they’ve unleashed.
Phil: This jetpack project is going to be so exciting. Jetpacks are the ultimate dream of every scientist. Skies teeming with ordinary citizens strapped to rockets.
Lem: Flying through the air at 60 miles an hour in any direction … A lot of people are going to die.
I wanted to understand how such a bizarre yet prescient show got on the air, so I called up its creator, Victor Fresco, who is also the mind behind The Santa Clarita Diet, among other productions. He told me that the idea for the show stemmed from fundamental “disconnects” he’d observed in society. The first was in the workplace. “At the time,” he said, “companies would talk about ‘team members’ and how ‘we’re all family,’ but they would slit your throat and leave you by the side of the road without health care if they could save 20 bucks.”
For Fresco, this critique was informed by personal experience. In 2007, he participated in the months-long Writers Guild of America strike. “All of us were friends with all the people that were on the inside of where we were striking,” he recalled. And yet, those collegial relationships with studio executives did not matter when the chips were down. “Our friends on the other side of the wall didn’t want us to have health care. They didn’t want our children to see doctors if they were sick. Because that’s what we were striking for: slightly more wages, a slightly better pension plan, slightly better health benefits—all of those things that, suddenly, they didn’t want to share with us. That was one of those moments where it was driven home: What happens in corporate America is that we can all be buddies, as long as we don’t threaten any economic interests, because then we’re the enemy.”
Better Off Ted highlights this gap between how companies talk about their employees and how they actually treat them in one its most unusual recurring features. Instead of an extended title sequence, each episode features a fake commercial for the show’s fictional megacorporation, in which an upbeat narrator champions the company’s commitment to prized social values, such as “family” (“We’re a family, just like yours … which is why we work nights, weekends, and major holidays, because that’s when families should be together”) and “diversity” (“Diversity: Just the thought of it makes these white people smile”). “You can say anything when you have this incredibly soothing voice saying it,” said Fresco. “It was like, Listen to the tone of my voice, not to what I’m saying.” In fact, the ads were so convincing that they confused many viewers, who thought they were genuine. “I think it was hard for them to get a handle on what that was,” Fresco recalled with a chuckle, “but those were really fun to make.”
Veronica: Legal says you have to wear a parachute.
Lem: Why? At the height I’m going, a parachute will be useless.
Veronica: Not from a legal standpoint.
The second “disconnect” that inspired Fresco was one he observed in the home. “I was interested in the idea that we are asked to be two different types of people,” he explained. “We want our children to be kind, empathetic, thoughtful, and those are all qualities that are not valued in the workplace. When we go into the workplace, we’re asked to be competitive and ruthless. So how do you navigate that world? And raising children? How do you teach them all those qualities that they’re supposed to forget when they go into the workplace and into corporate America?” The show repeatedly underscores this disjunction in story lines featuring Ted’s 10-year-old daughter, Rose (Isabella Acres), who holds a moral mirror up to the practices of his profession as only a naïve child can.
If there’s a problem with Better Off Ted today, it’s that its satire can sometimes seem too close for comfort. At one point, Veronica explains that the company never parts with money over its malfeasance “unless forced by a government stronger than they are, and there are only three of those left.” This sounds less humorously hyperbolic in 2022, when powerful corporations like Facebook that oversee the flow of information have more users than many countries have citizens. Veronica also believes that the company’s employees live in their cubicles, a running joke that lands differently now, when thousands of workers are literally sleeping on the factory floor in China to keep goods moving amid the pandemic. And when Ted and Veronica wow a room full of older executives with a glitzy presentation pumping a product that doesn’t actually exist, one can’t help thinking of Theranos and the latest NFT craze.
But for a decade-old show, feeling too relevant is a good problem to have. After all, the typical concern with old comedies is that they tend to lose resonance, not gain it. Sitcoms satirize their moment, but the moment changes, as do standards of comedy. Racial and ethnic stereotypes that were once commonplace now come across as lazy and offensive grasps for cheap laughs. Some romantic subplots now feel more like sexual-harassment suits waiting to happen. For these reasons, many comedies age poorly, and Better Off Ted is not immune to these issues. But what makes the show remarkable is how much of it has aged well.
“It becomes normal if you keep doing it,” says Phil the scientist, after the company redesigns the bathroom stalls to compel employees to use less toilet paper. “Everything does.” This declaration might as well be the show’s motto, but it also fits our own era of pandemics, mass shootings, and other recurring crises that we have seemingly resigned ourselves to.
Back in 2010, Better Off Ted was canceled after only 26 episodes. But it wasn’t a failure. It was just early.
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