Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
The Better Off Ted episode “Racial Sensitivity” sports an ingenious premise: Mega-corporation Veridian Dynamics has decided to save money at its home office by installing sensors that will switch off the power whenever nobody’s in a room, except that there’s a glitch in the system that keeps it from recognizing people with dark skin. When the show’s protagonist Ted Crisp (played by Jay Harrington) suggests that these sensors are racist, his boss Veronica Palmer (Portia De Rossi) explains that the company’s position is that this is in fact the opposite of racism, because the system is “not targeting black people… it’s just ignoring them.”
Over the past couple of decades, network television has become more and more like Veridian’s motion sensors. TV sitcoms and dramas used to be much bolder about addressing a host of social problems, including racism. From the live-TV era (which was itself a sort extension of the “social theater” of the ’30s and ’40s) to the Norman Lear age, progressive writers and producers actively sought to expose the sickness and absurdity of bigotry, sometimes by directly confronting the matter, and sometimes by working in pointed allegories. By the early ’70s, when Richard Pryor was one of the most popular comedians in America, even game shows like The Match Game embraced the spirit of “we’re all friends here” openness, letting comics like Scoey Mitchell and others make race jokes that would sound a lot dicier today. True, some of the attempts at hipness by these ’70s and ’80s TV shows were painful, not to mention self-righteous. (Be it racism, drug addiction, child abuse, or rape, television has a bad habit of trivializing social ills while trying to call attention to them.) But at least mainstream network TV was making an effort to stay engaged.
That sense of social responsibility began to diminish though in the ’90s. Perhaps in reaction to the glut of clumsily earnest “very special episodes” in the previous decades, the major networks began to compartmentalize their activism, relegating the “torn from today’s headlines” material to procedurals, made-for-cable movies, adult-oriented animation, and whatever the hell David E. Kelley was up to. Meanwhile, the sitcom landscape was dominated by the likes of Seinfeld, Friends, Home Improvement, Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond, which were more concerned with petty, personal nuisances than Big Problems. If anything, the attitude of ’90s sitcoms seemed to be that the kinds of issues addressed by Norman Lear and his disciples were all settled. Being gay wasn’t such a big deal anymore, and neither was being a racial or ethnic minority, or being poor (Roseanne excepted). Television comedies practiced a kind of Clintonian “don’t ask, don’t tell” tolerance, accepting their gay, brown, and blue-collar brothers, so long as they stayed quiet and in the background.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair to Seinfeld. Although Seinfeld took place in a fairly milky-white New York City, it did touch on race as part of its broader study of manners, as in the episode where George Costanza tries to impress an African-American co-worker by pretending he has black friends; or the one where Elaine Benes thinks she’s cool because her new boyfriend is of indeterminate ethnicity. Still, by the late ’90s and into the ’00s, while a new wave of sophisticated pay-cable and basic-cable shows were grappling with race, poverty, and the corrupting influence of power, the smarter network sitcoms were taking a different approach. Seinfeld had established the tone that the likes of Arrested Development and 30 Rock would follow when it came to social issues and politics: stressing that everyone’s a boob (if not an outright hypocrite), and that while injustice and inequality are real problems, they exist largely to expose the weaknesses of the shows’ heroes.
All of which makes the Michael Glouberman-scripted, Paul Lazarus-directed “Racial Sensitivity” about as close to an issue-driven “very special episode” as the network sitcom turns out these days. (That it’s also about as pointed and hilarious an episode as TV has ever produced is just a bonus.)
The trouble begins in the lab, where Dr. Lem Hewitt (Malcolm Barrett) and Dr. Phil Myman (Jonathan Slavin) are engaging in their usual small talk, wondering which plasm cultures look up at them from microscope slides and think of them as vengeful gods, and whether Lem should’ve asserted himself when Veridian failed to give him the fancy coffee that they sent to all the other employees in lieu of year-end bonuses. Then Lem realizes that it’s been getting dark whenever Phil leaves the room. Worse: Lem can’t get any water to come out of the fountain in the hallway when he leans in to the automatic spout; and the lab’s sliding door closes and locks whenever Lem tries to exit by himself. He’s forced to spend the night in the lab after Phil leaves without him, because the security guard on duty is black and therefore locked in as well.
Veronica—speaking on behalf of Veridian—says that employees should be celebrating all the different races and ethnicities that the motion sensors do recognize, rather than focusing on the few that the sensors don’t. And even Lem—ever-timid—would rather not make a big deal about it. But once Lem realizes that he’ll have to ask for Phil’s help whenever he needs to go the bathroom, he gathers up the courage to demand that Veronica do something. He assembles a group of Veridian’s black employees—“If I get enough guys, maybe she won’t know which one’s me,” he squeaks—and after a brief, inevitable moment when the disgruntled mob is all stuck in an elevator that won’t move, they march in solidarity into Veronica’s office, where she congratulates them on their moxie, tells a story about how she too has been discriminated against throughout her life (for being so stunningly beautiful), and then adds, “My door is always open to you… please close it on the way out.”
Veronica and Veridian aren’t completely unresponsive, though. Initially, they try to accommodate their black employees by installing separate water fountains, until they realize that it looks a little Jim Crow-y.
Their next plan is to hire white guys to follow the black guys around, to use their innate sensor-triggering powers. (Veridian calls it “Operation White Shadow.”) Lem’s black colleagues think it’s great that they effectively have their own white slaves, but Lem isn’t satisfied, in part because his own shadow is a doofus who repeats Lem’s every gesture. The shadow isn’t thrilled either: “I got the worst black guy,” he grumbles about Lem. (But he won’t quit, either, because he really needs this job.)
Finally, Ted saves the day by using Lem’s number-crunching to appeal to Veridian’s fiscal sense. Given that the company’s motto is “money before people” (it looks better in Latin), and given that equal-opportunity laws would require Veridian to hire more black employees to compensate for all the extra white employees they’ve been adding, and given that each of those new black employees is going need his or her own “white shadow,” well… the exponential projection shows a model that’s financially unsustainable for even a profligate company, let alone a penny-pinching one like Veridian. (Plus, where will they all park?)
Ultimately, Veridian re-installs its old sensors and snaps a self-congratulatory photo with Lem. This is what constitutes progress in 2009: championing a reversion to the status quo.
There’s a B-story to “Racial Sensitivity,” having to do with Ted’s on-again/off-again flirtation with his idealistic co-worker Linda Zwordling (Andrea Anders). After Ted decides that it wouldn’t be fair to his daughter to attempt a relationship at this point in time, a spiteful Linda parades her new boyfriend around Ted, then gets annoyed when Ted and the new man hit it off, though she publicly insists that it’s “fantastic” that the two are becoming friends. (Ted: “It doesn’t sound like you’re saying ‘fantastic.’ You’re using the word but it sounds all… yelly?”) Finally, following Veronica’s advice, Ted pretends to hate Linda’s boyfriend so that he and Linda can become friendly again. None of this has anything overtly to do with the A-story, except to illustrate the topsy-turvy notion that sometimes outright hostility is preferable to indifference—or even to forced kindness.
Better Off Ted could’ve probably used some of that hostility—or anything, really, to draw some attention. The series debuted in March of 2009 with very little promotion aside from some slapstick-y ads that, when combined with the punny title, squelched the interest of the kind of TV and comedy fans who might’ve been inclined to appreciate the show. The early reviews, too, were positive overall, but featured few raves and a couple of prominent pans. And though ABC rewarded Better Off Ted’s early promise with a surprise second-season pickup, the network buried half of the first season’s 13 episodes in the summer, and then debuted the second season in December, while much of the rest of its schedule was in re-runs. By the end of January—a month in which ABC ran back-to-back Better Off Teds on some nights, in an apparent attempt to burn through the inventory—the show was more or less done, though ABC held out the promise that the final two unaired episodes of the 13-episode second season would see the light of day over the summer. Instead, the episodes were bumped by the NBA finals, and debuted online. Even now, only Better Off Ted’s first season has been released on DVD (though the second season can be seen via various online streaming services). And while critics—including myself—did lament the cancellation of a sitcom that really never got a fair shot, there wasn’t a huge outcry, because Better Off Ted never had the fervent cult that Arrested Development had, or that Community has today.
When asked by Vulture’s Joseph Brannigan-Lynch why he thought Better Off Ted was cancelled, the show’s creator Victor Fresco said:
I think not enough people knew about it. It wasn’t like we had a lot of people watch it and they didn’t come back to it. … I still feel there’s an audience out there for it, because I know that the people who liked it, liked it a lot. … There’s also a thing where when a show’s in trouble you think, “Why should I tune in now? Why do I want to invest in it?” If this was on cable, I think it would be like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia—it would attract a small, but hard-core following and that would be enough to power it through. But the network needs a much bigger group of people.
Or maybe the problem was that Better Off Ted was trying to be about something, at a time when even the brightest sitcoms on television were content to coast on attitude. Talking to Guy Raz for NPR’s All Things Considered, Fresco said that Better Off Ted was inspired by “the sort of disconnect between our personal and public lives, that we can teach our kids to be moral, to know right and wrong, and yet when we go into the workplace and we work for giant corporations, we see decisions made that are not based on any of those qualities that we want our kids to have.” Fresco dealt with similar themes on his previous series, the equally short-lived Andy Richter Controls The Universe, but he hit the parody of corporate thinking even harder in Better Off Ted, making a sitcom that was ostensibly about how some very likable people could get ensnared in terrible endeavors because of their innately human tendency to try and excel even at jobs not worth doing.
I witnessed this firsthand during the few years that I was a cubicle-dweller for a major corporation. We’d attend company-mandated seminars about quality control—in which we were asked to pretend that a shipping error was comparable to a pilot failing to land a plane successfully, or to a surgeon making a bad cut during an operation—and we were taught to use statistics to take a long view of sales and growth, so that we weren’t practicing “whack-a-mole” management, hammering at problems only as they popped up. In practice though, every month those same bosses who talked about the necessary cycles of growth and dips would panic that a lower-than-expected sales figure was going to drive down the stock, and they’d order us to cut corners and fudge data in order to meet our projected number. And we’d do it, too, because if the company didn’t meet its projections, we knew from past experience that there’d be layoffs. Never mind that we sold more than we did the previous year, and never mind that the previous year’s profits were ample enough to pay the staff. If we didn’t grow year to year, there were nearly always cuts, because that was a surefire way to boost the stock (at least in the short-term), and thus to assure the boss’ bonuses. Mole, meet whack.
As we’ve seen with recent news stories about Goldman Sachs and Enron, sometimes people with fiscal power really do actively look to screw over those who don’t. More often than not, though, the screwing process is the result of an entropic chain reaction. A group of people in one room comes up with an idea to make money, and doesn’t consider—or care—how it’s going to affect the people in the rooms all around them. Fresco talked about this too, in an interview with The Futon Critic’s Jim Halterman, saying:
I was on another show and one year we came in and all our chairs had been replaced by something that was probably $15 cheaper, and were very uncomfortable. When I thought about it… I realized that nobody would ever quit their job because of a chair. Like so much in that environment, you just kind of bear it out and live with it, because each one of those events by itself is not something that would cause you to quit the job. But it piles on and becomes a little more dehumanizing as it goes.
The difficult trick that both Andy Richter Controls The Universe and Better Off Ted tries to finesse is to satirize ruthlessly this unthinking corporate malevolence while also making those corporations a welcoming enough place that viewers would want to spend time there each week. Unlike a lot of contemporary sitcoms, where most of the characters are likable but kind of awful, and unlike the Norman Lear shows, where liberals and conservatives alike were made to seem equally humane (and equally capable of idiocy), Better Off Ted followed a group of mostly sweet, mostly well-meaning worker bees, led around by the wicked queen Veronica, who herself was just flawed enough to be tolerable. Fresco and company then put these gentlefolk through the ringer, torturing them for comic effect, and to make a point.
It’s not that modern sitcoms never try to deliver a message, mind you. The best comedies of the ’00s—like The Office, How I Met Your Mother, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Aliens In America—have all touched on discrimination, class disparity, and regressive social attitudes, sometimes only in passing and sometimes as a central theme. (And I only named those four because they’re fairly different in style, and because I hadn’t mentioned them previously; the list of worthy sitcoms from the past decade could easily stretch into the double digits.) But either because TV viewers are more cynical now or because we’re more politically polarized, it seems to be harder for a sitcom to point fingers without first making fun of the very idea of pointing fingers.
Even “Racial Sensitivity” gives itself an out, by tacitly admitting that it’s likely only going to reach a small, self-selected audience. Though Glouberman’s script is unusually deft at illustrating how racism creeps into everyday life without anyone intentionally willing it happen, the episode also mocks the lip service paid to the cause by those who like to think of themselves as socially conscious, and in doing so seems to suggest that resistance is futile. Over and over, activism becomes blunted into slogans, which can then be co-opted by the very institutions that the activists originally meant to protest. That’s how rage against inequality can be softened into a Veridian Dynamic commercial in which a velvet-toned narrator says, “Diversity… just the thought of it makes these white people smile.”
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Green Acres, “I Didn’t Raise My Pig To Be A Soldier.”