Better Off Ted’s last hurrah trades tickets for laughs
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Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the next eight installments is “competition.”
“Swag The Dog” (Better Off Ted, season two, episode 13; unaired)
In which power can be purchased (for a few counterfeit tickets)…
Ryan McGee: If you want an example of the bad luck Better Off Ted endured during its all-too-brief run, just look at the airdate for this episode. Or, rather, look at the lack of airdate. Plenty of shows complete episodes that never make it to air, but “Swag The Dog” has the ignominious claim of being bumped twice. The second season of Better Off Ted started in December 2009, and ABC stopped airing it in late January of 2010. The run itself was a bit of a disaster, with the network airing episodes wildly out of order in an attempt to… well, no one could ever figure out what ABC was trying to do with Better Off Ted. No one expected another episode of the program to air, until ABC announced in May of that year that it would burn off two unaired episodes on June 17. The only problem? Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals was also scheduled for that night, and ABC stated that it had no desire to reschedule those two episodes should the series go to that seventh game. Had the Boston Celtics closed out the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6, Better Off Ted would have seen one last hurrah on the small screen, five months after its last episode aired. Instead, the Lakers beat my hometown Celtics in Game 6, and Better Off Ted once again found itself on the outside looking in.
In thinking about this roundtable’s theme of “competition,” “Swag The Dog” came instantly to mind, even if I had some reservations about discussing it after Noel’s excellent analysis of the show’s “Racial Sensitivity” a few months ago. Still, I’m of the firm belief that there’s no such thing as “too much analysis of Better Off Ted.” Alongside Terriers, this program sits atop a short list of shows that I acutely miss, to this day. Terriers not connecting with larger audiences makes some sense: The name threw people off, it didn’t exactly fit within FX’s larger brand, and it was a slow burn of a show that only gradually revealed itself. But Better Off Ted’s failure baffled me then, and it baffles me now. Here was a show perfectly positioned to be a cathartic comedy for a world embroiled in a financial crisis. Veridian Dynamics, the company in which the series was set, was a fictional entity capable of incredible (and incredibly benign) cruelty. Everyday life at the company was over-the-top, but never so far removed from reality to feel disconnected from actual everyday life. Better Off Ted never tried to make sense of the corporations that nearly drove the United States into financial ruin. It simply looked at the absurdity of such monolithic companies and strove to put a human face on those toiling within them.
“Swag The Dog” explored a common theme in the show’s run: the largely faceless board of directors inventing ways to make its employees act against their own interests. Arbitrary orders from on high are filtered through Veronica Palmer (Portia de Rossi), who in turn passes the buck onto Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington). In this case, the board seeks to inspire greater productivity through the implementation of a ticket system usually reserved for children’s arcades. The board cynically believes its employees will react in much the same way as “psychotic little girls” and work harder to obtain relatively worthless prizes. It’s already been established that Veridian Dynamics works its employees too hard: The second season’s sixth episode, “Beating A Dead Workforce,” featured Veronica exploiting the death of a co-worker to force Veridian drones to work harder in order to honor his memory. One would think that employees at this company would remember the near-death work experiences in their recent past. (Then again, many who work pressure-filled 9-to-5 jobs are often perfectly content to simply forget past hardships rather than dwell on them.)
Tickets soon become power within Veridian, reflected through a pair of plots in “Swag The Dog”: Ted’s distribution of the tickets within his department is called into question due to his on-again, off-again flirtation with Linda (Andrea Anders). Linda denies any physical relationship, noting, “It takes more than 30 tickets to ride this roller coaster.” Desperate to seem impartial, Ted cuts himself off from Linda throughout the episode, striving to treat everyone else equally. “Equally” in this case involves brushing back hair from everyone’s face and treating his best friend at the company like a stranger. In order to restore balance between the characters, Ted suggests they spread a rumor suggesting their “relationship” has ended. Fed up with his focus on career over friendship, Linda unloads on him in front of the entire office.
With that power struggle going on upstairs, Veridian Dynamic scientists (and best friends) Phil Myman (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem Hewitt (Malcolm Barrett) exploit the ticket system in order to boost their social status within the company. Sick of being everyone’s doormats, they realize they can print fake tickets in order to secure both prizes and popularity. Both grow drunk with power, albeit in ways that are inoffensive. (It’s no mistake that Phil likens the pair to “a tornado… but one that stays out of town so no one gets hurt”.) Phil and Lem don’t cynically exploit a system in which they don’t believe: Their initial forays into ticket printing stem from their desire to own a belt buckle, and they view early attempts at counterfeiting as variations on an IOU. But they quickly fall into business practices that sound oddly familiar. “Borrowing against the future is what built this country,” Phil notes, in one of the episode’s most cutting jokes. What starts out as a misguided if innocent attempt to buck the system soon wrecks the entire ticket economy. Sound a little familiar?
So here’s my question to you, fellow members of the Roundtable: Was Better Off Ted’s satirical eye simply missed by the public, or was it actively ignored? Does someone working insane hours for a fraction of the pay received by senior executives they never even meet want to see those executives skewered on television? Or is Better Off Ted literally the last thing they might want to watch after a hard day in the cubicle farm? When is television a valid form of escapism, and when must it speak truth to power? I don’t have any concrete answers here. But I’m curious what you all think about this topic in general as we examine this episode in particular.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I remember seeing the commercials for the first episode of Better Off Ted, which were built around the image of Slavin making a comic ’fraidy-cat face as he’s cryogenically frozen. They were attention-getting, just because they didn’t look like anything else on TV, but they also gave no clue as to what the show was about, and made it look as if it might be part of an effort to reboot the TGIF concept for the age of IMAX. I have two theories, one of which is that ABC saw that it had something with the show but couldn’t figure out what hook it might have for an audience. My other theory is that the network kept the show on as long as it did out of respect for its quality and as a sop to the critical admiration it inspired, but saw no point in trying to scare up an audience for it, because the network didn’t really think it had the potential to be a long-running series. And I think they might have been right.
The show was still getting better—funnier, smarter—right up to its final episode. But it was also locked into its formula; each episode was about the super-smooth Ted trying to navigate the latest corporate outrage, while hanging onto his job and as much of his soul as he could, until the outrage was discovered to be counterproductive or the result of a typing error or something. Better Off Ted wasn’t about challenging the corporate overlords; it was about recognizing that, in today’s world, there’s scarcely any way to be alive and functioning in society without being complicit in a hundred little outrages, most of which we aren’t even aware of. (We all know what we’re contributing funding toward if we eat Chick-fil-A, but most of the Dan Cathys of this world keep their business to themselves rather than singing it into the nearest microphone.) Ted is more aware than most of what he’s part of, but he isn’t looking to buck that system. He’s more likely to express his warm feelings toward Linda by trying to calm her down, convince her of the value of being a good, well-behaved robot, someone who can live with what she does for a paycheck by thinking of herself as a good person when she’s on her own time. Ted has an easy justification to fall back on: He has to be a team player because he has to support his daughter. Of course, it’s his daughter who is most likely to say something that, however briefly, shakes his complacency and makes him wonder if he shouldn’t think about a different kind of life—one where he’d be able to make fewer moral compromises—in exchange for losing his financial stability.
So I don’t agree with Ryan that Ted ever had the potential to supply its audience, let alone a much bigger audience, with catharsis over the state of corporate culture. If this were a movie, Linda might say something that would turn Ted’s head around, and he might do something to try to hurt or change the company, or just leave. Nothing like that could have ever happened, because it would have meant the end of the show. Nor do I think Ted was ever likely to grab the reins of power himself—the way the heroes of Angel did when they gained control of the evil law firm they’d been fighting, which enabled them to learn that the “change from within” thing is harder than it looks. For those of us tuned in to its vision of life inside a corporation (and, metaphorically, a country) that has shucked off moral accountability and has no limits on its behavior, the show is reassuring, in the way that it’s always reassuring when someone else says something that you’re thinking but no one else seems to acknowledge. But catharsis isn’t achieved by laughing out the side of your mouth at something horrible, then coming back the next day and doing it again. It requires something more explosive, even if it’s just the force and velocity of Malcolm Tucker’s potty mouth. Which is why I think that the mass audience that never turned up for Better Off Ted would likely have found it more frustrating than anything else. (“I don’t get it. When is this guy going to reveal that he’s an undercover agent for the FBI and shut this joint down?”) It’s also part of the reason that, as nice as it would have been if it had stayed on the air longer, it probably went about as far as it could go.
Noel Murray: Well, remember that old George S. Kaufman line, Ryan: “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” I think one of the reasons why 30 Rock has lasted as long as it has (besides NBC’s overall weakness) is because it doesn’t hit any one target particularly hard. 30 Rock’s not apolitical, but the show’s first allegiance is to comedy, not to a point of view. And to be honest, as much as I love Better Off Ted—and it’s a deep and abiding love, don’t get me wrong—I think it too frequently valued jokes over consistency. In this episode, for example, at times Ted and Linda’s riffing with each other starts to sound like comedy writers trying to top each other, not like the actual characters. I mean, it’s hysterical—how can you not love a line like, “I’m the hot cup of sex you dunk your strangely circular stuff into?”—but, even though it was established early on that Ted and Linda express their affection for each other through quippery, there comes a point at which a sitcom needs to cut a joke or two for the sake of letting the show, and the audience, breathe. That’s the main reason why I think Better Off Ted probably wasn’t going to catch on even if ABC had given it a real shot: American TV audiences tend not to respond to comedies in overdrive. (See also: Development, Arrested.)
But also: Better Off Ted was legitimately satirical. What I most like about “Swag The Dog” is how not-too-far-from-reality the premise is. Having spent a few years of the ’90s as a corporate cubicle-dweller, I remember the misguided morale-boosting memos and meetings and know that it’s completely plausible for a corporation to reward hard work with worthless prizes, as opposed to, y’know, money. This show was always brutally frank about the shared delusions that keep an inequitable system intact, whether it’s Veronica not understanding that elderly mall-walkers don’t get paid, or Linda’s family turning to pudding as the solution to all of their problems (with the exception of her dad’s obesity). Everyone just seems to accept that the social pecking order will never change, and so it’s better to entrench than rebel.
That’s why this is such a great episode for this theme: The employees aren’t just competing for tickets, they’re competing for the attention of the man who dispenses the tickets. It never occurs to them to refuse to participate in the system; they only look to exploit it, and in the process curry favor with the people who seem preordained to be in charge. Even when Ted strokes the hair of a male employee to prove that he doesn’t play favorites, the employee only shrugs that he knows what Ted’s asking for, and he’s not giving Ted “a firm ‘no.’”
Donna Bowman: As the mother of two children who are perfectly happy to spend unlimited sums of their parents’ hard-earned dollars to play arcade games for tickets with which they purchase Laffy Taffy and plastic kazoos that represent a truly pitiful exchange rate, I think the Veridian system is nothing short of brilliant. I’m sure we all remember the idea of a variable reward schedule from our undergraduate Intro to Psychology courses; what’s especially diabolical about the Veridian plan is that the ticket-distribution system is unpublished, spontaneous, and bound by seemingly no rules. So whoever has tickets to give becomes the little god whose favor everyone curries, or whose caprice everyone spitefully decries.
Ryan points out that Ted doesn’t like being tarred with the latter brush, so he goes out of his way to distance himself from the appearance of favoritism. But maybe that’s only because he a) only has so many tickets to give, and b) lacks any guidance on how to give them. Phil and Lem, on the other hand, have an unlimited supply due to their counterfeiting operation, and have no qualms about introducing runaway inflation into the system as a result. Ted doesn’t like being suspected by Linda’s hovering co-workers, but Lem and Phil are simultaneously eager to be loved because of their ticket largesse and also willing to wield petty power by holding their monopoly over the lab worker who made fools of them with his practical jokes. (Like when he used bacteria cultures to spell out messages in Petri dishes. “Dang him and his super-duper teeny-tiny nano-pen!” Phil seethes.)
Maybe it’s because in our house we’re immersed in that Development, Arrested Noel mentions above, but watching this episode made me realize just how great Better Off Ted was and would have become. If it had lasted another season or two, we’d be mentioning it in the pantheon of all-time great comedies, I believe. Like Arrested Development, it has such a dense jokes-per-minute ratio that the mind boggles. And also like Arrested Development, it’s willing to follow up every possible recurring gag, every callback, and every temporary tangent—anything that will squeeze all of the comic potential out of a relationship, moment, situation, or chance line of dialogue. When Linda compares Ted’s friendship to that of a moonwalking acquaintance from her past, Ted counters that she “probably took Derek Spooner’s career a few sliding steps backward, while appearing to move forward.” The relationship between Lem and Phil, in particular, has an Ed Norton-Ralph Kramden dynamic that allows its dialogue to spiral into the comic stratosphere in a matter of moments, as in their discussion of what they’re going to do to win the affection of their fellow Veridian employees, which ends with Lem proposing, “What if we stage a fight where we beat up Hal Holbrook?”
I guess what I’m saying is: If there were a competition to determine what canceled comedy I miss the most, Better Off Ted would give all comers a run for their money.
Erik Adams: Along the lines of Donna’s observation that Better Off Ted leaves no comedic stone unturned, the episode’s conclusion does a sly job of linking the hollowness of the ticket system to the hazy “thing”s and “stuff” (the latter of which forms the first word in Michael Scott’s definition of “swag”: “stuff we all get”) that hang over the heads of Veridian board members. Every horse in the company has a carrot and stick—it’s just that the executives go to extreme lengths to obscure theirs.
This might have something to do with the fact that I first saw Office Space before I could legally drive myself to a shitty job, but I never understood the “people don’t want their entertainment to remind them of their job” criticism. So many of TV’s great series—comedies and dramas alike—are set in the workplace, and the last decade-plus has produced several sitcoms (the British and American versions of The Office, The IT Crowd) that found a modicum of success while emphasizing the drudgery of corporate life.
So what kept Better Off Ted from finding a larger audience? It’s not a “challenging” show, per se: Noel’s right to mention that the pacing can be exhausting, but watching the whole series on Netflix is like popping 26 pieces of slightly barbed candy (which is exactly the type of product Veridian would market). It could be that the ideas within the series overshadow the characters executing those ideas. I have tremendous affection for the writing and acting on this show, but satire as farcical as Better Off Ted has a tendency to reduce its principals to stock types: Ted, executive with a soul; Veronica, ice queen of the boardroom; Phil and Lem, underlings with enough know-how to blow up the entire operation. Funny and watchable as it is, Better Off Ted may have failed because there’s no Michael Bolton, David Brent, or Maurice Moss for viewers to pin their allegiances to and quote to their friends. Maybe that could’ve changed if ABC had given the series a third chance.
Todd VanDerWerff: To continue on the theme of Better Off Ted’s bad luck, I think the point in time the show debuted also contributed to its lack of success. When the series first aired, the country had been plunged into the depths of an unemployment crisis we’re only now just beginning to claw our way back out of (and even now, it’s not a certainty we’ll find our way back). Workplace sitcoms have always been less popular than family sitcoms in the U.S., but that’s especially true in times of high unemployment, when so many people don’t find it all that amusing to laugh at the idea of having a job so wacky that it’s more of a joke than anything else. Just the idea of having a workplace to go to can become a kind of unattainable fantasy, and I suspect that turns some portion of the audience off. (I have no idea how you’d even do a study about this sort of thing.) Add to that the fact that Better Off Ted is also the kind of show that the American public has rarely turned into a major success (combining all of the elements you folks have outlined so readily above), and the fact that ABC was, at the time, having great success with family comedy for the first time in a decade, and you have a sort of perfect storm of a show that the public not only completely ignored, but also seemed to go out of its way to miss.
Then again, it’s a wonder this series lasted as long as it did. The sorts of shows that remind me most of Better Off Ted are usually lucky to get past a first season to a second, and they’re lucky to keep getting better throughout their run (as Better Off Ted did) instead of burning out after their first handful of episodes rattles its way through all of the best jokes. Yet this series seemed to get stronger as it went along. It’s not especially deep—I could never really cotton to the device of Ted’s daughter, who seemed just a little too precious—but it’s relentlessly funny, and in its own way, it had plenty of great things to say about American corporate culture, even if people weren’t horribly primed to hear them. Plus, it was a relentlessly smart show, not just in the kinds of jokes it told, but in the ways its stories were constructed. The ticket storyline here makes for a fairly solid, basic explanation of the way economics works. That’s not something you’ll see on, say, Two And A Half Men.
I do want to say a few words in praise of the subplot where Veronica goes on a treasure hunt with Arthur Wells. As with most plots on this show, it threatens to turn cartoony—and often does—but it has a weird, grounded sense of how strange is too strange, which keeps it from entirely losing its head. (Okay, I’ll admit that the fight scene between Veronica and Arthur is a little too bizarre for my tastes.) But I also appreciate how it makes some sly, funny points about the horrible truths corporations will hide, and how long it will take for those truths to come to light. The things Wells finds buried in the walls include “smoking causes cancer,” not a big headline in our time, but certainly one in 1962, when it was hidden away. Yet the target keeps shifting. When Veronica bluffs to Chet that Wells knows about the “thing,” he’s legitimately terrified. There’s always something awful buried somewhere. That Better Off Ted could say this with a smile on its face turned out to be its greatest triumph.
RM: Jay Harrington was kind enough to kick in some thoughts about “Swag The Dog” via email. Take it away, Jay:
[“Swag The Dog”] was filmed in October, but was in fact written to be the last episode of the season, hence the kiss between Ted and what’s her face. I think [creator] Victor [Fresco] wanted to give the viewers a cliff-hanger, will-they get-together/won’t-they. Unfortunately, ABC had probably already decided our fate. But hey! It’s not like we had huge numbers at that point, like say, Cougar Town… wait…
Interesting tidbit, the actor who comes in and demands more tickets for a project he’s worked on is my real-life brother, Adam Harrington. His part was a little bigger, but he was in an accident over that weekend (he’s fine now) and he couldn’t finish shooting.
I always remember the “funny” that the boys (Phil and Lem) and the girls (Linda and Veronica) brought to the show. You only get to see the whole thing at the table read, so my favorite thing was to watch their scenes upon completion. I love the idea that the guys create counterfeit tickets to gain popularity, only to have them cause massive inflation. (They not only sound like evil scientists, but politicians.)
I would be crazy and insensitive (and stupid, because I’d like to work again) if I didn’t mention the writing staff.
There. I mentioned them.
But seriously… We were so lucky to have the talent behind the scenes that we did. The characters originally developed by Victor Fresco, and the situations that they were put in by our writing staff for 26 eps (TOO FEW, AHEM ABC) were nothing short of hilarious. Did [the writers] intentionally create a world in which the big corporation dictated their every waking minute? Bog them down with mindless suggestions (notes) and then ultimately not support them in their hour of need? I can’t speak for the writers, (heck, I can’t speak WITHOUT writers) but I’m thinking, “YEEEAH!”
Head of Research and Development at Veridian Dynamics.
Veridian Dynamics. Life. Better.”
RM: How Andrea Anders isn’t a major television star at this point boggles my mind. Of all the comedy pilots that made it to air this fall, not one could find room for her? That’s insane.
RM: I think everyone involved with Arrested Development did career-best work within that show—however, I’d argue Portia de Rossi came closest to matching that quality with her turn as Veronica Palmer. (I’d place Jessica Walter’s performance in Archer second, and David Cross’ turn in the Alvin And The Chipmunks movies at 458th.)
PDN: In the past 10 years or so, at a time when all the major networks have been struggling to adapt to a world in which they’ve lost just about all the advantages they once had over cable channels whose business plans don’t define success strictly according to sheer volume of ratings numbers, ABC has really distinguished itself as a place where you can get a fresh, interesting show put into the hands of people who have no idea what to do with it. Better Off Ted may be the one of the last of that breed, and I’m glad that its first (and lesser) season is available on DVD and that you can watch the whole thing online. Would that such a variety of options were available for fans of Karen Sisco, Eyes, and The Knights Of Prosperity.
NM: During the brief period that I wrote about Better Off Ted for this site, I could never figure out how to tackle the show besides just listing my favorite quotes. This was in the early days of TV Club, when we were still hashing out how we wanted to cover TV; I’d have a lot more to say about a show this rich now. That said, here are my two favorite quotes from this episode: “I recognize you from the effigies they burn of you in Chad,” and, “Don’t joke about The Stuff, Ted. It can tell, and it doesn’t like it.”
TV: Via weird chance, I ended up watching this episode in rapid succession with the Carnivàle episode “Creed, OK,” which also features Dakin Matthews (who plays Arthur Wells here). His Carnivàle character—Evander Geddes—is like Wells, in that they’re both kooky old men with lots of secrets and a weirdly disarming manner. Unlike Wells, Geddes is a terrifying psychopath.
Next week: Todd VanDerWerff makes a strange wager with Peter Lorre in Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ “Man From The South,” which you can watch on YouTube. After that, Donna Bowman quizzes us on the cast of Friends with “The One With The Embryos.”