If the Wikipedia entry for Better Off Ted can be trusted, writer-producer Victor Fresco and his cast and staff have completed 13 episodes of their gently absurdist workplace comedy, and yet tonight’s episode—the seventh to air—is being touted by ABC as the “season finale.” That can’t be good.
When I covered the pilot episode of Better Off Ted back in mid-March, I wrote that I found the show a little disjointed, but basically clever, and frequently quite funny. Based on that assessment—and our own heavy workloads—we made the decision in-house not to cover Better Off Ted ongoing, because we figured ABC wouldn’t keep it on the air long anyway, and we weren’t sure what kind of viewership it would have among our readers. But I regret that choice now—almost as much as I regret our completely missing The Middleman last summer—because even if a weekly write-up had only drawn a handful of comments, perhaps our beating the drum for Better Off Ted would’ve gotten some of you who never watched it to give it a shot. At the least, I would’ve liked to have compiled a permanent log of the show’s snappy dialogue and unexpectedly sharp bits of satire.
I can’t say that Better Off Ted went out with its best episode. The one to put in a time capsule is “Racial Sensitivity,” in which Veridian Dynamics attempts to overcome a flaw in its new security system—which no longer recognizes dark skin—by giving African-American employees separate water fountains and their own white slaves. (Close second: “Good-bye, Mr. Chips,” in which our hero accidentally gets deleted from the Veridian computer system; Distant third: “Win Some, Dose Some,” which overcomes a tiresome subplot about an accidentally drugged Linda by pitting Ted and his boss Veronica in a hilariously elaborate contest to sell the most wrapping paper.)
“Get Happy” was more an assortment of good situations that never really developed beyond their original twist—though they were all plenty smart in the abstract, and supported by plenty of funny lines. The episode begins with Ted explaining that at Veridian, “Morale has dropped from ‘low’ to ‘I’d like to burn this place down’... which, frankly, I’m surprised was one of the options.” Veronica has learned from a survey that the staff views her as cold and controlling, while Ted learns that everyone loves him except “men over 50 in lower management.” This sets up the episode’s three situations, and three twists:
Situation one: Veronica literally lets down her hair and starts praising her “drones,” who appreciate the stroking... all except for the perfectionist Lem, who doesn’t feel he deserves the compliments Veronica is bestowing on him and Phil. (Phil: “Then can I have your half?”) Twist: Phil, who never gets any encouragement from his wife, starts to fall in love with Veronica, who has to keep finding ways to work the word “Phil” into her words of praise. (Ex. "Phil-abulous.")
Situation two: Linda suggests to Veronica that her fellow cubicle-dwellers might appreciate being allowed to personalize their workspace, and Veronica responds by re-decorating the cubes in four corporate-selected themes: cats, classic cars, space stuff, and the Green Bay Packers. (Veronica: “Enjoy your new personalities!”) Twist: The staff divides into cliques based upon their themes, and Linda gets in trouble with her fellow cat-people when she tries to mingle with the space-people.
Situation three: Ted, who’s always craved the approval of older men (due to some unspecified daddy issues), tries to win over the only people at Veridian who don’t like him, by trying not to be the young, go-getting “Mr. Stays Awake At Work” but instead to be “Mr. Has A Drink At Lunch But Let’s Not Go Overboard Because It’s Still A Work Day” (Ted: “It’s long, but it makes some good points.”) Twist: The older dudes begin to take advantage of Ted, trying to recreate the good old days when corporate life was all about drunken camaraderie and “telling some broad who wouldn’t do you to clean out the crap in her desk.”
Like I said, once the situations and twists in “Get Happy” were established, there wasn’t much to do but follow through to the inevitable restoration of normalcy. But while Better Off Ted never did find a way to fracture the sitcom formula (a la Arrested Development or Newsradio, both clear precursors) during its seven-episode run on ABC, it had a tone and a point of view that I’m already starting to miss, just a few hours after it’s likely aired for the last time. I know that skewering corporate culture is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but Better Off Ted did it with such esprit. I have to lament the premature end of any show that can deliver lines like, “X-rays show that when people work together, they’re happier, and less likely to do something weird.”
Grade: B+; Series (as aired): A-
-Linda’s cat names: “Boots... Sandals... Stapler... okay now I’m just looking at things on my desk.”
-Phil: “Do you think I look like a possum in this shirt?”
Lem: “Not in that shirt.”
-Manny: “Did you ever get a mustard stain on your shirt? Or a hooker’s vomit on your pants?”
Ted: “I did do one of those things. When I was 12.”
-“The hair is up. That’s all they hear.”