Maybe it’s because I spent some time last week watching Andy Richter Controls The Universe for the first time, but I think I was predisposed to like ABC’s new sitcom Better Off Ted, an absurdist quirkfest that—like Andy Richter—is about the strange goings on at an offbeat corporation. Ted even shares a cast member with Andy: Jonathan Slavin, who here plays Phil, one of the scientific geniuses at Veridian Dynamics, a company that “makes things.” (Among those things: Power. Technology. A Sheep.) In Better Off Ted’s pilot episode, Phil “volunteers” to let himself be cryogenically frozen for a year, just so Veridian can prove such a thing is possible. But then one of the workmen in charge of moving Phil's cryo-chamber to India takes a cell phone call—“Yeah, I can talk.”—and accidentally breaks the refrigeration unit. Phil thaws out just fine… apart from the periodic screaming.
Better Off Ted was created by Andy Richter Controls The Universe’s co-creator Victor Fresco, and like that show, it’s more a “chuckle softly at the wacky ideas” kind of sitcom than a “fall over laughing” one. But it’s clever, and creative, and it has an infectiously boisterous energy that gives a real zing to lines like, “We want to weaponize a pumpkin,” and, “We want to make a metal that is hard as steel but can bounce like rubber. And is edible.”
Both of those lines are spoken by Portia de Rossi, playing Veronica, the clipped-tone, cheerfully amoral head of Research & Development at Veridian. Her immediate underling is the show’s hero, Ted, played by Jay Harrington. (Inside baseball: Add some sideburns and a pair of glasses, and Ted would look and act a lot like occasional A.V. Club contributor Sam Adams.) Ted’s the kind of can-do guy who take a piece of leftover fabric from a previous Veridian project and get his R&D team to turn it into a new kind of office chair: one so uncomfortable that it increases worker productivity. (Veridian calls it “The Focus Master.”)
In addition to Phil, Ted’s top scientist is Lem (played by Malcolm Barrett), who avoids the cryogenics scheme because of his race. (Veronica: “Freeze the black guy? They’re not stupid.”) Rounding out the team is Linda (played by Andrea Anders, a veteran of Joey and The Class… and arguably the best part of both of those ill-begotten programs), a new-to-Veridian skeptic who serves as Ted’s potential love interest and his conscience.
The basic premise of the show is that the super-successful Ted is starting to have second thoughts about his job and his life. (In ARCTU terms, he’s like a cross between the down-to-earth Andy and the coolly handsome Keith.) Partly he’s swayed by Linda, and partly by his daughter Rose, who asks uncomfortable questions about what Ted does for a living: like why he would freeze Phil, a guy so nice he even came to Rose’s birthday party. (“It’s wrong to freeze someone who comes to your birthday.”) The only real problem with Better Off Ted—at least in the early going—is that Fresco and company haven’t yet figured out how to balance the warm, human side of Ted with the wildly comic evil inventions that make the show unique. The pilot episode, for example, clicks along nicely for 22 minutes and then just kind of… ends. It’s as though Fresco were unsure whether to make a point or just let the accumulation of oddities stand as is.
But I’ve seen the second episode of Better Off Ted, and it’s equally likable. Given ABC’s penchant for scheduling offbeat shows and then canceling them just as quickly, I doubt Better Off Ted will survive too far beyond its initial 13-episode run. (If that.) So for as long as it lasts, I plan to enjoy BOT’s little oasis of gently satirical, quietly confident eccentricity. And I’ll keep hoping for more brilliantly conceived sight-gags like the pilot's motion-activated water fountain, which poor Phil can’t make work because every time he leans down to drink, the sensor switches off. Get three or four bits like that in every show and I’ll be a fan for life.
-“Nature is a fantastic killer of things.”
-“Your department is using too much creamer. It’s not Katrina, but it is a problem.”
-“Can a company be bitchy?”
-Better Off Ted debuts tonight on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. (Right before Lost.) Or if you’d like to see pretty much the entire first episode in less than three minutes, there’s this: