Does Someone Have To Go? debuts tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Of the many fascinating anecdotes that came out of the 2008 presidential campaign, one of the most memorable came not from a marquee name like Barack Obama or even Sarah Palin, but from a behind-the-scenes player who was out of the mix by the time the general election kicked off. According to widespread reports, Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, shocked his peers in a meeting by attempting to assuage their concerns that Obama was picking up primary steam by explaining that all Clinton would need was the 370 delegates from California to cinch the Democratic nomination. But as everyone else knew, and Penn somehow didn’t, Democrats allot delegates proportionally, unlike the winner-take-all system employed by Republicans. It was a pivotal moment in the campaign’s working dynamic.
That story got so much traction because it demonstrated how there’s no escaping the bizarre and thorny particulars of organizational culture. A workplace is a workplace is a workplace. And even at the highest reaches of power, where the topic of the conversation in staff meetings is the most expedient path to governing a great power, there’s still going to be a Jerry Gergich, the team member whose incompetence, even in its most benign form, ripples through the workplace culture.
All that drum-rolling to say that, as is the case with many of the repugnant, limited-run reality concepts Fox unleashes around this time of year, its latest, Does Someone Have To Go? is a thimbleful of a good idea spoiled by a “shocking” execution that couldn’t be more tonally obtuse. It’s built around the common-sense idea that in every workplace there is wheat and tare, and in many cases, the individuals disrupting the organization and preventing the realization of its potential don’t understand how they are perceived by their peers. If there was a show that used that idea to reflect criticism back on employees in an effort to build a more cohesive team, it might be worth watching.
Does Someone Have To Go? is absolutely not that show. It’s a show in which the concept of organization culture, and the potential viewer’s personal, emotional connection to such dynamics, are exploited in the interest of getting people to yell at, insult, disrespect, and demean each other. And it’s done with people who, as far as we know, have to continue to see the people who treated them that way during most waking hours of the day, for most days of the week.
Someone involves the owner of a company relinquishing control to his or her employees with the understanding that someone will be fired from his or her job after being subjected to humiliating group exercises. It’s repellent, but also totally on-brand for Fox, a perfect fit for the network that brought you The Littlest Groom and Who’s Your Daddy? That legacy alone should go a long way towards acquitting Someone, because while the show is disgusting on principle, a Fox limited-run reality stunt is what it is. Complaints about how distasteful it is must be recorded and filed under “Pardon me, waiter, there’s some soup in my soup.”
But much like a joke, if a show like this delivers its intended result, the audience tends not to quibble about the means by which it got there. Lots of reality television is both repugnant and entertaining, and some of Fox’s least humanistic efforts (like Joe Millionaire) redeemed themselves by at least earning the morbid interest in their tableaus of twisted metal and burning flesh. Someone fails to achieve even that standard of quality, because it is completely bereft of logic and undermines its basic premise at every opportunity.
The première focuses on Velocity Merchant Services, a credit-card processing company located in the conveniently named Downers Grove, Illinois. It’s owned by Dema and her husband Danoush, and employs about 70 people who toil away in a non-descript, Dunder Mifflin-esque commercial space. Dema started the company when she was 19, and has built it over 16 years into the million-dollar success it is today.
Except that while the business is apparently thriving, we’re told, it is doing so in spite of a completely dysfunctional workplace culture that has to be fixed in order for VMS to realize its full potential. The VMS is staff is introduced and caricatured—Naveid is “the Procrastinator,” Zoe is “the Slacker”—then Dema and Danous call them into the conference room to announce that for 48 hours, they are the bosses. They will evaluate each other and decide which one of them will be terminated. Basically, it’s a color-negative Undercover Boss that you watch half-expecting to see the credit “Executive Producer: Stanley Milgram.”
The logical holes here are legion. Dena and Danoush say VMS is dysfunctional and must be fixed, but do not explain how, exactly, firing one employee is intended to cure what has been framed as a deeply-rooted institutional disease. If one person is the problem, why involve anyone else in the process? If it’s everyone, why not a team building exercise that doesn’t end up with someone’s livelihood being taken away? Has the ropes-course industry taken that much of a hit in the economic downturn? But even to overlook that basic flaw doesn’t do Someone any favors as it begins to roll out its process.
First, the staff is gathered in the conference room, where they are shown carefully edited video packages of their co-workers saying terrible things about their personalities and work ethics. We find out that much of the frustration at VMS stems from the fact that much of its staff is composed of Dema’s family, including her mother, brother, and several cousins. The staff feels, as almost anyone would with or without evidence, that the family members are better paid and forgiven for transgressions that would get anyone else fired. (Though, y’know, maybe not, since apparently no one has ever been fired from VMS without the intervention of a reality show.)
That would be silly and ugly enough on its own, but then the staff members watch as all of their salaries are revealed publicly so they can all get pissed off about the pay disparities. In addition to being weird, inappropriate and mean, at no point are the disparities contextualized with any real-world logic. Like, y’know, sales managers get paid more than the salesman they manage. Maybe that’s a profound injustice to be debated during a provocative roundtable discussion at a human resources conference, but in this insane television show, the argument for paying people different amounts of money based on such factors as experience and job duties are not even acknowledged. It’s a bunch of clips stitched together of VMS employees basically saying “Why does that bitch make more money than I do?”
This all builds to a voting process in which a bottom three is identified, and they plead their cases to their fellow co-workers to determine which one of them will get cut. But again, it isn’t just ugly, it doesn’t work on a purely narrative level. Am I, as an invested viewer, supposed to want Slacker Zoe to be rewarded by getting to keep a job at a workplace that started out awful, and will now be more awful now that everyone knows each other’s salaries and the worst things they have to say about each other? Most reality shows beggar belief at some point, but the idea that the “bottom three” wouldn’t just quit the stupid job is downright insulting, not only to the pawns in this nasty game, but to the people who are supposed to watch it with an understanding of its stakes. Why wouldn’t the whole staff just walk out? Why does no one object to this? Is this really just The Wave with clothing furnished by Jos. A. Bank?
Someone is a foul gumbo made from a lot of reality show ingredients, but the easiest comparison is to Survivor because of the tribal council element. But there couldn’t be more of a difference. Survivor involves people taking leave of their normal lives and behaving in awful ways in order to win an enviable prize. Someone involves revealing the baser instincts of people who, if they are allegedly lucky, will then get to spend an indefinite number of days with each other, rewarded with the same bi-weekly paycheck and benefits they were already getting for a job they now hate infinitely more than they used to. So yeah, I guess it’s like kind of like Survivor. But instead of winning $1 million, you win a million super-intelligent pubic lice. Are you not entertained?!
But if only Someone’s weaknesses ended at its needless cruelty. Needless cruelty—at least in a reality show context—can be fun, and on Survivor, it often is. (Look to the picnic-and-family-time reward in last season’s "Don't Say Anything About My Mom" for proof.) But Someone is not fun. It’s stupid. It’s mean. It doesn’t make an ounce of sense. It doesn’t even deliver a reasonable execution of its horrific premise. But it does answer its titular question: Yes, someone has to go. All of you, employees of VMS. You have to go. Seriously, stop what you’re doing and leave immediately. Leave your files. Forsake your cubicle bric-a-brac. Don’t turn in your badge. Gather into a circle, join hands, shut your eyes tightly and Rapture yourselves out of that hell hole. There are other jobs.