The Job

The Job debuts tonight on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Companies build legends around their job interviews. For a long time, Microsoft was famous in Silicon Valley circles for testing its job applicants with open-ended tests of reasoning like “What does all the ice in a hockey rink weigh?” or “Design an evacuation plan for Seattle.” (As Microsoft’s star has fallen, the “Google interview” has become the subject of aspiring engineers’ awe, but the legend is the same.) ESPN purportedly batters entry-level applicants with a quiz of obscure sports trivia—a bit of broadcasting-industry lore that Aaron Sorkin incorporated into the Sports Night pilot.

The theory of the gimmicky “tough interview” is that it allows only the brightest candidates to come to the fore, but that’s dubious. An ability to recall the winner of the 1987 British Open has only a remote correlation to talent as a TV producer—even Nick Faldo could tell you that. As for the notion that greatness is sure to result when you gather all the finest hockey-ice estimators under one roof: Windows Vista.

For the purposes of corporate myth-building, though, the curveball interview works every time, and in that sense, CBS’ new reality show The Job is a success. Like Undercover Boss before it, The Job is a show that ostensibly celebrates the bootstrapping regular folks of America but ultimately celebrates the companies and top-level managers who deign to employ the regular folk. In each hour-long episode of the program, five “highly qualified” applicants compete for a mid-level gig at whichever company sits in the catbird’s seat that week. For tonight’s première, the employer du jour is the New York steakhouse The Palm; Cosmopolitan magazine takes the stage next Friday. Each company is represented by a panel of three—an executive and two trusted minions—and host Lisa Ling directs the proceedings.

The format of the competition is a cross between The Apprentice, The Voice, and that scene from Billy Madison where they put on a pretend quiz show. First, the applicants come out on stage and deliver opening statements, which tend to be a pastiche of reality-show clichés and human-resources pablum. (“I will give 110 percent dedication to your company,” says one applicant to The Palm’s assistant manager position.) Then they’re subjected to a series of inane elimination rounds. The field is cut to four right away, based on an Apprentice-style task that the contestants had to complete before the interview proper. Later, each candidate answers trivia questions that are supposedly related to the job—one of the Cosmopolitan hopefuls, for instance, is asked to identify the red-haired actress whose parents are named Michael and Dina. When she fails to answer “Lindsay Lohan,” her card is marked, even though not knowing this thing is itself a small act of heroism.

Next comes the show’s most baffling wrinkle: the needless, cumbersome incorporation of three smaller companies who also can offer one of the contestants a job. Tonight’s première, for instance, includes owners of three smaller restaurants in addition to the bigwigs from The Palm. The upstarts sit at a separate table set away from the stage, and halfway through the show, one of them has an opportunity to hit a big red buzzer and offer somebody a job. The idea is that the smaller companies will poach a good candidate from the big guys, but this tension never amounts to much. And why there has to be a buzzer, I have no idea—it’s painfully obvious that the “spontaneous” offer is choreographed beforehand, so the moment flops, as many moments do on this show. The Job is so dedicated to the anticlimax that you’d think Cosmopolitan would have declined to participate, for the sake of editorial consistency.

The personal insights that emerge from these stunts are trifling, which undermines the show’s premise—if the premise is that The Job is supposed to be an especially insightful interview process. It could be that the concept is something else altogether. The producers don’t seem to know. During the show’s title sequence, a narrator says that in today’s high-unemployment America, “The employer has all the power”—but “tonight, everything changes.” I take this to mean that The Job puts power in the hands of the job-seekers.

Yet seconds later, we see a clip reel in which these supposedly empowered applicants are repeatedly humiliated. One woman who listed Spanish as a skill on her résumé is made to beg for a job in her second language; the besuited gatekeeper on the hiring panel shakes his head in disgust as she fumbles with the all-too-foreign tongue. Maybe I’m bad at reading people, but this particular job-seeker didn’t appear to be electrified by her newfound power.

Still, moments of cruelty like that one are rare (which comes as a surprise given the way CBS has been promoting them). The Job doesn’t act as powerful-on-powerless humiliation porn, nor is it a venue for proletarian revenge. The only consistent theme of the show is the exaltation of its corporate partners. Never has modern-day Cosmopolitan—a magazine that has found 5,000 different ways to describe the act of touching a sex partner’s anus—seemed like such an essential and benevolent force in American culture as it does here. Cosmo, The Palm, and the other thriving concerns that appear on The Job play the role of providers, and the unwashed are fortunate to drink from their bounty.

The aura of saintliness is hard to maintain, though. And this is where the scant fun of The Job emerges at last. It’s amusing to watch these intelligent, self-respecting management types try to prop up the impossible myth that their companies are the best, and they only accept the best, and they came on this TV show to find the best. This is such self-evident hokum—The Job’s interview process is so clearly deficient—that the interviewers find themselves having to bullshit just as much as the interviewees.

The suits work hard to project dignity in the midst of this slapdash affair. They each have their own strategies. Bruce Bozzi Jr., the executive vice president of The Palm, takes a conservative approach. He grins amiably and reverts to talking points about “family” and “teamwork” whenever the camera turns his way. “You need to know people’s names,” he declares, which serves to introduce a stunt where the applicants have to remember people’s names.

Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles—whom Project Runway viewers will recognize as the killjoy guest judge who hates Nina Garcia very much—takes a more frantic approach. She gloms on to any wisp of substance and treats it as a matter of import, presumably to distract viewers from the show’s nothingness. When a contestant mishears a question during the lightning round, Coles snaps, “Okay, well, that makes me nervous. Are you going to hear questions wrong in the office?” Another contestant answers “I don’t know” to a trivia question. Coles: “Rachele, I was disappointed that you didn’t even guess. Fake it ’til you make it.” And thus an applicant is berated for not lying to her potential employer.

But don’t worry about Rachele, because she has a sad backstory. She had to leave the workforce in the prime of her post-college youth to care for her ailing mother (who has since recovered). In fact, a bunch of contestants in the first two episodes have some rather depressing chapters in their lives. Strange thing is, these sad-backstory people seem to be the very same people who make it to the final round of the game. What are the odds! There’s a fellow on tonight’s episode, for instance, who survived cancer. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll just say that having cancer on The Job is the equivalent of spinning $1.00 in the Showcase Showdown on The Price Is Right: We’re probably going to see you at the end of the show.

The producers’ willingness to sacrifice The Job’s meager integrity by forcing a Queen For A Day-style payoff is a crowning touch on this monument to corporate self-aggrandizement. It’s not that the people who receive job offers are undeserving—to the contrary, they seem smart and well-suited for the positions. The trouble is, that’s not enough. On this show, a company can’t merely be an employer of the qualified. It has to be more. The Job needs to see its applicants bleed first, so that they can be healed. An interview that heals the wounded! Now that’s the stuff of legend.

More TV Club