Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Happy 10th anniversary to <i>Undercover Boss</i>, the most reprehensible propaganda on TV

Happy 10th anniversary to Undercover Boss, the most reprehensible propaganda on TV

Illustration: Karl Gustafson

“I think there was a common thread among all of us,” says Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfor, “that we really are just everyday people, wanting to do everyday good.” This quote is from back in 2013, when Yellen, an incredibly wealthy man and reputed former mobster (Forbes estimated his net worth at $320 million back in 2017) was sitting at a table with other leaders of large American companies. The corporate heads were discussing how happy they were about their experiences on Undercover Boss, the CBS reality show that began in 2010 and has now been going strong for a decade, with the ninth season starting just last month. It’s understandable why Yellen and his fellow CEOs would be so thrilled with their time on the series: Undercover Boss is some of the most blatant propaganda on American television. It’s a shameless endorsement of capitalist inequality that may as well end each episode by reminding everyday Americans that they should shut up and be grateful their lives are controlled by such selfless exemplars of virtue. It’s class warfare in everything but name.

Unsurprisingly, it seems clear that this was the intent from the very start. True, it’s based on a British show that was birthed by the idea it’d be fun for a CEO to eavesdrop on what it’s really like to work for them, but the American version is notably different. Developed in the midst of the worst financial recession since the Great Depression, the opening seconds of the pilot were explicit about the show’s aims of resuscitating the reputation of the corporate leaders and Fortune 500 assholes who rode the backs of working people into the ditch of the 2008 collapse. “The economy is going through tough times,” begins the portentous voiceover that kicked off the series’ premiere installment. “Many hardworking Americans blame wealthy CEOs for being out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies.” (Already a misdirect—being “out of touch” was hardly the primary complaint.) Yet the intro continues, letting you know you’re about to see the story of a true patriot: “But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their companies better.” Yes, for these noble souls, even the backbreaking labor of donning a bad wig and hanging out with a reality-TV crew for the better part of a week wasn’t too much to ask. Even Eugene V. Debs would tip his hat in admiration.

The structure of each episode quickly became solidified. In the first minutes, we meet the head of a large and profitable business—usually the CEO or COO, though in some cases, a miserable CFO can also be dragged screaming into the camera’s glare—who walks us through the basics of their business, in a manner that handily doubles as a bald-faced advertisement for the company. (One episode lets COO of Nestlé Toll House Cafés Shawnon Bellah declare of Toll House’s bargain-bin baked goods, “That cookie, it brings families together,” without a hint of embarrassment. Meanwhile, the camera lingers on an adorable little moppet, licking the batter off a blender in a homey setting of Americana even Norman Rockwell would find a bit hokey, presumably 400 light years away from Toll House’s sterile factories.) From there, the business tycoon dons what is usually a shockingly clumsy disguise, and under the guise of being followed by cameras for a reality show in which they’re “competing” to win money, a job, or some other flimsy pretext, the CEO proceeds to attempt three or four of the business’ most menial, tedious, or otherwise lowest-rung employment opportunities.

During each eight-hour gig, the undercover bosses meet one or two fellow employees, usually sterling examples of humanity with sad and/or awe-inspiring backstories that leave you wondering how they can possibly smile so much under such conditions. These people are then brought back at the end, where the boss delightedly reveals their secret identity, then rewards them in some way for being loyal, hardworking, or simply pitiable enough to merit a public display of recompense, lest the boss look like an overt piece of shit, instead of merely a secret one. Often, one of the employees will have proposed some minor adjustment to the inhuman conditions under which they labor, or simply made an observation about how actual humans behave and why the business fails to account for it, and the boss will proudly announce a change in company policy, like they’re Mother Theresa unveiling a “care for sick people” plan. (Though sometimes, an especially bad employee—read: one who just does the job, and doesn’t care to espouse bullshit—will instead be called out and punished or fired for their lack of enthusiasm. Hooray?)

Airing in 2010 immediately following Super Bowl XLIV, the premiere installment of Undercover Boss was a massive success, with 38.6 million viewers remaining glued to their screens, leading to a first season that instantly became the most popular new show of the year. Episode one featured Larry O’Donnell, president and COO of trash-collection behemoth Waste Management, and wastes no time pulling at the heartstrings, showing O’Donnell spending time with his severely disabled adult daughter. He then cycles through five jobs: on the recycling assembling line, landfill pickup, administrative assistant, porta-john cleaner, and garbage collector. A theme that becomes a through line of the whole series quickly stands out: These bosses are usually not very good at these jobs. O’Donnell is even essentially fired from his landfill pickup gig, a sort of “haha, not so easy, is it?” source of simple satisfaction for audiences.

Initially, there were a few sops made to actual, structural change, the kind of thing that actually makes lives better for employees. O’Donnell ends a policy at the recycling facility of docking employees two minutes of pay for every minute they’re late clocking in. Upon realizing the female garbage collectors are forced to pee in a can during their shifts thanks to a brutal timetable, he creates a task force to remedy the situation. But overall, the series studiously avoids the kind of bureaucratic reorganizations or useful-but-boring work that would entail real improvements to working conditions. Instead, it turns its attention to that time-honored source of American valorization: individual boot-strappers who smile through the drudgery. O’Donnell finds the landfill pickup worker who manages to do his job despite weekly dialysis to be an inspiring presence (and to be fair, he is), so he rewards him with… more time off to work gigs as a motivational speaker. Ah, a second job, the American dream. The office worker who was doing the work of three or four unfilled positions gets a promotion to a salaried position, so that she doesn’t have to sell her home. Key & Peele made hay of this aspect of the show:

“I feel more of a connection with the folks at this company,” O’Donnell says in a speech to a large group of employees at the end of the episode, and the show works overtime to suggest that his workers are nearly prostrate with gratitude at having such a benevolent man for a boss. They all express, over and over, how honored they are, how full of joy and thankfulness that such an important figure would deign to listen to them, an ordinary schmoe. The implication is clear: This is a fantastic company with a hero for a leader, and everyone should feel good knowing that the right people are in charge. In other words, don’t be mad at CEOs and corporate bigwigs, they’re trying to help you people! So sit back, and let them run things. It’ll be for the best, we promise.

And so it goes, year after year, business after business, tycoon after tycoon. A random episode from season seven, the aforementioned one featuring Nestlé Toll House COO Shawnon Bellah, shows how the series has further refined the formula and zeroed in on capturing moments of individual reward for maximum human drama over the glaringly obvious problems of inequality and working-class exploitation. Despite the show running for years at this point, Undercover Boss still pretends the everyday employees it spotlights don’t have the slightest suspicion that this unnamed “reality competition show” is an obvious front for the popular CBS series. A struggling woman tells the disguised Bellah, “I’d love to sell the Nestlé brand”—you know, just typical shop talk between fast-food workers—and everyone treats it as a bold and unguarded confession. A legally blind general manager of a Toll House trainee facility goes into detail about the Lasik eye surgery he wants and the pastry school he longs to attend but can’t afford. A young woman working a drive-thru opens up about her dream of having her own Toll House Café franchise location. What a coincidence!

Large cash rewards have become the Undercover Boss go-to method of creating cathartic endings. Some of these hard-luck but noble-minded souls receive somewhere between ten and twenty-five thousand dollars to pursue their dreams, get Lasik eye surgery, and so on. Rather than, say, an across-the-board wage increase, or some other systemic improvement of her employees’ lives, Bellah (with the help of CBS) limits her beneficence to these isolated individuals. And the show repeatedly drives home the capitalist ideology it’s selling, in the most primal form: “It really puts things into perspective,” Bellah intones, “that if you try, you can do anything you want to do.” In other words, the system isn’t unfair. If you’re not achieving all your goals, you must be doing something wrong. Work harder. We’ve set up an ideal economic situation, so get out there and make the most of it. Definitely don’t question it.

And what makes Undercover Boss so sinister it how effective this propaganda is. Over the course of a half-dozen episodes chosen at random, I found myself with tears in my eyes. Every. Single. Time. I burst into tears when O’Donnell watched with pride as his employee was embraced by a lonely local neighbor. I choked back waterworks when Bellah enveloped the young woman with Nestlé franchising dreams, telling her she was giving her $170,000 toward her very own Toll House location. As the two bonded, crying and expressing mutual admiration, the potency of the moment is undeniable. Bellah sincerely believes what she and the show are peddling. It wouldn’t work if she didn’t. Sheldon Yellen said it best: These millionaires genuinely think they’re out here making human connections, improving the world via their selfless acts of generosity. God forbid they introduce a profit-sharing program, or more vacation time, or do anything to imply the race-to-the-bottom ideology of rapacious corporate capitalism needs an overhaul.

No, better to give Karen more money to market her Toll House location, or ten grand so Jeff can have that Hawaiian vacation he’s always wanted. At one point Bellah learns she relocated one of her best managers to a different city away from her boyfriend (turned fiancé). Rather than rewarding this model employee by letting her return to the town of her partner, she gifts her with enough money to fly and visit him once a month. Cue the tears of gratitude from these employees who are understandably thrilled beyond measure at these kindnesses, because the only thing they have to measure them against are the unfeeling circumstances that existed previously. It is a nice thing to do! It’s also blatant propaganda. The two are not mutually exclusive—can’t be, in fact. For the latter to be effective, the first has to be, as well.

So congratulations, Undercover Boss. You’ve spent a decade doing your part to help make sure the business leaders and elite millionaires that control our economic policies and political processes are celebrated as heroes in mainstream culture, rather than properly reviled as the willing class warriors they are, reaping huge sums by maintaining the proper division between haves and have-nots. The farce that is putting a smiley face on structural inequality now has all-too-human representatives—or as Shawnon Bellah puts it, “I’m tough on myself and them, but I have to come across as nicer.” Hey, there’s always next season.