Undercover Boss premieres after the Super Bowl tonight on CBS.
I realize that in the past year or so when Wall Street saw its recession end while the rest of the country struggled on bravely, when CEOs went on TV and acted as though having a lot of money was their God-given birthright, when fawning portrayals in the New York Times showed said CEOs having to go without summer homes or second yachts (God forbid!), you probably forgot that all CEOs are actually Jesus Christ Himself, but just in case you've forgotten, here's CBS' Undercover Boss to remind you. I'll explain all of this in a moment, but if you don't want me to mince words, I won't: Undercover Boss is one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen on TV, made all the more so disgusting by the fact that it shamelessly manipulates every emotion it can think of. I expect it to become a huge hit.
The premise of Undercover Boss is simple: CEOs (or COOs or CFOs) of giant corporations will go undercover at the lowest levels of their corporations to see just what all of the grunt workers have to put up with. In the premiere, this means that Larry O'Donnell of Waste Management has to go to the lowest levels of his company and deal with sorting recyclables to make sure nothing that can't be recycled gets into the system, tending landfills and driving garbage trucks. Along the way, he's taken in by mentors at each job, and he learns from them that life is hard for working class folks (a fact that seems to surprise him time and again). So far, so good, I guess.
If the show was just about a rich guy learning a little bit about how hard it is to be a minimum wage worker in the United States, it wouldn't be anything too terribly amazing, but at least it wouldn't be as shamelessly manipulative as Undercover Boss ends up being. As a matter of fact, we already pretty much have a show like that. It's called Dirty Jobs, and it's not must-see TV or anything, but it's reasonably enjoyable if you stumble across it while nursing a hangover or something. Undercover Boss messes up when it piles on a constant heap of "CEOs are people too!" propaganda while simultaneously leaning heavily on mawkish sentimentality. It's an over-the-top mix, poured liberally over everything without restraint, and it's unbecoming.
Here's the thing: O'Donnell seems like a pretty good guy in the cut of Undercover Boss I saw. He's a little unaware of just what waste management actually entails, apparently, but that's easy to understand for someone who spends most of his time in a boardroom. He loves his family, including a daughter who suffered severe brain damage from an error in a surgery when she was an infant. There are plenty of short shots of O'Donnell interacting wholesomely with his kids and his wife. Because of what happened with his daughter, O'Donnell says, he's a stickler for protocol. Everybody's gotta follow the rules exactly. It's a bit of a stretch, but, sure, for TV purposes, I'll buy it.
The problem, then, with Undercover Boss is also the problem with a lot of TV: Complexity scares the hell out of it. O'Donnell can't be both the loving family man and the guy whose policies have led to problems for the people at the bottom of his organization. He can't be a guy who loves a daughter with a mental handicap unconditionally and the guy whose relentless pursuit of profits has stretched everyone in his company's lower ranks so thin that one woman is doing the work of four people. Rather than letting O'Donnell be a complex individual whose time at the bottom of the organization causes a genuine change of heart (which the show's editing relentlessly seems to be going for), the series needs him to be an absolute saint. Hence, he seems like a buffoon who doesn't know what's going on at his own company, rather than a competent boss whose competence ends up being a demerit.
But it's not just O'Donnell who has a life story played for maximum mawkishness. Literally every person that he meets on his travels is dealing with dialysis or potentially losing their house or something like that. In classic reality show format, everybody on Undercover Boss is just a collection of sad sack story arcs that add up to something approaching a narrative. The show never really gets deeply into the pain these people feel at just barely being able to scrape by. They're just successive story beats on the path of O'Donnell's quest to become a better man and/or boss.
Undercover Boss needs a villain, and if the CEOs aren't going to be the villains and the workers aren't going to be the villains and the jobs themselves aren't going to be the villains, then the middle managers have to end up being the villains, even though everybody who's a middle manager is just following directives handed down from O'Donnell himself. Perhaps because everybody has to deal with some middle management schmuck who's their real life boss while the CEO of their company seems rather abstract as a concept. It's easier to rebrand the CEO, harder to make the guy at the head of the local branch who's just trying to do what he can to keep his job sympathetic.
After his journey through his company, O'Donnell heads into a room with some of the people who work under him and issues incredibly non-specific directives about how the company needs to maybe focus less on things like productivity and profits and more on people. It's supposed to be the Frank Capra moment of the episode, when the rich man has a major change of heart, but because the show is more interested in feel-good machinations than anything else, everything O'Donnell says seems to have little to no import. (And it's probably even worse than that. In his review of the premiere, Dan Fienberg points out that O'Donnell said that no substantive changes were made to Waste Management as a result of his time among his low-level workers.) It all ends with the employees learning the person they took in for one day to train in their jobs was actually the God of their company walking among them in human flesh and being happily surprised. And then there's a really hackneyed company meeting, where everyone cheers on the CEO, and it's all a good time, and the world is safe for capitalism again.
I keep trying to find a way to justify Undercover Boss' existence to the world. In its own way, it IS compelling, and it can be sort of funny when it wants to. But the overall impression the show leaves is the sense that CEOs are better than everyone else, that while they can learn from the blue-collar workers in their midst, they're doing the Lord's work by reaching down to them in the first place. At its best, Undercover Boss could only hope to be a stupid advertisement for whatever company's boss was on the show that week. At its worst - as far too much of the premiere is - the show is a gross justification of the rich getting richer and everybody else having to deal with it.
- In case you're wondering, the reason no one wonders just why this new trainee has joined the company with a camera crew following him around is because they're told that he's here to film a documentary that sounds very much like … Dirty Jobs. So there you go.
- Why not go the full F? Well, darn it all, O'Donnell is a surprisingly charming TV presence. Hanging out with him wasn't odious, while everything else was.