Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Nobody Watches Better Off Ted (Maybe) Even Though They Should (Definitely)

Better Off Ted is all sharp edges and pointy barbs. Lots of folks have claimed that this is why it's had such a hard time grabbing, well, any audience to speak of. And that may well have something to do with it. It's not meanness, per se--Two and Half Men is far meaner, maybe the meanest sitcom ever--but it is a particular kind of cold and calculating satire. There are relationships there, there are even lessons, but those relationships and lessons are always butting up against and being consumed by a show that is on the whole distant and harsh.

That is intentional, of course. The feel of the show is the feel of the company at the heart of it. The American version of The Office dabbles in satire, but its focus is on the characters, making it a much warmer show. In Ted, the characters are secondary to the absurdity of the system. (It would, in fact, not be outrageous to say that the show's actual main character is, in fact, Veridian Dynamics.) So while in The Office little victories are celebrated, in Ted those same little victories are immediately sucked back into the system and spit back out in perverted (but hilarious!) ways. So, yeah, some people might find that a bit off-putting.

But I kind of think a bigger problem the show has is that now's not really a great time to be mocking office jobs, what with the way lots of people would kill a goat with their bare hands* for just such a job right now. It's not a coincidence that Dilbert, a comic strip that specializes in a similar type of sharp-edged satire, rose to fame during the 90s, when the economy was going swimmingly and everybody had jobs they hated. Now most people are just thankful to have a job, absurdities and all.

The Office has been better able to deal with this shift in attitudes precisely because of its heavy focus on characters. When the show started, most of the characters seemed to despise their jobs. As the show's gone along, however, we've come to see that some of them have a more nuanced outlook on their employment situation, while others have come to appreciate their jobs more. Even Jim takes his job seriously now. (Jim!) There are plenty of times the characters get frustrated, but at the same time, the office in The Office isn't such a bad place to work. And as the real world economy has worsened, the show and the characters have reflected that.

Ted's tunnel focus on office mockery doesn't really allow for that kind character-based nuance or the kind of archy-plot devices necessary to make that kind of transition. That doesn't mean it's necessarily a worse show. It just means it's a different kind of show. Possibly the kind of show that's not well-suited for this particular cultural moment.

Of course, it's also possible that nobody's watching Better Off Ted because, how did my brother put it? Ah, yes. "What the heck's Better Off Ted?"

*This is no doubt part of the Veridian Dynamics application process.

1 comment:

  1. In watching the many Better Off Ted episodes in recent weeks, I've been trying to piece together why the show doesn't quite click for me, despite having sharp writing and a solid cast. I see why it's a good show but I don't get why critics are so passionate about it, besides maybe just its underratedness. It's a show that for me is hard to get excited about, even though I know it's pretty good. Part of it is the cold, satirical tone, but I think part of it is also a lack of commitment to its cold, satirical tone, possibly forced upon it by ABC. ABC seems to always want its comedies to be light and bouncy, packed with jaunty, forced music and bright colors so we never forget that it's a comedy we're watching (Modern Family is also a few notches too slick, but has dodged the music bullet thanks to its mockumentary format). Better Off Ted benefits from the momentum of music, but I wonder if it would be "better off" with a score that wasn't trying so darn hard. Maybe if it had a lighter touch, like the Arrested Development music.

    This forced, incongruous jollity is also borne out by the corny, meaningless pun of the title (which is such a virtual parody of bad sitcom titles that I wonder if it was a turnoff for some viewers). As you've said, Veridian is practically a character in the show, and I wonder if "Veridian" or "Veridian Dynamics" or something that refers to the company ("Company Man"? Is that title taken?) would have made a better name for the show. Granted, no one would know what that means either, but it would have described the show better.

    Minor issues:
    - Like many shows, BOT spun its wheels repeating jokes for several episodes after the pilot (Phil screaming, Linda's creamers) and got dull for a while.
    - Ted's daughter looks nothing like him, and while she's adequate, her performance doesn't add much to the show.
    - The Linda/Ted romantic tension was death, and the show got a lot better when they stopped focusing on it. Still, Linda's character is a bit all over the map, and sometimes it's hard to tell if her role is "neurotic," "quirky" or "idiot." I wouldn't mind if they had just committed to the "idiot" route since "quirky" always felt like it was trying too hard to be cute and was a little irritating.

    More in line with your point -- isn't there a way to do this kind of satire where the target is the company? Surely there is enough resentment of big businesses where a show could mock them without making it seem like the characters take their jobs for granted.