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High Risk Workplace: An Advance Review of ABC's "Better Off Ted"

Anyone who's ever worked for a soulless multi-national corporation can tell you that the company ethos is kill or be killed.

In some cases, like at Better Off Ted's Veridian Dynamics, that's quite literal: the company makes nuclear weapons (they also weaponize pumpkins), diet foods, and office chairs. They pretty much make everything we consume, making our lives better every day. (Or in the case of those aforementioned weapons, much, much worse.)

Created by Victor Fresco (Andy Richter Controls the Universe), ABC's smart and sophisticated comedy Better Off Ted, which premieres tomorrow, follows the employees of the insidious Veridian Dynamics, a company much like Fringe's Massive Dynamic... but much scarier. In clever company ads, the audience gets to see just what this company is all about, from its desire to reanimate the dead and copy them (so you'll never lose them again) to its corporate work ethic about workers being like family... and family should always spend time together on weekends and holidays. (Hell, their company daycare even puts the kids to work painting lines in the parking lot and "training the workers of tomorrow.")

Meet Ted (Private Practice's Jay Harrington): he's the head of research and development at Veridian, a stand-up single dad to precocious seven-year-old daughter Rose (Isabella Acres), and a man just slightly more sane than those in his charge, which includes bickering research scientists Phil (Andy Richter Controls the Universe's Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Side Order of Life's Malcolm Barrett) and rebellious office drone/aspiring children's novelist Linda (The Class' Andrea Anders), with whom Ted shares a sexual tension-laden chemistry. The only problem is that Ted already used up his one office romance with his icy boss Veronica (Arrested Development's Portia de Rossi).

In the two episodes screened for press, Ted has to deal with a host of problems besides for his attraction to Linda. For one, there are the constant demands placed on him by the unsympathetic Veronica, a boss so heartless and uncaring that she matter-of-factly tells Ted that the company wants to freeze Phil... just to see what would happen. (Lem is safe from freezing because, as Veronica puts it, Veridian was not going to freeze the black guy.) Phil, for his part, accepts his fate and winds up not being liquidated via the freezing process but, after thawing out, does make a painful and involuntary screeching noise. And yet Ted keeps him on because he's a stand-up guy... even if he does exist in a slightly morally grey zone where working on weaponizing pumpkins and development office chairs out of scratchy fabric (in order to promote worker productivity) is somehow okay.

And yet Ted is likable and charismatic. In the hands of another actor, this might not be the case but Harrington renders Ted as flawed but sane. (In the office kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man truly is king.) He's also a caring and compassionate father to young Rose, who is wise beyond her years and constantly trying to get her father to do the Right Thing. In the series' second episode, a childcare crisis forces Ted to bring Rose to work and she ends up bonding with Veronica of all people when Veronica discovers that Rose, as a child, has the power to get people to keep their emotions in check around her. In no time, Veronica transforms Rose into a tightly-bunned mini-Veronica who excels at firing people.

Not that the emotionless Veronica is at all softened by the time she spends with Rose: she first notices Rose's beautiful skin and expresses her wish that there was a way to peel it off of Rose's face and stick it to hers. Veronica is a truly a memorable character and an even more exaggerated portrait of selfish, emotionally stunted womanhood than the role de Rossi played on FOX's Arrested Development. She's conniving, impassive, and glacial. (Not to mention absolutely hysterical.) And I wouldn't have it any other way: de Rossi herself nearly steals the show with her fantastic performance as Veronica.

But Harrington and de Rossi are ably assisted by their supporting cast. Slavin and Barrett are both fantastic as Phil and Lem (the second episode has some hilarious Phil/Lem moments involved a round robin-style boss trade-off and a shared contamination suit) and Anders shines as the oft-put-off Linda, a woman tempted to do the exact opposite of every company-wide memo that goes out. (Throwing a gel-like substance that will be part of a diet foot line at her computer, she admits to Rose that she got the idea for throwing things at her computer monitor after a memo told her not to. And she hoards non-dairy creamer, just because.) There's an easy chemistry between her and Harrington yet Linda is a fully developed female character in her own right, more prone to snarky remarks and insubordination than hair-flipping and provocative flirting.

Ultimately, Better Off Ted is a smartly crafted comedy series that explores the dark side of corporate culture with a deft satirical precision and heavy helping of intelligent comedic timing. And, in these dark economic times, anything that gets us laughing at the ineptitude and arrogance of Big Business is a Good Thing. Just watch out for that pumpkin.

Better Off Ted launches tomorrow evening at 8:30 pm ET/PT on ABC.


Anonymous said…
I was a huge fan of Andy Richter Controls the Universe and still wish that the hilarious series would have been given more of a chance. At least now in "Ted" we'll be able to see another wacky world of Victor Fresco's creation. The cast is top notch and I'm thrilled that Fresco is once again using Jonathan Slavin who, as Byron on Andy Richter, always had me laughing hysterically.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the review of Better Off Ted! I've been pretty disappointed in The Office lately (it used to be one of my favorite shows) and hope that "Ted" can fill the workplace comedy void.
danielace68 said…
The good 30 minute comedies have been rare. I know there's 30 Rock and Two and a Half Men. But honestly unless you've been following them from the start, it's hard to really understand the shows. I am really looking forward to Ted. It just might actually be good which is a nice surprise.
Unknown said…
I'm definitely going to give this a chance. I loved Andy Richter Controls the Universe. (And Richter's guest appearance on Chuck was great.)
dish network said…
Yeah, it seems like all the really good shows get cancelled. How do they decide when and why to pull the plug?

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