Netflix is ever-reliable with making sure that its library runneth over with tempting, tasty television series to feast your eyes on. With more and more entries being added on what feels like a weekly basis, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle and not be able to detect the gems from the Ark of the Covenants (face melters). There are a lot of overlooked, underseen wonders hiding behind the supershows that we all know. All you need is someone to sort through the fodder, letting you know what’s worth your time and what should go to the banish section (Netflix should consider adding a banish section).
The selection this week is the drowning in accolades but starving on viewers, former ABC series, Better Off Ted.
Better Off Ted was the unfortunately titled, yet surprisingly brilliant workplace sitcom that aired on ABC from 2009-2010. Created by Victor Fresco (Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Life on a Stick), someone known to push creative boundaries, the show saw a more than shaky start (its pilot received the lowest ratings for a debuting comedy on ABC since 2005) and struggled to find appreciation in spite of being a critical darling (maybe it was the name…). For a show that absolutely should have been canceled by all means, it was miraculously given a second season which managed to be even more impressive than the first (and naturally lower rated, accordingly). After a more and more erratic airing schedule, and the network taking any opportunity to burn off episodes, the show slowly faded away, with the final two episodes never even airing, disappointingly. Now, on Netflix, the show has definitely found a robust second-life (like any of the zombies, cyborgs, mecha-chimeras, etc. that are surely locked away within Veridian) and an appreciation deserving of its high, consistent quality.
This workplace sitcom on acid chronicles Ted Crisp’s (Jay Harrington) employment as the head of research and development of the tyrannical, soulless megacorporation Veridian Dynamics. The cast is fleshed out with Ted’s supervisor, Veronica Palmer (played with manic delight by a very in-her-game Portia DeRossi), and the rest of the co-workers and scientists that Veridian’s make-up consists of. While this all sounds pretty by the book, and typical workplace sitcom fare, the most interesting reason to check out this show was that it was created by Victor Fresco, creator of the infinitely creative (and equally short-lived) Andy Richter Controls the Universe.
It’s worth mentioning that another very real aspect of this show’s plot is the idea that Ted is also a single father raising a daughter, Rose, while trying to balance work and his morality with all of this. Granted, this feels much more like a tacked on aspect of the original network pitch, but it doesn’t end up feeling as extraneous as it needs to be. Ted’s daughter, Rose, manages to rise above the wealth of typical child characters in this type of show, acting as the moral compass, and her presence becomes more and more intermittent that it’s pleasant when you do see her, but she is hardly the show’s lynchpin or a necessary piece that’s needed to be seen every single week, and the show realizing this and not feeling encumbered by it, is better off as a result. Better Off Show! Better Off Us!
Two seasons, twenty-six episodes.
Why you should watch it:
Corporate workplace satire at its sharpest and absurdist.
Better Off Ted is a show that happened to build such a well-defined, ridiculous, entirely-its-own universe where Veridian is this fantastic shadow corporation where virtually any sort of plot line, whether it be a desk that grows hair or the literal production of lightning in a bottle, is possible. Few shows have stories that can feel so limitless, while simultaneously feeling incredibly grounded and believable too. It’s shocking how in so little time Better Off Ted managed to expertly define its boundaries and the tone of the comedy that it wanted to be telling.
While this may all sound fantastical, I’m sure some other person is telling you to check out their ridiculous workplace sitcom, Piece of Jake or whatever. So here’s an example of the sort of brilliant, wholly unique episode plots that this show, and this show alone was capable of: One episode sees Veridian’s motion-sensored light detectors no longer detecting black employees. This naturally leads to the company constructing separate water fountains for black employees to make them feel more special. Of course, this escalates to white employees needing to be hired to follow black employees around so they’ll be detected by the light sensors. This influx of white employees though causes a problem where legally an equal amount of black employees then needs to be hired, which of course then requires hiring more white employees to rectify that issue…
A structure as complicated and intelligent as this (which also ends up being a larger parable for how this issue itself isn’t so black and white, heh) is a great example of just what this show was capable of, and clearly a show that was close to aping Arrested Development’s style. After all, this was only the third episode of the series, too. There are also dialogue exchanges like the following on a regular basis:
HR: The company doesn’t make mistakes.
Ted: What about the memo announcing “Casual Fribsday”?
HR: The company said that wasn’t a mistake. They explained that the ancient Mayans prophesied Fribsday, the first ever eighth day of the week, which will occur in 2024. Which the company believes should be celebrated casually. I’m going to wear a denim pantsuit.
Or this attempt at romantic banter between Ted and Linda:
Linda: You love rules. You should marry a rule. And have little rule children. And build a house made of rules.
Ted: You mean a house made of my own children.
Linda: That’s between you and your conscience.
Add to this impressive stylistic flourishes like Ted’s narrating, directly addressing the audience fourth wall breaking (which rather than being grating or an exposition crutch, is used as a means to streamline joke telling and underscore the insanity that’s going on), and the fake Veridian Dynamic ads–wonderfully sharp subversions of the typical motivational pabulum, like: Veridian Dynamics. Teamwork. It keeps our employees gruntled; Veridian Dynamics. Diversity. Good for us.; and, Veridian Dynamics. Friendship. It’s the same as stealing–are peppered between act breaks, and you have a show that’s telling comedy with a very different arsenal of weapons.
The cast of this show is every bit as interesting as the stories being told too, with Ted being a reliable straight man center that’s almost seen like a God at Veridian (a company that may actually be run by devils) but still allowed to get just crazy enough. Linda (Andrea Anders, who has bounced between many series after this, searching for a comedy home to be her own), Ted’s resident love interest, and eccentric scientists Lem (Malcolm Barrett) and Phil (Jonathan Slavin) are equally wonderful, offering more crazy balls to bounce off of everyone. DeRossi particularly shines as Veronica though, doing arguably some of the best work of her career here, which results in some quality dialogue from her cold character, like, “I’m just living an exciting and full life, burning the candle at both ends. The way my great-grandfather, a misunderstood candle maker, insisted candles should be burned.” Clearly the show is in no short supply for ridiculousness.
This series is for you if:
Seeing Veronica (and DeRossi) play a magician’s assistant when their estranged magician boyfriend returns to town, a social experiment examining what will happen when Lem’s white lab coat is randomly switched with a red one, and the cataclysmic repercussions that follow, Veridian spinning that sexual harassment attitudes are a disease and people aren’t responsible for their actions, turning an employee who literally worked himself to death to act as a example to make other employees work even harder, or a typo in a Veridian memo mandates that offensive language is mandatory in the workplace– which also sees Phil and Lem devising a mathematical equation for the best offensive insult (getting you “Lam-basted” or “Phil-libustered” accordingly), are all appealing storylines for you.
Better Off Ted is one of the best recent examples of how to successfully satire the workplace sitcom in an extremely original, off-kilter way, with an emphasis on crazy characters and somehow even crazier situations. With a mere two dozen and change episodes under its belt, each one a winner in a different way, the show was only showing more focus and confidence as its final episodes aired…which most people couldn’t even see.