If you’re a TV showrunner, in an ideal world, you see your season (or series) finale coming from far enough away that you can can plot out some fun stuff to make viewers early await your return. You plan a wedding or a pregnancy. You can leave your main character trapped in a car at the bottom of a freezing lake or trapped in a penthouse at the top of a burning building. You can bring in Jeffster to perform “Mr. Roboto.”
Other times, alas, you see your episode order tightened abruptly and you’re left with a finale that’s just another episode and your network runs an ad campaign that comes dangerously close to saying, “Have you watched this critically adored series? Well, this could be pretty much your last chance.”
It’s sadly appropriately that “Better Off Ted,” a razor-sharp comedy about retaining individuality in an uncaring corporate environment, ended up in the second boat, wrapping up its first season on Tuesday (May 5), not that most viewers probably noticed.
[Some quick thoughts on the finale and the show’s future after the break…]
Titled “Get Happy,” the “Better Off Ted” finale was presumably produced before anybody had a chance to see the show’s disappointing (but not even vaguely surprising) ratings, but it could be read as a preemptive strike against the process that ABC will have to go through in deciding whether or not to give it a second season.
In the episode, Jay Harrington’s Ted and Portia de Rossi’s Veronica get personal evaluations from Veridian Dynamics’ HR and go overboard to respond to the criticism. Veronica, perceived as cold and scary by her employees, lets her hair down and starts complimenting everybody to the point that her kind words lost value to everyone but Phil (Jonathan Slavin). Ted, meanwhile, get rave reviews from everybody except for men over 50 in middle management. His attempts to catch that one unobtainable quadrant somehow turn his office into a midday brothel. In addition, in an effort to let the various cubicle drones feel valued, management randomly assigns four personality types — Green Bay Packers, Cats, Space and Classic Cars — to employees and decorates their desks accordingly. What briefly yields team spirit, soon creations fissions and workplace hostility.
It’s straight-forward satire and it wasn’t really one of the show’s funnier episodes, but it was hard for me not to read the episode as series creator Victor Fresco’s direct response to an alleged creative environment in which everything is tested and demographically balanced to play down-the-middle to every viewer identically, where it’s assumed that all 24-year-old women will respond to certain CW shows in the same way, while all 55-year-old men will flock to the same CBS procedural, where every hero has to be likable and every show has to coddle its audience.
“Better Off Ted” isn’t a coddling show and maybe that’s why ABC hasn’t coddled it. Yes, I get that “Scrubs” and “Better Off Ted” are actually amazingly compatible and I agree that there’s a good chance that fans of one show will probably like the other. But ratings-wise, “Scrubs” is a zombie and ABC learned a shocking lesson: If you use a show that nobody watches as a launching pad for a new show, the odds of anybody watching that new show are pretty slim. That ABC zipped through the series run of “Better Off Ted” without ever giving it a post-“Dancing with the Stars” airing — while simultaneously propping up the irredeemable humorlessness of “Surviving Suburbia” — is baffling. Even “The Unusuals” got a shot after “Dancing with the Stars.” It tanked there, but at least ABC tried to see if a wider sampling might help.
“I shouldn’t care what men-over-50 think about me,” is the lesson Ted eventually learned in the finale. But ABC probably still cares what viewers 18-49 think about “Ted.”
In my original review of “Better Off Ted” back in March, I raved at its off-kilter absurdity, but I also wondered where the show’s heart was.
That concern never really left me. That leading man Jay Harrington never took away from the show’s humor doesn’t mean that he ever added anything to the mix. Granted that Ted was always essentially a straight-man, I want you to think of how “Better Off Ted” would have played with Jason Bateman in that role or even, slightly reconceived, with Andy Richter (star of Fresco’s “Andy Richter Controls the Universe”) in the role. Tuesday’s finale was perhaps a less successful episode of the series because it dedicated an entire storyline to Ted without his interactions with the show’s real comic stars.
I was already a casual fan of Andrea Anders’ after watching two episodes, but that appreciation only grew, peaking with the “Win Some, Dose Some” episode in which Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett) accidentally gave Anders’ Linda an energy patch instead of a band-aid. The chance to play manic mood swings is a sitcom actor’s drama and Anders played it with a flair that would be worth of Emmy consideration if there were even the slightest chance Emmy voters were going to notice “Better Off Ted.” Of course, Anders would have to compete with de Rossi, whose tightly-wound comic timing has always been perfect. And the best thing that both actresses have done is to elevate Harrington whenever they’ve been paired with him, proving that he isn’t bad, but he shouldn’t be trusted on his own.
Forming the best interracial, co-dependent, homosocial bromance since JD and Turk, Phil and Lem have been the center of some of the show’s best plotlines, including the recalcitrant meat blob and even taking the A-story in “Racial Sensitivity.” The latter episode was probably the best look at race in the workplace since the “Diversity Day” episode of “The Office,” as Veridian installed a motion system that operated based on the color spectrum, but couldn’t see black.
As Victoria put it, “The company’s position is that it’s actually the opposite of racist, because it’s not targeting black people. It’s just ignoring them. They insist the worst people can call it is ‘indifferent.'”
But at least it could see Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Jews!
The fear that the world of “Better Off Ted” might be too insular was probably slightly realized. Five main characters isn’t quite enough for a workplace comedy, especially if the main character requires constant comic supervision. But there were hints at an expanding cast. Maz Jobrani appeared in multiple episodes, reuniting with “Life on a Stick” creator Fresco. Merrin Dungey (“Alias”) suddenly popped up in the finale and she’s proven she can be funny. And while you never want to over-rely on child actors, Isabella Acres got laughs whenever she appeared, particularly when she got to play off de Rossi in “Through Rose Colored HAZMAT Suits.”
If I suggested that the finale of “Better Off Ted” wasn’t necessarily a great episode, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t highlights, including…
*** Phil: “Do you think I look like a possum in this shirt?” Lem: “Not in *that* shirt.”
*** “Veridian Dynamics – Teamwork – It keeps our employees gruntled.”
*** Linda: “What are they trying to tell me, that I’m going to die old and alone with a hundred cats chewing on my decomposing body?” Ted: “Well, maybe if you fed the cats once in a while, maybe your story would have a happier ending.”
*** Lem: “When I hear an undeserved compliment, it makes my ears want to throw up.”
*** “Stapler!” (Linda coming up with possible names for her new kitten)
*** “Magnaflorious” (Veronica’s made-up superlative)
*** “Another time, another place. Two other people. It could have been magnaflorious.” (Veronica, letting Phil down easy)
There have been reports that the return of “Better Off Ted” may be tied to ABC renegotiating another season of “Scrubs,” this one without most of the main cast members. While I’d be glad to have the Veridian gang return, it’s hard to know what ABC would be thinking if they kept the “Scrubs”/”Ted” hour together. I’m sure there are worse network-based strategies for building an audience, but short of FOX scheduling a show on Friday and NBC scheduling a show any time, I’m not sure I can think of many.
Still, I’d welcome the return of “Better Off Ted.” It isn’t really my job to worry about whether men-over-50 in lower management like me.
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