There aren’t that many problems with ABC’s “Better Off Ted,” which kicks off its second season on Tuesday (Dec. 8) at 9:30 p.m. Before “Parks & Recreation” kicked into overdrive in its fall episodes and before “Modern Family” found its early consistent footing, “Better Off Ted” was probably my pick for the year’s best new comedy, in fact.
One of the things that *is* wrong with “Better Off Ted” isn’t at all the fault of the Victor Fresco-created workplace sitcom, but it’s this: I may have written about “Better Off Ted” too many times. I reviewed it (positively) when it premiered and then celebrated it again when ABC initially decided to cut its first season short. Then, when ABC decided to bring the show back in the summer to burn off the first season at random intervals, I wrote about it as part of a feature from an interview that Sepinwall and I did with Fresco at the August TCA press tour. I advocated for Portia de Rossi, Malcolm Barrett and Jonathan Slavin in my Emmy nomination preview pieces and if I’d remembered, I probably would have been a booster for Andrea Anders as well.
If I didn’t think it’d be unpopular to say, I might try claiming I like “Better Off Ted” more than I like “Modern Family.” That wouldn’t be true mostly because “Modern Family” has a big heart and “Better Off Ted” is a show about heartlessness (or a life at a heartless corporation), so it’s far easier to warm to one than to the other. That doesn’t mean I can’t think “Better Off Ted” is often the funnier show.
But after having seen 15 episodes of “Better Off Ted” — 13 in the first season and two on screener from Season Two — the show is exactly what it was. Any fears that ABC brass might have made certain demands of the show as requirements for renewal can be swiftly allayed. That also means the one or two things that might have been improved by tweaking have gone untweaked.
[Anyway, a few words about the season-opening episodes of “Better Off Ted” after the break… Bottom line? Watch “Better Off Ted.”]
In Tuesday’s premiere, titled “Love Blurts,” Veridian’s corporate interventions into its employees’ lives extends to their sex lives, with a computer spitting out a list of DNA-compatible reproductive partners titled “Whee… Love in the Air.”
As Jay Harrington’s Ted points out to an over-excited Phil (Slavin), “Just cuz they used the word ‘Whee’ doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Remember ‘Whee! It’s pension rollbacks.'”
While Ted and Linda (Anders) continue their ongoing flirtation by vowing not to date off of their compatible partner list, both become sorely tempted when the see that the computers matched them up with hotties (including a special guest star for Linda).
The premiere is vintage “Better Off Ted,” from Lem and Phil’s experiment-run-amuck with fast-growing moss (“It’s supposed to feed astronauts, not feed on astronauts”) to Veronica’s (de Rossi) awkward interactions with her subordinates to Anders’ always unexpected bright-eyed enthusiasm speaking a fake Native American dialect (makes sense in context). There’s also a nice callback of sorts to the series pilot in which Veridian decided to freeze Phil, only this time it’s Veronica wanting to freeze Lem’s sperm. Plus, the special guest star (whose identity probably isn’t a surprise and yet I’m treating it as such) gets to be funny and more endearing than I’ve ever seen him before.
The premiere isn’t perfect.
For one thing, there’s no Veridian Dynamics commercial. Yes, that’s a spoiler, but it’s one of those spoilers where if I tell you not to expect it, its absence might not be as painful for you. There’s a good commercial in the second episode, but the premiere is commercial-free.
For another thing, Ted still isn’t funny. Shocking, right? I don’t think it’s right to call Harrington the show’s weak link. He’s there as the amiable Everyman. One of the ways the writers have begun to handle Harrington’s liabilities is that Ted had begun to tell more and more jokes, but they aren’t jokes for the audience. They’re for people within the show, only nobody really laughs at Ted inside the show. So he’s guy *trying* to make jokes. You don’t often get characters in comedies who try to make people within the show laugh. Dwight doesn’t want anybody at Dunder-Mifflin laughing at him. The things Tracy Jordan says are crazy, but they aren’t for the amusement of his fellow NBC employees. So there’s an odd tonal thing that happens with Ted, where nobody around him is trying to be funny within the universe of the show and they’re all hilarious, while he’s trying to be a cool guy and a bit of a clown and he’s a dud.
Dunno if that makes sense. Regardless, when everybody else is getting laughs, it doesn’t matter what Ted does. He’s there to prevent the wackiness from becoming overwhelming.
Next week’s “Better Off Ted” has a funnier title than the premiere — “The Lawyer, The Lemur and the Little Listener” — but the overall effect isn’t as good, as it tries to call mimic the successes of better episodes from last season, particularly with the efforts to mine gold from Veronica’s interactions with Ted’s daughter Rose (Isabella Acres).
It isn’t as good an episode, but if any show that can generate a causal exchange like this one, will always deserve its place on my DVR:
Phil: See, Lem. I told you I’d look good with a tail.
Lem: Not as good as I’d look with antlers.
There’s still an unshakeable sense that “Better Off Ted” is missing something at its center and not just in its leading man. Not a lot, but a little. Attempts to expand a it outside of the office don’t really add very much, though Isabella Acres isn’t a bad cast addition when she pops up. Also, the Ted-Linda flirtation remains a distraction more than a relationship. Cumulatively, many episodes of “Ted” seem to lack just the slightest little something when they end and this is especially true of the second episode.
At the least the show isn’t lacking for laughs and it remains a good match with “Scrubs.” It remains a good match with ratings that would only barely satisfy The CW, but a good match none-the-less.
So one more time: Watch “Better Off Ted,” folks. Please?
“Better Off Ted” returns to ABC at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 8.