I don’t want to get all “This is the New Golden Age of TV Comedy!” on you, but this week sees the premiere of two new comedies that actually make me laugh. They will, in turn, be lucky to draw the same number of combined viewers as “Gary Unmarried,” which makes me cringe. This is the world we live in.
I’m still going to recommend you watch ABC’s “Better Off Ted,” which premieres on Wednesday (March 18) night on ABC and then I hope you’ll check out “Party Down” on Friday (March 20) on Starz (that review is still a day or two away). If nothing else, this may give you a glimpse of my sense of humor, which will let you avoid the things I like in the future, since I’m not working under the illusion that either “Better Off Ted” or “Party Down” is going to break out. They just happen to be potentially good shows.
[Review after the break…]
I mention my own personal taste here, because “Better Off Ted” is created by Victor Fresco, whose M.O. is to make shows that I’m alone in loving. Yeah, “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” had many fans in the critical community, but FOX’s “Life on a Stick” did not, but I never missed an episode, which was easy since only five ever aired.
There are different ways to approach a workplace series. There’s the Aaron Sorkin approach, which is to imagine communities of passionate and dedicated individuals uniting to fight the corporate oppressors. Fresco’s approach is nearly the opposite, delivering an “Office Space”-esque version of contemporary employment, where even as you feel your soul being squeezed out by the soullessness of your environment, you look for tiny subversive escapes and opportunities for personal expression, however futile. Fresco’s workplace isn’t inspiring, vibrant or fulfilling, but it’s a place you go to every day, because you’ve gotta do something.
“Better Off Ted” is set at Veridian Dynamics. While BASF doesn’t make a lot of the products you buy (but they make a lot of the products you buy better) , Veridian’s motto is “Everyday something we make makes your life a little better. Usually.” They weaponize pumpkins, transform translucent goo into a diet food substitute, construct chairs that improve productivity through discomfort and generally make the world a worse place through progress. There’s the old cliche about thinking outside of the box, but these guys probably blew the box to smithereens (accidentally) a long time ago.
Our gateway into this world is Jay Harrington’s Ted, the company’s head of research and development. Like those pesky researchers at Jurassic Park, he and his team are so busy figuring out what they’re able to do that they never stop to think about what they should do. As we learned on the American “Coupling,” Harrington isn’t really a very funny guy, but as “Better Off Ted” proves, he’s a satisfactory straight-man. Ted has suspicions that Veridian isn’t exactly the most upstanding company in the world, but he’s committed to raising his seven-year-old daughter (Isabella Acres) and staying employed, so he’s learned to just nod and accept the ridiculous requests made by Veronica (Portia de Rossi), his hilariously humorless boss.
Ted’s crack team includes Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett), researchers whose inelegant solutions to Ted’s problems often include some risk of detonation, contamination or catastrophe. He’s also got a crush on Linda (Andrea Anders) in Testing, a co-worker whose pastimes include stealing creamer from the company cafeteria and writing a children’s book about the friendship between a zebra and a toaster.
“Better Off Ted” holds together only very loosely. It’s very self-contained and situation-driven and sometimes not even all that much situation is required. The pilot, for example, has a running plotline about freezing Phil, an activity that doesn’t serve much ongoing purpose and is forgotten about by the next episode, but still manages to be pretty hilarious as interpreted by Slavin, who has been one of TV’s most valuable guest stars for some time. The second episode has a bit more of a emotional core, as Ted has to bring his daughter to work and ends up having to leave her with the decidedly not maternal Veronica. A running will-they/won’t-they romance between Ted and Linda doesn’t seem like it’s going to be resolved any time soon.
Because it often feels like you’re just taking a 22-minute glimpse into this dysfunctional workplace, “Better Off Ted” doesn’t having a compelling hook, but what it does have is a surprising quantity of droll, deadpan and playfully laughs. The show plays both high — Fresco’s grasp of corporate double-talk is superb — and low — Slavin screaming like an eagle isn’t exactly subtle — and hits its marks because of its solid cast.
It’s odd to reflect on it now, but Porti de Rossi may have ultimately been the most underrated part of the “Arrested Development” cast, if only because so much credit for that show’s hilarity was directed elsewhere. “Better Off Ted” is a reminder, then, that de Rossi has a rare gift. The only similarities between the vainly idiotic Lindsay Bluth Funke and Veronica is an acute refusal to understand or recognize reality. Veronica’s quizzical detachment from humanity is performed very carefully because de Rossi wants to give us the occasional glimpse underneath the character’s veneer.
With Anders in the show’s other female lead, “Better Off Ted” hasn’t exactly gone for casting diversity, has it? I’m enjoying charting Anders’ progression, though. On “Joey,” she couldn’t deliver a punchline, but she couldn’t really be held responsible, could she? On “The Class,” she was every bit as erratic as the rest of the cast and the show, but there were glimpses of potential. Here, she gets Linda’s sweetness, but she also conveys character’s kookiness without overplaying it. Anders is generically pert and blonde, but she’s capable of being as good as her material (that isn’t faint praise) and here it’s quite fine.
Actually, de Rossi, Anders and Harrington are all trying to walk that “character actor trapped in a lead’s body” tightrope, which might be why all three are willing to let Slavin and Barrett steal as many scenes as possible.
“Better Off Ted” could learn a lot from “Scrubs,” the show ABC has paired it with. At its finest, “Scrubs” found a way to avoid letting its workplace absurdities overwhelm its storytelling and, as a result, the show always had a heart, something I’ve heard as a criticism of many single-camera comedies. “Better Off Ted” is smart and funny, but it’s also disjointed and occasionally sterile. Since the second episode held onto those first strengths and improved upon those latter failings, I have hope.
“Better Off Ted” premieres on Wednesday, March 18 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
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