TV Review: CBS’ ‘Undercover Boss’

02.06.10 9 years ago 6 Comments

There’s a theme that runs through CBS’ populist-skewing advertisements for “Undercover Boss”: In these troubling economic times, there’s something cathartic about watching CEOs and CFOs brought down to the level of their lowest employees, something liberating about watching the boss of a mega-corporation humbled and forced to see how the other 99 percent live.

CBS is counting on the universality of that statement ring true for Super Bowl viewers when “Undercover Boss” has its special premiere on Sunday (Feb. 6), because nothing in the show itself feels even vaguely truthful.

“Undercover Boss” is manipulative, exploitative and meretricious to its very core and, given those attributes, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it’s a big hit for CBS.

[Full review of “Undercover Boss” after the break…]

On “Undercover Boss,” high-ranking executives at a slew of major corporations go undercover at the ground floor of their organizations and they learn how life is lived by people who somehow manage without corporate jets, expense accounts and boardrooms. It’s not a full-on immersion process. This isn’t Morgan Spurlock spending 30 days in a circumstance, or even spending a week in a new environment. The bosses spend a day at their new jobs, being treated the way any new employee who happens to be trailed by a camera crew could expect to be treated. Then, after their one day, it’s off to the next job. I understand that these guys are busy and that they can’t be expected to leave their real jobs for weeks or months at a time, even to learn how their companies really work, but you know how the first day of school was always just a bunch of paperwork? It seems like the Undercover Bosses get trained at a handful of gigs and never have to spend a full day doing any of them.

The opening voiceover for “Undercover Boss” opines, “The economy is going through tough times. Many hard-working Americans blame wealthy CEOs, out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their businesses better.”

Sorry, voiceover, but five days of being trained to do five jobs does not constitute extreme action. It’s not even casual action. The first “Undercover Boss” CEO came to the Television Critics Association press tour last month and he was unable to tell me a SINGLE tangible corporate policy enacted as a result of his experiences from the show. Not one. Extreme action? Sounds more like inaction-as-usual.

“Undercover Boss” is simultaneously a placebo and a corporate commercial.

In our first episode, we meet Larry O’Donnell of Waste Management. Larry seems like an amiable enough sort. If this were a scripted TV show, he’d be played by Larry Miller, rather than Alan Dale, so you’d know he wasn’t evil, just slightly out of touch. Adding to the effort to keep Larry sympathetic, we even learn that he has a daughter with brain damage. It’s unnecessary information meant to jerk tears from the get-go and it also uses O’Donnell’s handicapped daughter as the manipulative human equivalent of Chekhov’s Gun, meaning that she’s introduced only because the editors know she’ll have an emotional payoff later, which is cynical to the extreme.

O’Donnell goes to several of Waste Management’s facilities and spends a day training to sort recyclables, empty Port-o-Lets, collect trash from the sort of the road and ride a route with a garbage truck. He gets a mentor at each job and wouldn’t you know that each mentor is an employee with a sob story of their own — the man on dialysis, the mother working five jobs to keep her home, the garbage collector who has to urinate in a can. He spends one day at each job and vanishes, effectively wasting a day for these employees.

The show is edited to make it seem as if this is just one busy week for Larry, but that’s bunk because he’s visiting sites in different states. Adding to the confusion is the random and unnecessary decision to have Larry spend his nights at an extended stay motel, which is presented as a horrible hardship he’s enduring to get in the spirit of the exercise. At no point does the show ask if an employee in any of the jobs Larry is trying out could afford to live in this sort of accommodation. [Hint: They couldn’t, much makes the whole gambit fraudulent.]

At each job, Larry is shocked [SHOCKED!] to discover that the tasks are harder than he expected (not that he ever returns for a second day to see if things might seem easier after the initial acclimation process) and that the employees have aspects of their jobs that they don’t like. With each seemingly unfair practice he mutters something like, “I should know about stuff like this.”

The inference of that comment is actually the hollow center of “Undercover Boss.” Whenever something is wrong at these sites, it’s invariably a policy enacted by middle managers attempting to save money, cut corners, increase productivity and increase profitability. O’Donnell gets to come in from nowhere and express his outrage and, in at least one instance, take a middle manager to task as if the middle managers were free agents operating without any edicts from corporate. Here’s what we learn from “Undercover Boss”: Life is hard for low-level employees, but the things that make their lives hard don’t come from the top. They come from the middle, because CEOs are benevolent sorts who would always lend a hand if only they could. Because CEOs and boards of directors would never issue mandates suggesting that middle managers should attempt to generate profits and they’d never reward those middle managers who most successfully cut corners and improve efficiency. No. Never.

So it’s a big hour-long commercial for the good-natured altruism of the people atop these corporations, accompanied by 44 minutes of branding, sloganeering and propaganda. If I were one of the dozens of companies shelling out millions for 30 seconds of Super Bowl ad space, I’d be ticked off that CBS is just handing 60 minutes of free commercial time on TV’s biggest night to Waste Management. [Future episodes will focus on bigwigs from companies like Hooters and White Castle.]

And after that hour, Larry O’Donnell says all of the right words as if he’s been forever changed, Ebenezer Scrooge-style, when he’s really only learned enough to help improve the lives of the five people he met during his work experience (and one or two of their co-workers). Every single flaw in the system he discovers is limited to a small sphere, a single plant or factory or garbage route and how could he possibly learn more given the duration and depth of his experience? The episode shows nothing that Waste Management might have been doing incorrectly as a corporation, so it’s no wonder O’Donnell couldn’t enact any new policies. Now if only Larry O’Donnell had time to do spend one day doing the job of every one of his 45,000 employees, life might be improved for all of them.

“Undercover Boss” may not have a script, but the editing is so shoddy and obvious and contrived that the end result isn’t appreciably more realistic or enlightening than ABC’s similarly themed “Hank.”

That’s the comparison I’ll leave you with.

“Undercover Boss” premieres on CBS on Sunday, Feb. 7 whenever the Super Bowl post-game ends.

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