Last December, shortly after the global launch of Apple’s iPhone X, two Chinese women made international headlines over the reason why one of them was returning their recently-purchased phone. The extremely expensive, super-sophisticated, cutting-edge piece of hardware with state-of-the-art facial recognition software that doubled as its security system for the intended user was bypassed by their friend because the software couldn’t tell the two women apart. It’s a recurring theme throughout the relatively brief history of facial recognition software: the software being incapable of recognising non-White people, not being able to distinguish between groups of same, or, in one baffling instance, tagging two black people in a photograph as gorillas. And every time a story similar to those turns up in the news, I am constantly reminded that an episode of Better Off Ted called it, and the culture responsible for its prevalence, way back in 2009.
If you’re looking for Bryan Fuller’s sitcom equivalent, then meet Victor Fresco. Fresco has spent well over 2 decades in the world of sitcoms, and he’s been around. He’s contributed to ALF, Mad About You, and My Name is Earl, whilst also creating Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Life on a Stick, The Trouble with Normal, and Sean Saves the World. Not one of his created shows has made it past the second season; all of them struck with low ratings, network indifference, in some cases critical disdain, and all round terrible titles. Some of them aren’t any good, but when he strikes gold, he really strikes gold and, last year, he struck surprising gold with Netflix’s domestic-zombie-comedy Santa Clarita Diet. The second season of the shockingly hilarious and sweet show dropped to relatively little fanfare a fortnight ago – such is the way that Netflix drops basically ALL of their new content now – so time will tell if Diet can finally break the Fresco curse. But whilst I do really enjoy Diet, for me, he is unlikely to ever top the acerbic genius of his 2009 ABC sitcom Better Off Ted.
The titular Ted of the meaningless title in spite of its pun(?) is Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington). He’s the head of the Research & Development division of the fictional multinational conglomerate Veridian Dynamics, a massive company that seemingly creates anything and everything. Computer mice that can withstand temperatures of up to 1000 degrees, scented lightbulbs, biocomputers that are half machine and half living-organism, missile guidance systems… the company wants it, they tell Ted’s boss, Veronica (Portia de Rossi), she tells Ted, then he and his team make it happen. What Veridian Dynamics actually is, how its structure works, and further such questions are deliberately vague, effectively taking the 00’s Office workplace sitcom set-up to its extreme conclusion. The specifics of the business and the job only matter in so much as their acting as a vehicle for the characters and the satire.
Yes, Better Off Ted is a corporate satire first and foremost. The AV Club’s Noel Murray correctly observed that the show remains heavily devoted to a status quo, even more so than most sitcoms, where each episode’s plot is an often busy and wild affair but absolutely everything resets by the time the credits roll and the show’s characters don’t grow or change significantly between episodes. The pilot abruptly ends with Veronica promising Ted that the company will come down hard on him for standing up to them over something, but said retribution never comes up again in the entire show. Company-wide policies can be enacted and then dropped, scientists Lem (Malcolm Barrett) and Phil (Jonathan Slavin) are forever spineless and easily-led, head of product testing and the other half of the obligatory will-they-won’t-they for Ted, Linda (Andrea Anders), will always be the voice of conscience in the midst of the amorality… That sort of thing.
Rather than being a detriment, however, this kind of constant base ends up being a point in the show’s favour. Put simply, nothing can change in Better Off Ted because to do so would be to defang the satire. In the world of Ted, Veridian is one of the world’s largest companies, supposedly bigger and more powerful than all but 3 countries, and the company is frequently demonstrated to be a giant, uncaring, soulless entity that views everybody who works for it as nothing more than ants, and numbers on various productivity and profitability graphs. It – and, by the way, one of my favourite recurring aspects of the show is how everybody refers to “the company” as an independent physical being, because even the most ‘powerful’ of the show’s characters don’t know the bosses’ bosses’ bosses’ bosses – is omniscient and highly protective of its bottom line. And with that omniscience and all-conquering size comes a simple fact of life: spend long enough there and you will be absorbed into the system, because sticking out risks drawing the kind of attention that can get you fired and replaced in a flash.
Plus, well, none of the cast want to change. Sure, all of our main cast have their own personal ethical lines, but they are all otherwise perfectly content to work for Veridian with few questions asked. Ted is the definition of a Company Man, a super-charming, classically-handsome, gets things done kind of fellow who, other than his 8-year-old daughter Rose (Isabella Acres) from a failed marriage, has little identity outside of his work, and is proud of that fact. Veronica is the icy, ruthless, amoral boss that corporations probably wish their own executives could be more like; in one episode, she becomes devoted to saving employees in her department from the Veridian firing line purely because it makes her look bad if her staff are the ones being laid off. Lem and Phil simply don’t ask questions about what they’re making, because Veridian gives them carte blanche to create whatever they want like the mad scientists they deny being (only because they find the term technically incorrect). And Linda, despite her moralising and petty ineffectual attempts at minor rebellion (like stealing creamer), stays on purely because she doesn’t want to go back home.
Now, sure, this all sounds super bleak and off-putting when laid out like that – in addition to ABC screwing the show through the usual combination of no advertising, airing episodes out of order, and constant timeslot reshuffles, the inescapable fact of Ted’s acidic acerbity is probably why it never caught on with the general public – but Better Off Ted has a not-so-secret weapon: it is extremely hilarious. Even including the shaky pilot and occasional off-week, every one of the show’s 26 episodes are good for at least several full-on belly laughs. The show’s sense of humour balances the satirical with the absurd, the relatable with the cartoony, and lots of wordplay not too dissimilar to that found in the other cult sitcom that Portia de Rossi is known for. There’s every chance that Ted might have made a better fit on cable television, like HBO, but the specific energy it channels comes from it playing within the parameters of work-based network sitcoms of the time, blending the goofy with a secretly-refined edge.
Besides, when the show’s satire blends perfectly with the broad absurdism typically found in a network sitcom, the results are gold. If nothing else, Better Off Ted should be forever granted a place in the sitcom canon purely for the Season 1 episode “Racial Sensitivity.” In it, Veridian, in an attempt to save money on power, replaces all of the motion-sensitive lights and activators in the building with a brand-new state-of-the-art system that picks up on light reflected off of a person, much like facial recognition software. Except, one major problem, the technology can’t see black people, leading to Lem and the building’s other black employees to have lights turned off on them, water fountains to not work, and be locked in rooms over night against their will. The company’s position, as relayed by Veronica once it’s explained that the system is racist, is that it’s the opposite of racist because “it’s not targeting black people, it’s simply choosing to ignore them.”
It only gets more absurd from there, as the utterly clueless company tries to fix the situation in increasingly convoluted, face-saving ways because going back to the old system would cost them too much money. “Money before people – that’s the company motto, right there on the lobby floor. It just looks so much more heroic in Latin.” I’m not even going to allude to the turns the plot takes to get to its conclusion, you really need to see them unfold for yourself, but within the absurdity and accompanying gutbusting gags lies a stinging critique of capitalism, corporations, and their intersections with race that isn’t far removed from our reality. In another episode, the company deems sexual harassment “a disease” in order to get out of having to deal with costly legal settlements and allow those in power a justification to keep asserting their power over women; an episode I was reminded of multiple times during the wave of sexual predator outings last year. Firings in the world of Veridian involve tightly co-ordinated strike teams with call-signs and code words not too dissimilar to actual security-escorted firings in today’s tech sector.
Better Off Ted was never going to be a long-running, zeitgeist-capturing success. Not because it’s simultaneously clever and goofy – the corporate satire brushes up against plots involving magician boyfriends and Medieval Fight Clubs, for example – but because whereas workplace satires like The Office were willing to sugar the pill and warm the heart in addition to their comedy, Ted goes straight for the gut and rarely pulls back. If the comedy doesn’t land for you, watching is an exercise in minor existential horror. And yet, I’ve only found its relevance and vitality to have grown in the near-decade since it first came on (and swiftly went off of) the air. Ted’s satire came from pushing known elements of corporate capitalism to what must have seemed like absurdist extremes, yet reality somehow keeps catching up to it. Facial recognition systems that don’t recognise minorities? Done that. Companies attempting to make crunch time an accepted normal through manipulative tricks? Game studios have done it. Search engines that can track down every image of a certain person in an instant, no matter how candid or blurry? National Security services have been using them for years.
And the most damning thing of all about its observations of corporations in late capitalism? They are still stupid and easily swayed. Season 1’s “Jabberwocky” involves Ted trying to cover his ass (long story) by making up the titular project. Jabberwocky is nothing, there’s no plan, no design, no depth, it doesn’t exist, the only other detail Ted says is the deliberately meaningless statement that “it’s going to revolutionise the way we do business.” Under even the thinnest of scrutiny, it falls apart, but corporate culture dictates that the worst thing you can be, as either a low-level employee or a high-ranking executive, is out of the loop on something in case it becomes huge. So, this nothingburger of a project gets fast-tracked into presentation and production, because nobody wants to seem out of the loop. Ted and Veronica then give an hour-long presentation where they say absolutely nothing other than a whole bunch of empty vague buzzwords and some literal smoke and mirrors. The gambit works and what’s most noticeable is that it’s barely any different from most actual business presentations nowadays.
If that’s not the most simultaneously hilarious and damning indictment of late capitalism one could make, then I don’t know what is.