Friday, March 20, 2009

"Better Off Ted" Is Out There ... Far Out There ... But Worth the Journey

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

You have to hand it to ABC executives: They clearly want to push the envelope with their programs. Not only did the network pick up the beloved but perpetually ratings-challenged "Scrubs," but it is now following it with a new single-camera comedy, "Better Off Ted" (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern), that might be the most bizarre sitcom I've ever seen.

And when I say it's odd, I don't mean it as a good thing or a bad thing. It's just an objective judgment. There are things that go on in "Ted" that we have never really seen in a broadcast network comedy before. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at one of the development meetings. I kind of picture it going like this:

ABC Creative Executive 1: What did you think of that pilot by Victor Fresco, the guy who wrote for "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "My Name Is Earl"?

ABC Creative Executive 2: "Better Off Ted"? Um, it's really smart. But does Victor really want us to shoot and air that pilot script?

ABC CE1: I guess so.

ABC CE2: Victor realizes that the central story line involves the protagonist being asked by his barracuda of a boss to convince one of his scientist employees to agree to be frozen for a year, right?

ABC CE1: He wrote it, so I'm guessing he does.

ABC CE2: It's kind of out there.

ABC CE1: Especially since the scientist guy agrees to it!

ABC CE2: Yeah. The marketing people want to know what successful show we can compare it to, so they can figure out how to sell it.

ABC CE1: Uh, well, it takes place in an office. So ...

ABC CE2: Yeah, but it's nothing like "The Office" in tone, writing and shooting style. "Ted" is completely over the top and more stylized.

ABC CE1: True. The hell with it. We'll just run a bunch of ads and stick it on Tuesday nights after "Scrubs." There are no major hits on then ("Lie to Me" on Fox, "Gary Unmarried" on CBS, and a big pile of steaming dog poo, also known as "Chopping Block," on NBC). Maybe more than the die-hard "Scrubs" audience will check it out.

ABC CE2: I guess it's worth a shot.

I have nothing but admiration for Fresco, who has put together a truly out-there comedy, and ABC, which agreed to program it. But it's hard to believe it's on the air.

The show is set in the research and development department of a huge corporation named Veridian. The opening of the debut episode introduces us to the company via a branding television commercial, like the one BASF used to run that talked about how the company didn't make certain items, but made them better. The Veridian promo stays pretty realistic, with only subtle (and funny) diversions into parody ("Power. We make that. Technology. We make that. Cows. Well, no, we don't make cows. Although, we have made a sheep."). (You can watch some more over-the-top Veridian videos here.)

The Ted of "Better Off Ted" runs a research and development team at Veridian. Played by Jay Harrington, who was last seen this season as a smarmy doctor and potential love interest for Addison on "Private Practice," Ted is a slick but ultimately well-meaning leader, one who inspires loyalty in his employees. "Loyalty" is a word so foreign to his boss, Veronica (Portia de Rossi of "Ally McBeal" and "Arrested Development"), that she can't even think of it when she tries to explain to Ted why he is the right person to get one of the employees to agree to be frozen for a year. Veronica, completely devoid of empathy or manners, isn't malicious, per se. She is just all about getting the job done. She tries to act nervous and vulnerable at one point, but Ted points out that she can't pull off either, which she readily admits. Veronica regularly pops into Ted's office and gives him crazy assignments for his team. (Veronica: "We need a mouse that can withstand temperatures up to 195 degrees." Ted: "Uh, computer mouse or live mouse?" Veronica: "I'll get back to you.")

Ted's office exploits are seen through the stories he tells his young daughter, Rose (Isabella Acres), of whom he has sole custody. Why Ted is telling a little kid about the sordid dealings of his workplace is never addressed, but Rose is given the kind of mature-for-her-years dialogue that can sometimes fall flat, but works in "Ted." (Sample exchange: Ted, trying to escape Rose's judgment on his work actions: "Did you brush your teeth yet?" Rose's reply: "Don't change the subject.")

Ted's main two employees are the scientist team of Phil (Jonathan Slavin of, not surprisingly, "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "My Name Is Earl") and Lem (Malcolm Barrett). Less anti-social and out there than Sheldon on "Big Bang Theory," the two are still awkward and nebbishy. Slavin and Barrett have great chemistry together, and both actors give three-dimensionality and life to their potentially underwritten characters. Phil and Lem's introductory scene, in separate bathroom stalls, showing their different reactions to the toilet paper holder being moved farther from the toilet, was very entertaining.

Ted has a crush on product tester Linda (Andrea Anders, of "The Class" and "Joey"). Anders is in danger of becoming the Paula Marshall of the current decade, doing great work on quickly canceled sitcoms. Anders excels at playing the slightly flummoxed, smart, girl-next-door-pretty love interest, and her tried-and-true character is a good fit for "Ted" and Ted. Linda, who has reservations about working for Veridian, feels the need to rebel by doing things like hording nondairy creamer (something Veronica says is "not Katrina" but a problem), likes Ted, but he has to shut down any chance of them getting together because he's already "used up" his "office affair" earlier with, of all people, Veronica (in a very funny flashback, de Rossi believably plays Veronica as, at once, turned on and distant).

As we learned from our (probably) fictional network meeting transcript, Veronica wants to freeze Phil for a year, and Ted agrees to convince him, which he does, but later regrets. The way the whole thing plays out is, again, truly bizarre for network television:

Phil goes into the freezer. The door is closed on him before he can finish his exit speech (just as he says, "All I ask is for your respect"). The freezing is accompanied by cha-cha music. Everyone stands around to see if, as might happen, Phil's eyes explode when the temperature reaches 20 degrees below zero (they don't). After three days, Veronica has two maintenance workers move Phil (in the freezer) out of the lab (she says it's "creepy"), but when one of the movers takes a cell phone call, he drops the freezer, spilling Phil out of it. Phil is fine, except for his sudden odd screams in the middle of sentences, which makes Veronica want to fire him. Ted stands up to her and saves Phil's job.

Again, hard as it may be to believe, this is the plot of a half-hour comedy on broadcast network television.

Where "The Office" takes aim at the mundanities of office life, "Ted" is an even more cutting satire on corporate culture. And while "Ted" isn't as funny as "The Office," it's pretty good. The acting is strong all around, and Harrington makes for a far better comic lead than I expected based on his turn on "Private Practice." The debut script is filled with sharp one-liners, some of which hit harder than others. I don't mean to say that "Ted" is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. You are more likely to smile and admire than you are to bust a gut. But it is entertaining and certainly worth watching. I would even say "Ted" is worthy of following "Scrubs" (high praise from me).

I am concerned, though, that "Ted" may not be around for long. The show's off-beat humor and quirky (to say the least) stories hardly scream "mass audience." And the debut episode not only managed only a little more than half of the viewers of "Lie to Me," it also lost out to the more traditional sitcom "Gary Unmarried." At least "Ted" did handily outdraw "Chopping Block," and it held all of the small-but-loyal "Scrubs" viewership.

So catch "Ted" while it's still around, if for no other reason than to support ABC's guts in programming shows that are off the beaten path. Because if nothing else, "Ted" is different from any other sitcom on television. And, luckily, it's funny too.