Better Off Ted Rediscovered

The explosion in streaming options means fans can discover (or rediscover) TV shows of the past. Like the excellent Better Off Ted.

Image provided by imdb/ABC

Better Off Ted was a wonderful, absurdist workplace comedy that ran for two short seasons in 2009–2010. Ultimately it was a victim of ABC’s difficulty in supporting any sitcom not named Modern Family.

Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) worked for monolithic Veridian Dynamics. Ted oversaw a research and development group that worked on projects like freezing an employee, weaponizing pumpkins, creating “cowless” meat and developing any number of seemingly innocuous devices that all turned out to have lethal applications. Ted’s team included product testing coordinator Linda (Andrea Anders), who rebelled against the soul-crushing atmosphere and had a romantic spark with Ted. Also on Ted’s team were awkward scientists Lem (Malcom Barrett) and Phil (Jonathan Slavin), prone to panic over the smallest of things. Ted reported to the imposing Veronica (Portia de Rossi), his ruthlessly efficient conduit to senior management. At home, single dad Ted was a raising precocious daughter Rose (Isabella Acres).

Better Off Ted had an appealingly weird bent. Which probably doomed it on network TV. Veridian could have been a stock “evil company,” but the writers found all kinds of creative ways to play with that concept. Many episodes included hysterical faux promotional spots touting Veridian’s dubious accomplishments (such as a commercial spotlighting diversity that featured mostly white people). In many ways, Ted was as close as any series has come to harnessing the Dilbert aesthetic.

Veronica is not amused: Image provided by imdb/ ABC

The Better Off Ted core cast worked as a really strong ensemble, with characters mixed and matched for maximum comedic effect. Harrington handled his duties as central character and narrator rather well, deploying subtle jokes with crack timing. He had strong chemistry with both Anders and de Rossi and a triangle emerged that was less romantic (though that was a factor) than it was a tug-o-war between Linda and Veronica for Ted’s conscience. Lem and Phil were a crack comic duo and Barrett and Slavin played their quirks and tics perfectly. With a swirl of recurring and guest characters around them, the main cast was a fine-tuned comic engine. If there was an MVP, though, it had to be de Rossi. She made Veronica a fascinating and absolutely hysterical presence, a driven dragon lady with precise comic timing. But she wasn’t one dimensional. De Rossi and the writers found subtle ways to show human aspects of Veronica without compromising her steely core. It was one of de Rossi’s best roles.

Highlights of Better Off Ted’s two seasons (both available on Netflix, including a couple episodes that ABC didn’t manage to air) are below.

Pilot: The first episode is a fantastic introduction to the world of Better Off Ted, highlighted by the ill-fated attempt to freeze Phil for a year. It’s the rare comedy pilot that presents its concept so well. Rarer still, the episodes that follow maintain the quality and often surpass it.

Racial Sensitivity: Veridian’s new motion sensor system has a problem: it doesn’t register black people. The writers do a deft job with a potentially dicey topic and come up with one of Season 1’s most hilarious and biting episodes.

Linda and Ted; complicated: Image provided by imdb/ABC

Goodbye, Mr. Chips: A computer error erases Ted from the system, leaving Linda to lead the lab team in an hysterically awkward mission to save Ted’s job. It’s a nice display of unity among the various characters that harnesses their various strengths in one central plot.

Get Happy: Better Off Ted riffs on the bane of every modern workplace: the employee satisfaction survey. Veronica’s attempts to be less intimidating alone make the episode worth watching. But Ted trying to win over middle-aged middle management types and the company’s program to “personalize” employee workspace by assigning each employee a personality make this a grand slam.

Trust and Consequence: Depositions for a consumer product lawsuit have Ted and Linda on opposite sides. Veronica’s attempts to convince Linda to agree to be the scapegoat (complete with a generous bonus and a trip to rehab) are a Season 1 high point.

Jabberwocky: To make Linda happy, Ted reallocates some money to fund a non-existent environmental project. To cover, he creates the faux “Jabberwocky” project whose mystique soon makes it the hottest commodity at Veridian. The episode is a great showcase for Harrington and de Rossi, as Ted and Veronica stage a spectacle to distract the company from the project’s rather imaginary bearing.

Love Blurts: Veridian provides each employee with the names of five co-workers with whom they’re most genetically compatible and urges them to pair off. Except Phil, who’s offered sterilization. Awkward and hysterical.

The Great Repression: A misunderstanding with an oversensitive co-worker lands Ted and Linda in mandatory sexual harassment counseling. Veronica comes up with the perfect solution: classifying sexual harassment as a disease. Once again, Better Off Ted nails a topic that could go horribly off the rails. Instead, it’s one of Season 2’s best episodes.

Phil and Lem, science guys: Image provided by imdb/ ABC

Beating A Dead Workforce: With a massive project deadline looming, the whole company is working crazy overtime. When a co-worker drops dead, Veridian uses him to spur everyone else to work even harder. This may be de Rossi’s best episode of the entire series.

The Impertence of Communication: A typo in a memo seems to require Veridian employees to start insulting one another at work. Better Off Ted at its absurdist best and a great showcase for Harrington’s deft comic timing.

It’s A Party and I’ll Lie If I Want To: When Rose befriends the CEO’s daughter in aftercare, a jealous Veronica drafts her niece so that she can compete with the face time Ted’s enjoying. Featuring perhaps the most hysterically unethical use of a child’s birthday party ever.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 30, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting