The reality show that debuted after the Super Bowl goes by the title Undercover Boss (CBS). I mention this for the benefit of readers who were too befuddled by saturated fats and thin lager to have caught the name—though I’m confident that the show itself made quite an impression. With each episode finding a top corporate executive covertly working among bottom-rung employees, Undercover Boss is a fanfare for the common man, a fantasy of revenge against the haute bourgeoisie, a genial riff on both types of Marxian self-alienation, and a tribute to the Protestant work ethic.
The producers dare not speak the word class outright, but that is their subject, and I think the show will be huge because of its cross-class appeal. Undercover Boss celebrates blue-collar fortitude (and milks just a little populist anger) while offering lessons worthy of a white-board management seminar and also honoring prosperity. Sunday night’s intro featured the juxtaposition of an ugly stretch of Manhattan’s skyline with a foreclosure sign. Then it presented a shot of actors playing pinstriped bigwigs, red-faced with mirth, gripping fat cigars and baronial brandy snifters, presumably sharing a good laugh about having unlawfully evicted a widow from her hovel in order to build themselves a drive-through humidor.
But the intro goes on to suggest that survival in these our recessionary times necessitates that capital recalibrate its relationship to labor: “Extreme times call for extreme measures. … They [the cigar-wielding widow-torturers] will discover the truth.” This sequence proposes that we don’t hate the rich; we just want them to tell us sincerely that they appreciate all our hard work. While some of you Debbie Downers out there may thus view Undercover Boss as an agent of social control, I’ll leave it at saying the show espouses a sort of compassionate corporatism.
The pilot starred Larry O’Donnell, the president and chief operating officer of Waste Management, the logo of which appears no fewer than 300 times as he hauls garbage, spears runaway paper at a landfill, and works a conveyor belt tougher than that of the “Job Switching” episode or the Shotz Brewery. His cover story is that he, a construction worker named Randy, is trying out various menial jobs for a rinky-dink TV show. Of course, the fact of any camera whatsoever in view means that the Hawthorne Effect is in play. And we’ve got to assume that WM had final cut or something like it. Wouldn’t shareholders repurpose their brandy decanters as Molotov cocktails otherwise? The only villains in sight are soft, slick middle managers, and even they get opportunities to redeem themselves.
Moreover, the episode also reads as a pretty good in-house motivational video. An exhausted O’Donnell comes to appreciate the burdens placed on a grossly overworked woman at a landfill and the morale-boosting cheer of a man who cleans toilets at a fairground, and he responds by ordering changes to make the company fitter, happier, more productive. All of this phoniness and fabrication is quite entertaining. Undercover Boss could only be improved if the benevolent spies were heirs to the fortunes of the privately held company (which might give it a screwball-comedy aspect) or snot-nosed McKinsey consultants (which could even prove somewhat prurient as these blow-dried Natalie Keener types tumbled from their high horses).
Me, I’d love to see Don Graham come to appreciate the rigors of professional TV criticism—the thesaurus-page paper cuts, the midafternoon bong rips, the brain-damaging struggle to deliver a Frankfurt School take on Jersey Shore—but I can’t find the Washington Post Co. featured on the list of upcoming episodes. It is a small consolation to see that next week’s show will feature the CEO of Hooters. Is it too much to hope that he will serve plates of Five Wing Flappetizers with a smile while high-waisted Lycra hot pants ride up his gluteal cleft?