Created by Victor Fresco
Starring Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett, Isabella Acres
There are some 21st century comedies that are smart and subtly hilarious. Arrested Development. Community. Both had trouble finding an audience, but were still renewed in the hope that they’d succeed (on video, if nothing else). There’s a third show that should be added to that list: Better Off Ted.
The show portrays the work life of Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington), an middle level executive in research and development of Viridian Dynamics, a corporation for whom the adjective “soulless” was coined. Ted knows the ropes and the disappointments of the company, and comes up against Linda Zwordling (Andrea Anders), who is a bit naïve about the cutthroat corporate politics. The devil on his shoulder is his boss Veronica Palmer (Portia Di Rossi), who is as slick as she is self-centered, willing to do anything to get her way and look good for upper management. Drs. Phil Myman (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem Hewitt (Malcolm Barrett) are lab scientists who work under Ted, finding new products and -- sometime inadvertently, sometimes by corporate design -- act a guinea pigs. Finally, Rose Crisp (Isabel Acres) is Ted’s preteen daughter, which causes him to have to juggle his personal and professional life.
Ted acted as the narrator of each show, turning to the audience to set the scene, which usually involved some satire of corporate bureaucracy. Some favorite episodes were:
- Racial Sensitivity, where a new state-of-the-art sensor system had a minor flaw: it didn’t detect black people. Lem finds the lights going out when he was alone in a room, the elevators and automatic drinking fountains don’t work, and doors would not slide open. The company managed to fix the water fountain – by supplying a separate but equal fountain for Blacks.
- Jabberwocky. Ted makes up a fake project for Linda, which soon takes on a life of its own, as others want to get in on the whole thing. The episode ends with Ted and Veronica doing a presentation on the project, filled with flashy graphics that say absolutely nothing.
- The Impertence of Communicationizing. A mistyped email tells the employees they “must now use offensive or insulting language in the workplace.” Though Ted says they obviously meant “must not use…,” people don’t want to ignore the company directive and end up spewing some very funny insults at each other.*
Lem and Phil were a wonderful couple,** two smart but terrified guys who ended up getting dumped on by the company. Portia di Rossi was typically good; Veronica was a corporate shark, but she made the character work.
One of the delights were the fake ads for Viridian Dynamics.*** They had pleasant music and a female voiceover that was calm as soothing, as they talked about the wonderful things the company was doing, while the actual words and images indicated otherwise.
Despite weak ratings, ABC renewed the show for a second season. But it didn’t help. It always seems to be a struggle to keep smart comedy on the air. But Better Off Ted should take its place as one of the best comedies of the 21st century.
*Outtakes indicate that they used some hilariously nasty stuff that wasn’t in the script.
**Len was married, though his wife was never seen. Make what you will of that.
***I just realized the initials of the company were VD. That can’t be by accident.