Better Off Ted: A season-to-date review
Posted by therebelprince on July 21, 2009
This review covers the first 9 episodes of Better Off Ted, ABC’s summer comedy which has thankfully but unexpectedly managed to get a second season. (I’ll cover the remaining four episodes of the first season individually as they air)
“We need a mouse that can withstand temperatures up to 195 degrees.”
“We can do that. … Uh, computer mouse or a live mouse?”
“I’ll get back to you.”
– Veronica and Ted, “Pilot”
Better Off Ted is a quirky and very funny comedy which has sprung from the mold of the single-camera comedy fashioned by Arrested Development and 30 Rock. I think it’s a mistake to directly compare this to either show (as I’ll discuss below), but it owes its legacy to these and other single-camera comedies, and it seems to be living up to them.
Veridian Dynamics is a company which is at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs (albeit disturbing ones). Whether it be a lab-grown meat substance, jet packs or cryogenics, Veridian is there. According to one of their advertisements, “We can even make radishes so spicy that people can’t eat them. But we’re not… cause people can’t eat them.”
Our narrator is Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) a mid-level staffer, who oversees the scientific division including brilliant scientists Phil (Jonathan Slavin, above) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett). Around him, he deals with his crush on co-worker Linda (Andrea Anders) and aloof boss Veronica (Portia de Rossi)
The show is definitely stolen by de Rossi, whose natural power is put to great use as Veronica walks all over her employees and appears phased at the slightest idea of “small talk”. But the cast are all excellent: Harrington is a likeable narrator whose character thankfully manages to retain some flaws. (One of the greatest advances of the single-camera comedy – among them Liz Lemon in 30 Rock and Michael Bluth in Arrested Development – is the ability to have a central straight character who is almost as insane as those around them.) While Ted isn’t as loopy as his colleagues, his flaws are on display in a couple of episodes, notably his desire to succeed in “Win Some, Dose Some”.
Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett make an instantly likeable team, with an exquisite chemistry and great dialogue. Andrea Anders and Isabella Acres – as Ted’s no-nonsense seven-year-old daughter Rose – are also pitch-perfect, if occasionally given lesser material than their colleagues.
And the Veridian Dynamics advertisements which pepper the episodes, perfectly mirroring those promos you see for ambiguous “foundations” and “Corporations”, featuring soothing voice-overs and shots of happy people and industrious workers, are marvellously done. Occasionally the writers choose all-out comedy in these moments instead of satire, but generally they succeed. (The ads provide many of the show’s best moment, as in “Heroes” when the narrator intones “Organic vegetables…. chock full of antidepressants” as one of their great advancements).
(Above: Isabella Acres, Jay Harrington and Portia de Rossi)
“Pilot”: The show gets off to a very strong start (this is probably one of the three strongest episodes so far), with all of the characters being introduced well. Rose and Ted’s scenes are well-written but feel a little less surprising and clever than the writers would like, now that the world-weary child is a television staple. Maz Jobrani is great as the company’s Dr. Bomba, a resounding character who will reappear throughout the season. A
“Heroes”: Jonathan Slavin gets his best turn thus far as Phil, who recovers from the company cryogenically freezing him… with a few kinks in his system. His subsequent rise and fall as a company hero, coupled with his creation of a disturbing faux-meat which he gets too attached to and names Blobby, all feels like a superior episode of 30 Rock. Meanwhile, the show continues to deal neatly with Ted and Linda’s relationship. A-
“Through Rose Coloured HAZMAT Glasses”: Probably my least favourite episode to date, Ted and Linda’s relationship takes the fore but it is also becoming clear that the series isn’t ready to deal with them properly yet. To the producers’ credit, the relationship will be put on hold shortly, but it’s a pity that Ted’s “one office affair rule” is about as convincing a plot contrivance as Dana’s “Dating plan” on Sports Night. Isabella Acres gets her stand-out episode, when Veronica discovers how useful the little girl is to have around in a business negotiation. Their plot is a bit predictable but deRossi and Acres work well together, and I love the scene at Veridian Dynamic’s daycare where we learn that the company has the kids doing menail labour (e.g. painting lines in the parking lot) as an “innovative” progam. B
“Racial Sensitivity”: Definitely the show’s “on the map” episode. A company program, designed so that lights, water coolers and other appliances will automatically switch on when people enter, has a small problem: African Americans aren’t noticed. Portia de Rossi gets some of her best material as Veronica seeks to find a way to stop this, while Lem suffers the fallout on the ground as he is reduced to being shadowed by white people at all times. Ted suffers through Linda’s ex-boyfriend (Kristoffer Polaha), and he finally decides to ignore their budding relationship. While Linda’s ex-boyfriend falls a little flat, everything else in this episode makes up for it. The “swallowing the spider to catch the fly” mentality adopted by Veronica has hysterical consequences, and its nice to see the show expand on Veronica and Ted’s former one-day stand. The best line of the night: her comment that Ted’s boxers aren’t highlighting his assets… “penisly speaking”. A
“Win Some, Dose Some“: This episode is a strong installment, even if it doesn’t standout or remain particularly memorable. It’s nice to see Ted given some more dimension as his competitiveness and desire to win a wrapping paper drive at Rose’s school gets turned around when Veronica bets she can get Rose to win, so now Ted tries his hardest to lose. Some of Ted’s plot doesn’t really pay off – the General is amusing but doesn’t seem to go anywhere – but everyone is in fine form. A subplot involving Linda accidentally getting dosed with an experiemental mood-altering drug gives Anders some great stuff, and furthers the wonderful chemistry of Lem and Phil. A-
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”: the show tries its hand at a caper episode, and succeeds. It is the season’s most integrated episode as Ted involves all of the characters in a plot to change his name despite the bureaucracy at Human Resources. It’s nice to see Veronica fight the battle on her own turf; Phil and Lem get some great moments as they lead the plot; and it’s good to see Jobrani‘s Dr. Bomba again. This is one of those episodes which proves the virtues of a small cast. A
“Get Happy”: Linda suggests to Veronica that workers be able to personalise their cubicles, which leads to Veronica personalising everyone’s cubicles… in one of three standard designs. This episode is Dilbert meets Better Off Ted. The company employees – grouped as car lovers, space lovers or cat lovers – absorb themselves into these cliques with reckless abandon, and Linda ignites a feud when she chooses to step outside her boundaries and intermingle. It’s nice to see everyone out of their element here, with Veronica trying to get to know Phil, and Ted spending time with board room heavies. Linda’s relationship with her fellow “cat people” and their attack on her workspace (“SPACE LOVER!”) are memorable. A
“You Are The Boss Of Me”: The season’s weakest episode since “Through Rose Coloured HAZMAT Glasses” still has some good moments, particularly in exploring Veronica’s home life when she becomes friends with Linda after one drunken night of friendship. De Rossi convincingly sells the revelation that her grandmother was also her driver and housekeeper, and then sells her robotic bewilderment at Linda’s lack of understanding. It’s nice to see the two women get some screentime but it never really goes anywhere beyond the predictable end of the episode return-to-status-quo. A subplot involving Ted dealing with his aggression toward his ex-wife and joining Lem and Phil’s medieval fight club is passable but transitory. B+
“Bioshuffle”: a nice-enough episode in which Linda is forced to temporarily move offices, but her presence pushes Ted out of his office and into Veronica’s world. The A-Plot is a little bit obvious, although it has some very good moments when Linda and Ted are forced to co-habit. But Veronica is not given much to do and Portia de Rossi‘s absence is noticeable. The better plot goes to Lem, who falls for fellow scientist Lucy (the very likeabe Joy Osmanski, who has sadly had little to do since her great supporting role on The Loop and a minor recurring role on Grey’s Anatomy) and who ends up screwing himself out of the relationship. B+
(Below: Jay Harrington and Andrea Anders)
It’s a very solid start to this series, which has shown how well the characters work and has already made good use of the cast. The challenge this show will face in its second season will be keeping things fresh, and dealing with the Ted/Linda relationship in an honest way. I’ll withhold judgement until the end of the season, but I hope this show can find its footing – it wasn’t until about 8 or 9 episode in that both Arrested Development and 30 Rock proved themselves, so I daresay this show still has a chance.
Discussion on any critically-liked single-camera comedy inevitably compares it to one of the two above shows (and/or The Office). I don’t think it’s fair to make this comparison so early. First of all, because this show is still very much in its embyronic stage but second, because those shows – classics, definitely – will need to be bettered and challenged. Like Dallas or Twin Peaks or 24, they were shows that redefined the television landscape but must themselves be rendered obsolete by other series’ taking their innovations and refining them. Again, I don’t think Better Off Ted will achieve that role, but I don’t think that it’s fair to continue these comparisons either.
Next time: We discover the origins of Veronica and Ted’s first time, and Phil reveals his dark secret.
And today’s shoutout goes to Andy’s TV Analysis and his reviews of the show.