It’s rare I feel strongly enough about a show to actually fear for the life of it, but that’s how I am with ABC’s Better Off Ted right now.
Superbly written, acted, produced, entirely original, daring, envelope-pushing, and setting a new standard for “funny as hell” – in any fair and just world that would be the perfect combo to guarantee the extended life of a new series. It certainly worked for 30 Rock. But that’s because 30 Rock had Lorne Michaels and a bold NBC management behind it, so it lived on long enough to become a cult hit.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case with Better Off Ted, which is still a nervous fledgling fighting for survival, and I’m not sure the weaselly suits at ABC have the balls to stick with it. Currently, my spidey sense tells me that this genius of a sitcom isn’t doing well enough and could be cancelled.
Why? Because it’s simply too good for us. Fact.
The premise is easy enough: Ted is a good-looking, smooth-talking, moralistic R&D guy at a big immoral corporation, Veridian Dynamics, one of those sprawling faceless global leviathans that makes everything from “pills that look like candy” to “hurricane-proofing for dogs.” His days are spent locked in battle with his boss, Veronica – played by Ellen Degeneres’s husband Portia di Rossi – an ambitious, feisty blonde with a viper’s tongue and both eyes of the tiger. She would never settle for just one.
Half the fun of the show is seeing these two locked in battle, negotiating the tricky problems that go hand in hand with introducing new products to a world gone mad. Last night it was a solar-powered microwave oven that is perfectly safe until it’s exposed to sunlight, at which point it kills anyone using it.
The week before, it was money-saving sensors that reflect off a person’s skin as they enter a room to automatically turn on lights, elevators, water-fountains. Only one flaw: the sensors don’t work on dark skin, which means the building is full of black clerks trapped in elevators and black lab technicans unable to go home because the doors won’t open. The solution Veronica comes up with is ingenious: she hires a white intern for every black person, to walk behind them everywhere they go.
Now, please, tell me that isn’t funny, daring, and everything else I said!
And because it is, I think it’s doomed.
I’ve said this before: too many viewers now are poorly-educated, lazy, and dim. They want straightforward humor. Slapstick, fart jokes, and sometimes witty banter, but only if it’s accompanied by strange facial expressions or lots of manic gesturing. That’s why The Simpsons does so well. Oceans of stupidity, bright colors, and movement.
What doesn’t do so well is stuff the audience has to think about. Where they have to put two and two together and stick with something – a joke, a situation, a story arc – ’til it pays off, and do so without the help of a laugh track. When TV executives in the 1950s invented the laugh track it was because they understood the mentality of their viewers – those unaccounted-for millions who make up the audience figures, and who are basically content to sit idly in an armchair all night with a six-pack and a bag of doughnuts, watching almost anything that’s put before them, as long as it has bright colors, explosions, emergencies, shouting, running about, a sappy “you’re perfect just as you are” kind of message crowbarred in two minutes before the end, and can be squeezed in between bathroom breaks.
That’s not Better Off Ted, alas. You have to stick with it to like it. You have to use your brain. You have to have a sense of humor that’s triggered by actual humor, not by a sign saying “laugh now.”
So, like some of my other favorite shows – Journeyman, Surface, and a wonderful little thing I loved called Stranded With Cash Peters – this one looks destined for the scrapheap.
Unless, that is, we do something to save it.
Making sure we tune in and don’t miss an episode, that’s one way. The old way. The old way that leaves people to make their own minds up – which we know is extremely dangerous and doesn’t work. Look at the 2000 and ’04 elections. One catastrophe after another.
No, this new way I’m thinking of is to form a small private battalion – you, me , and a few others, coalescing into an unarmed but brutal militia that goes door to door on Wednesday nights in every corner of America and makes sure everybody with a TV is glued to Better Off Ted. And if they’re not, we ridicule them. Ridicule them hard. And wherever possible make them feel small, using the only weapons at our disposal: our intelligence, superior sense of style, and wit.
Good, eh? So what do you say?
The idea’s only at its formative stages yet – like solar-powered microwave ovens that kill people – but I think it might work. Are you in?
Better Off Ted gets five magic carpets out of five.
TV Swami – he say YES.