04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Schadenfreude of CBS' Undercover Boss

In these tough financial times, when Wall Street bankers are villains and unemployment hovers around 10%, seeing a boss belittled to toilet cleaning is the equivalent of watching porn. And that's exactly what nearly 40 million people watched as they stuck around after the Super Bowl for America's #1 new show.

CBS' Undercover Boss, based on a hit British reality show of the same name, has a ridiculously simple premise: High-falutin higher-up spends a week working entry-level positions in his own company. The catch? He's incognito, so people treat him as a new recruit and not the boss, giving him unique entree into the daily grind of lower-level life in his own company.

Of course, someone of authority going undercover among his minions is not necessarily a novel concept. In ancient times, there are tales of kings dressing up as paupers so they could mingle amongst their subjects and tap into the people's true thoughts of the monarchy.

And when a leader can't disguise himself, you can always hire an outside consultant. Restaurants like Taco Bell and others have been doing that for years - employing taste-testers to randomly show up, undercover, to check in on franchise locations. It's even what churches are now doing, hiring mystery worshippers, to infiltrate services to let them know how they can improve Sunday prayers. Sorry, God, but your old prayers just aren't getting the ratings they used to.

Furthering the myth of a riches to rags tale, the producers make the CEO sleep in low-rent motels, and every episode starts with the head honcho entering a locker room and changing into a company uniform - as if every company in America can be described in such a cliched made-for-TV formula.

All the CEOs featured so far work for corporations that have vast tax-bracket discrepancies in their workforce (i.e. companies who employ minimum wage workers - toilet cleaners, burger flippers, etc.) And if those employees have a health crises (dialysis patients have already been featured in two of the first three episodes) or a foreclosed home, then all the better. It's all concocted by the reality TV gods to better serve the storyline.

It's that storyline that is Undercover Boss' winning recipe. It's edited into a remarkably feel-good show. It could have easily spiraled into a self-aggrandizing love-fest for the corporate set. But it didn't. The same way that the USA Network's White Collar, which fetishizes the art of the con in a post-Bernie Madoff era, actually makes the audience root for the swindler.

Indeed, the overarching theme of the show is one of self (and corporate) improvement. It's about redemption. It's about comeuppance for the all the little guys struggling out there. It's about how to make the world a better place. Even the show's promos tout it with the tagline, "Be inspired."

At a time when Wall Street is being bailed out by Main Street and when the Supreme Court rules in favor of corporations' ability to buy political campaigns, this show has become a clarion response to the woes of modern man. It's a classic "stick it to the man" show in an economic time when sticking it to the man feels like justice served on a silver platter.

But it doesn't end there. We, the viewing audience, feel triumphant watching the lowly workers get recognized for all their hard work (not to mention extra gifts bestowed to them by the CEO at the end of each episode). But it's actually the CEO that comes out on top as the proverbial hero in this tale. It's the CEO who "gains" the most by the lessons he's learned. He's the one whose life, we are informed in voiceover narration, has changed for the better.

The ivory-towered CEO gets a lesson in pathos to great dramatic and personal effect. And it doesn't hurt that empathy is our zeitgeist's current feeling of choice, as eloquently detailed in Jeremy Rifkin's new book, The Empathic Civilization -- which is currently rocketing up the charts thanks in part to the Huffington Post's book club.

CBS has created a show where fat cat execs hop off their perch, spend time with the little people, and leave with a better understanding of what it takes to make a living nowadays. Call it the first truly recession-era reality show. Or just call it porn.

Benyamin Cohen is the author of "My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith" and the content director of the Mother Nature Network.