I watched CBS's new Undercover Boss, and I have a question.
What time is the revolution?
Unveiling the series in the post-Super Bowl slot, CBS clearly has high hopes for UnBoss, a reality show for the New Depression. Rich man helps poor man. Beneath every Donald Trump there's a George Clooney struggling to breathe free.
Not since Welcome to the Neighborhood -- ABC's bright idea in 2005 to build a feel-good program around residential redlining -- has a reality show struck me as so clueless, zeitgeistwise. Take away the faux socially responsible trappings and UnBoss is an odious exercise in noblesse oblige. Bring on the tumbrels.
Each UnBoss episode is to feature some corporate big shot going "undercover" to work side by side with the company clock-punchers. The UnBoss inevitably learns the error of his white-collar ways and promises whatever corporate concessions might help the lot of his bedraggled minions.
The debut episode stunk. UnBoss Larry O'Donnell, garbage man-in-chief of Waste Management Inc., visited a sampling of his massive company's outposts, trying his hand at trash-picking with a pointed stick, sorting recyclables on a Lucy-in-the-chocolate factory conveyor belt, driving a garbage truck and cleaning portable johns. During his walk on the menial side, O'Donnell assumed the nom de stiff Randy Lawrence, an unemployed construction worker being filmed for a documentary on entry-level jobs.
The flawed ruse (the workers were playing to a camera, even if not the camera they thought) was easily dismissed as standard reality show phoniness. What made Undercover Boss so repellent was its hard-times play-acting, its purpose nothing more than a weekly halo-placing atop a watered-down Scrooge.
During his seven-day tour of the salt mines, the beneficent O'Donnell/Randy was shown the ropes by one put-upon worker after another, each, in the eyes of this program, more pathetic than the last. There was Janice, a garbage hauler who fretted over the creepy "route managers" who occasionally trail the drivers, even as she peed in a can lest she fail to meet her pick-up quota. And Jaclyn, a 29-year-old administrative assistant/cancer survivor at a landfill doing the work of at least three people, all to support her husband and daughter, her sister and brother-in-law, and her father. In a house under threat of foreclosure.
You get the idea. But we're not done yet. O'Donnell also met the gruff but hardworking Walter, a trash-picker on dialysis, and Sandy, the middle-aged conveyor belt worker who bolted, panicked, from her 30-minute packed lunch so as not to be docked two minutes' pay for each minute late.
O'Donnell's dressing down of Sandy's time-docking supervisor made for queasy viewing, coming off less like a welcome comeuppance than a scapegoat's bullying.
But for condescension, nothing beat the segment with a remarkably chipper portable toilet cleaner named Fred. O'Donnell marveled to the camera at how anyone could take such a "funny and fun" approach to the nasty job. "If we could all be that way," O'Donnell said wistfully, "what a great company we would have."
Fred's reward for putting a shit-eating grin on the face of the world's crappiest job, along with the tying-up of the other Cratchit miseries, was announced by O'Donnell at the company pep-rally ending the episode. Gone the scruffy beard, work boots and tearful empathy of Randy Lawrence, replaced with the rootsy, feel-your-pain air of an executive who has been properly media-trained. (That crooked index-finger jab is a dead-giveaway.)
Happy Fred got invited to speak with senior management, apparently to boost morale (whose, exactly, wasn't clear). That two-minute penalty? Fixed. The overworked mom was promoted to a salaried job, the trash picker landed some paid time off to counsel other dialysis patients (unless I missed it, not his idea), and the can-urinator learned that a task force would be formed "to make an environment that works for you."
Nothing like a task force to relieve a full bladder.
Judging by the time slot, CBS sees big potential in targeting today's angry middle-class -- Right or Left, Tea Party or Progressive -- and stands ready to entertain and assuage with Big Daddy promises, Band-aid solutions, and camera-friendly group hugs. Maybe they even asked a task force to study it.
But I wonder if anyone at CBS heard something ominous during The Who's halftime performance, something under the crowd's roar as Roger Daltry sang that bitter ode from another age.
"Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."