Better Off Ted reviewed.

What you're watching.
March 17 2009 5:43 PM

Better Off Ted

What you'd get if you turned Mad Men into a bad, unfunny sitcom.

Better Off Ted. Click image to expand.
Portia de Rossi and others in Better off Ted

Primarily unfolding within the offices of a conglomerate that makes General Electric look like a mom-and-pop store, Better Off Ted (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET) uncomfortably resembles a travesty of Mad Men. It is set in a sleek corporate building within some faceless contemporary metropolis and features a protagonist with a manly brow reminiscent of Don Draper's. Steadily middling, it is the latest of ABC's failed attempts to create a decent sitcom. But the failure is at least marginally noble. The producers have invested the show's silly, occasionally potty-humorous vignettes with something like dry wit.

Actor Jay Harrington, who exudes a crisp competence that's gotten him cast as an M.D. in no fewer than three other shows, plays Ted, who is something of a straight man at the center of a farce. Ted, an "R&D legend" at Veridian Dynamics, oversees the lab-coated dweebs and well-tailored misfits who toil to make advances in consumer goods and industrial technology. These include an office chair called the Focus Master ("The scratchier the fabric, the more uncomfortable people are and the harder they work") and a weaponized pumpkin intended to attack enemy soldiers by giving them "a magnificent soft downy coating," as someone says in a rather buffoonish foreign accent. Ted often addresses the camera as he strides through the halls in tracking shots that seem borrowed from another, more exciting show.

Advertisement

For comic foils, he has Veronica (Portia de Rossi), a coldly demanding hottie of the Heather Locklear tradition of bosses, a superior entrancingly obnoxious in her sense of superiority, all firm orders and tight skirts. "Everything you said was just so concise," she tells Ted in a flashback illustrating a moment they once shared after he aced a presentation. "I think you and I should have sex." His new love interest is Linda (Andrea Anders), a slapstick cutie-pie who hoards creamer from the break room and bumbles through personal calls pertaining to a children's book she's writing about a mutant toaster. They will get together only if Ted can shake his reluctance to be perceived as a workplace gigolo: "I used up my office affair."

Rounding out the crew is a herd of weird scientists, socially maladjusted in all the usual ways. In the pilot, Ted coerces one among them, Phil (Jonathan Slavin), into acting as a guinea pig for a new product. Like the Millennium Falcon's captain or Ted Williams' corpse, Phil gets cryogenically frozen, his mouth wearing an excessively broad expression of comic fear as the temperature drops in the chamber.

Better Off Ted, which feels more devoted to establishing its cool than earning some laughs, is hardly so bad to deserve a bleh from halfway-discerning viewers. Eh or meh would be closer to the mark. Some scholars of the tube might explain its blandness by asserting that networks believe audiences want comfort food in times of distress. But I'd attribute its core mediocrity to the sense of risk aversion at the forefront of big-media minds as they all face the prospect of working in little media. It further seems possible that the executives who green-lighted this unfunny comedy are a touch too attached to the idea of the workings of amoral corporate behemoths as a source of gentle amusement.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Naomi Klein Is Wrong

Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.

The Strange History of Wives Gazing at Their Husbands in Political Ads

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 12:42 PM How to Save Broken Mayonnaise
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.