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.
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.