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TV: Undercover Boss

Posted: February 22, 2012 10:26:15 • 941 words

I watch very little TV, usually, and I avoid anything that can be called "reality TV" as devoutly as possible. In my opinion, it's the epitome of everything that's wrong with modern television, and I have no interest in partaking in it. However, every rule has an exception, and for me, that exception is Undercover Boss.

I've been aware of this show since its debut, and while I never made an effort to watch it, the premise intrigued me. Everyone has worked a job where, if the head of the company did the job, things would undoubtedly work differently within the company. So, Undercover Boss turns that concept into a TV series, by taking the head executives of large companies, disguising them, and having them work alongside their entry-level and lower-management employees to see how their company functions from the bottom up. As far as reality shows go, that's a pretty good idea, and unlike every other such show I've heard of, it's a premise with potential to actually serve the greater good, instead of just giving a few minutes of fame to loathesome attention-seekers.

Recently, when the Checkers/Rally's episode made headlines, I decided to finally watch the show, to see if it lived up to the media hype. And, after two episodes, I must say it exceeded my expectations, and was quite enjoyable to watch. I may even watch a few more episodes in the future. It was considerably more engaging than I expected a reality show to be, and because CEOs tend to have a highly developed sense of order, the amount of reality-show melodrama was thankfully kept to a minimum. While most reality "stars" will fling their own feces if it means a few extra rating points, company heads have better things to do, as well as professional reputations to maintain, and they're coming into this with a purpose other than fame. So, the appeal for someone who doesn't like reality TV is high.

The Checkers episode was especially engaging, because I could relate very directly to it. I've worked in restaurants, directly and indirectly, and seen first-hand how asinine policies dictated by the corporate office can be at the store level. Things like non-sensical menu changes and managers' lack of marketing freedom tend to make the corporate offices feel like they're on an alien planet, and it was nice to see the Checkers CEO acknowledge that, promising to implement policy changes based on what he saw within his restaurants. Of course, there's the infamous segment where the CEO shuts down a restaurant because of its abusive manager, which was actually not quite as shocking as it's been portrayed by the media. Which isn't a bad thing; the bad boss wasn't a cartoon character, he was a realistic bad boss, and the CEO's handling of the situation didn't bring the sense of justice one might normally see in TV show, but he addressed it fairly. So, it wasn't the stand-out best part of the episode, it simply contributed to an overall well-made show.

Of course, a reality show must be judged by different standards, and saying this show is "good" in the same sense as shows like The West Wing just doesn't work. Despite being pretty good overall, it still had most of the reality show tropes, including overdramatic voiceovers, close-ups of random spectators' expressions, and despite the CEOs obviously not playing into the usual "reality star" mold, they still ended up making complete idiots of themselves while trying to do entry-level jobs. I refuse to believe that a hard-working CEO of a major company seriously can't figure out a computer terminal that even non-English-speakers can use. Everyone has a sob story too, of course, and while these jobs generally aren't the sort of thing that anyone does by choice, I find it oddly convenient that every employee they put the CEO with has such an incomprehensibly tragic story that they're willing to share with a stranger (and on camera). I mean, I can accept a burger-flipper who had to drop out of school to take care of his sick mom, in the Checkers episode, but the episode before it (a wine company) struck me as a bit contrived. What are the odds that a wine company, even a large one, just happens to have a tasting room cashier who was genuinely homeless?

Additionally, the end of each episode includes giving away large sums of cash to the employees. There's really no need to do this, the employees are almost always thrilled just with policy changes and moderately-improved job offers/raises/benefits. But, it's an easy audience-engagement tactic, and the typical reality TV viewer has the approximate attention span of a goldfish with ADD, so it's pretty much a rule of reality shows that if you're not giving away "love" (aka sex), you have to give away material prizes. Coupled with the aforementioned tragic backstories of the employees, I'll admit it's nicely rewarding to see copious cash thrown at people who actually deserve it, instead of going to soul-less jerks, but it really didn't make the show stronger.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this show, and I recommend checking it out. It's not a masterpiece of cinematic art, but it's entertaining without being overly insulting to one's intelligence, and worth at least seeing a few episodes. And if you're working an entry-level position for a large company, it'll give you something to fantasize about to ease some of the pain of your job. Maybe you can even brush up on the presentation of your tragic backstory, in case cameras ever pop up in your workplace with a weak explanation.