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Better Off Ted: "The Great Repression"

Illustration for article titled iBetter Off Ted/i: The Great Repression
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Watching Better Off Ted unspool a handful of episodes over the holidays - including this outing on New Year's Day! - has been a bit of a grim reminder of how low-rated TV shows get canceled in this age when seemingly everything with a tiny but passionate fan base gets renewed (only to be canceled shortly after that renewal). Now, there's been no official announcement on Ted, and it's always possible it could be miraculously resurrected again. And to be fair, at least ABC is burning it off, allowing its fans to see all of its episodes before the inevitable DVD collection, when the network might not even have done such a thing just a few seasons ago. But the show IS getting burned off, and since ABC now has a modestly successful night of comedy on Wednesdays and hasn't bothered to slot a Ted episode or two in there - despite an empty hole in that lineup - it seems safe to assume that the comedy is not long for this world.

All of which leads to the classic questioning of why this show didn't take off. Obviously, this was never going to be a massive hit. It's a big, goofy show at a time when the single-camera comedy form seems to appeal to audiences more when it's understated. It's the reason Modern Family has been able to hold on to much of its audience while Cougar Town continues to lose audience share. (See also: The Office and 30 Rock.) While Ted's a funny show, it's also reliably about a zany workplace, and while an undercurrent of the show is that the characters don't particularly like working at Veridian but they need that job to stay afloat, it's not expressed so explicitly that the show comes across as anything other than a goofy exploration of, well, work, a sore subject for lots of people at this point in time. And Ted's major tone has always been satirical, and Americans have never, ever, ever completely warmed to satire. They might embrace it some of the time, but it's rarely going to be our fair nation's favorite method of finding laughter.

Ted's also uniquely story-dependent, simply because it's a satire. This means that the show is necessarily going to have episodes that are often very funny but maybe don't ultimately feel like they add up on a story level. This isn't a deal breaker for me, since I'm still enamored of Ted's abundantly silly tone, but I could see where others might prefer a show that doesn't swing for the fences and, instead, is content to just do one or two things very well. Ted is aiming to be a broad, character-based satire that makes fun of the Way We Work Today, and while that means we get episodes like "Racial Sensitivity," which are among the funniest episodes of the last decade, it also means that sometimes, an episode can be a lot of fun while still not completely adding up.

Add to that latter column tonight's outing, "The Great Repression." Workplace sitcoms started doing big, "Somebody is falsely accused of sexual harassment and has to go through sensitivity training and learns to respect people of the opposite sex" storylines seemingly with I Love Lucy, and despite the fact that said storyline only really appeared about 15 years ago for the first time, it still feels like an old story that is hard to tell in a new way. Ted gives it a good shot by having Linda be the one who's accused of harassment and drawing Ted into her situation by having him go and talk with the woman she inadvertently harassed.

I liked most of this storyline, to be sure. The start, in particular, was inspired, as we saw the way that Linda first rather innocently harassed the woman in the wake of the death of her cat and then saw how things got even weirder when she gave the woman a back rub. Ted's attempts to help her get out of the situation resulted, of course, in him accidentally harassing the woman as well (by seeming to suggest a threesome of some sort), and everything proceeded about as you'd expect from there. Still, there were funny moments throughout this storyline, and the depiction of the sexual harassment sensitivity seminar was solid, particularly as Linda started harassing Veridian's actual harassers. The only thing that didn't quite work for me in the storyline was the very end, which tried to send up the usual end to this storyline - our protagonist realizes just how wrongheaded their lack of sensitivity was - by having Linda end up as some sort of super-sensitive sexual harassment-detecting superhero, but instead, it sort of ended up doing exactly what it was trying to mock.

On the other hand, as always, Veronica was terrific in this storyline, as her attempts to figure out a way to get what Ted and Linda did written off as a disease and her clumsily amusing mutual seduction with Ted (resulting in a kiss) was a good reminder that Portia de Rossi and Jay Harrington have a nice amount of chemistry a lesser sitcom would exploit far more often. (While I like that the show finds a way to bring this up every so often, tossing Veronica and the lead into a relationship would sap what's appealing about both characters, I fear.) Similarly, the storyline found a remarkably good way to use Ted, who can be the ensemble's weak link from a storytelling point-of-view, as the show has rarely figured out a way to use the character's inherent decency to tell funny stories beyond "Ted reacts with amusement at what happens around him." Here, though, his flirtations with another woman at the company and his attempts to fight his inaccurate accusation were all funny, and Jay Harrington was very good at playing these notes.

I wasn't as taken with the Phil and Lem storyline, which felt a little forced. The attempts to portray their favorite cleaner robot as their beloved pet who gets sent off to the "farm" felt like the promising start of something, but the story never quite got the room it needed to have a funny point-of-view, and the conclusion (with Carlos the janitor saving the two from Chumley) was a little too predictable. The whole thing felt like an attempt to give two of the regulars something to do, and unlike a lot of the best Ted episodes, the subplot didn't even have the most tangential of ties to the main storyline.

Despite all that, though, I have trouble giving an episode I laughed at much as this one anything even close to a low grade. While I have story quibbles with Ted from time to time and while I wonder just how the show will figure out how to integrate all of its characters sometimes, I think the show is one of the funniest on the air right now, and it's attempting things very few comedies are, trying to say things about just how absurd it is that so many of us cling to jobs we hate just because it's the only way to stay alive right now (or, really, at any time). Ted is about the fact that most of us would really rather be doing anything else than what we do, but as long as we have to do that, we might as well realize that everything about the situation is just a little ridiculous.

Stray observations:

  • For whatever reason, Noel's ABC affiliate aired something other than this show tonight, so you got me. Noel will be back, presumably, for the beginning of ABC's mad rush to air all Ted episodes before Lost comes back Tuesday.
  • "Why will no one in this building ever smash anyone with a phone?"
  • "My cat was named Meow Is the Time for All Good Men to Come to the Aid of Their Country. I just called him Meow."
  • "We call this a Midwestern handshake."
  • "It was just a hug that drifted … boobwardly."
  • "Hindsight is 20/20 isn't it, Mr. Never-Accidentally-Fondled-Anyone?"
  • "He also has a disease? Poor drunk!"
  • "Great news! You both have a disease!"
  • "I don't want a sex disease. Especially one that's assigned to me by a supervisor."
  • "Don't worry, Chumley. He's just upset because your smile is permanent, and his only comes when he's happy."
  • "Harassment is supposed to be sexy. You're not even doing it right."
  • "We're like Rommel and Patton. We respect and even love one another. But if we ever lived together, it would be a bloodbath."

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