Like most reality TV, Undercover Boss, in which top executives go blue collar, is deeply fictional
Forget about bagging poultry parts or pumping and dumping penny stocks. The dirtiest job in America right now is producing reality TV. It consists of feeding the public's appetite—which has grown insatiable, after years of expert stimulation—with the mixture of sadism and sentimentality, cruel unfairness and poetic justice, ugly situations and happy endings, that most of us know by now are sheer delusions but that we are as helpless to resist as the next market bubble.
Undercover Boss from CBS, in which leaders of big companies must toil for a few days as lowly employees of their own business, is a new series whose theme is sensitivity but whose method, as usual, is humiliation. As suits our recessionary period, the show purports to champion the little guys by letting them have at the big guys. This reverses the Machiavellian script of Donald Trump's defunct series The Apprentice (the source of whose former popularity is, like Dow 14,000 or "full employment," almost impossible to fathom now). In The Apprentice, power was never abused because power, as the show defined it, was abuse—and withstanding abuse was how power was amassed. In the populist-leaning Undercover Boss, power is more Christian. Being able to bow to one's inferiors and draw inspiration from their struggles is rewarded with an even greater power: wisdom.
The show tilts our sympathies toward the meek and mild by showing how they adapt to corporate policies that often appear demeaning, counterproductive, and puzzlingly unnecessary. Meanwhile, the mighty ones who make these policies are forced—mop in hand, so to speak—to suffer their consequences. These interludes of voluntary helplessness, besides being brief, are disingenuous in a way that subverts the series' ruling premise. The secret executives know they're on a TV show, while the workers think the cameras are there for other reasons. This information disparity allows the top dogs to frown, sigh, or wince whenever it makes them seem kind, alert, or thoughtful. The little dogs behave by instinct and sometimes seem mean, slow, or odd as a result.
The sudden loss of lofty status that Undercover Boss relies on for its corny appeal is a perennially potent dramatic trick. Such dire plunges from great heights happen rarely in real life (at least not to the folks we want them to), and when these tailspins do occur, they seldom yield the searing realizations and earnest apologies that we think they should. Undercover Boss grants all our wishes, though, especially our envy-based ill wishes. In the season premiere, Larry O'Donnell, president of Waste Management (WMI) (the 46,000-strong trash hauler and recycler), is dumped into the mucky trenches where his hefty paychecks come from. Wearing a drab uniform, his millionaire's complexion concealed by a growth of graying stubble, Larry is given a series of yucky tasks meant to stir his conscience, steal his pride, and provoke huge grins of gratified resentment. He's forced to snatch recyclable bits of trash from a speeding conveyor belt. He's made—under the barking orders of a foreman whose chronic kidney ailments have hardened him toward able-bodied slackers—to fill bags with windblown scraps of litter. Finally, he's given a scrub brush and a pump and told to clean and empty a long row of portable toilets at a scabrous fairground.
Having learned many tough lessons about the ways his well-meaning company undervalues, overwhelms, and generally jerks around its "front-line" workforce (symbolized by a small group of cheerful stoics who give the company their utmost while enduring sometimes acute hard luck at home), Larry convenes his wary-looking lieutenants to issue corrective orders and share his testimony. As is sure to happen in some form on most every episode of the series (whose upcoming slate of masked corporate chieftains includes those of 7-Eleven and—can't wait—Hooters!), Larry presents himself as a changed man and implies that Waste Management must change as well. The episode ends with a Fortune 500 version of The Sermon on the Mount. Surrounded by admiring workers, including those whom he met during his journey, Larry heralds the coming of a new kingdom.
This finale (and many to come, no doubt) is emotionally irresistible and intellectually preposterous. The idea that the soul journeys of CEOs can redeem or restore American industry in an age of ruthless globalism makes for an enchanting bedtime story, but it's hard to conceive of a goofier approach to—or a more misleading account of—What's Actually Going On Out There. Are the captains of Chinese commerce walking the Road to Damascus, too? No, they're taking shortcuts around Wall Street and the back way to Washington.
Undercover Boss is entertaining precisely to the extent that it's dishonest. The fraudulence peaks with its messianic mythmaking, but its faux populism is the true sham. Because the series' very existence requires cooperation from the executives that it purports to make suffer for their sins, it has to raise them higher, in the end, than it found them at the start. If it doesn't, they'll stop volunteering for their fake lashings and ritual redemptions. "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss," sang The Who. However he chooses to hide it, scuff it up, or beg forgiveness for misusing it, the power is still his. And that's reality.