TV review: ‘Undercover Boss USA’
Tuesday, 8.30pm, TV One
The Spark August 2010
‘Undercover Boss USA’ is a peculiar show; a show hard to imagine being produced any time before the 2008 economic recession. The show is an attempt by ‘reality’ television to tap into the growing class anger caused by the recession. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the extremely over-the-top and unsubtle opening narration:
The economy is going through TOUGH TIMES! Many hard-working Americans blame wealthy CEOs, out of touch with what’s going on in THEIR OWN COMPANIES! But SOME BOSSES are willing to take EXTREME ACTION to make their businesses BETTER!
Set to very dramatic music, the words “EXTREME TIMES CALL FOR EXTREME MEASURES” pop up. The show then reveals its premise; each week will feature “the boss of a major corporation” going “undercover” for a week as an entry-level recruit to the company to experience the practical consequences and hardships caused by policies made at the top of the ladder. For the first two episodes, the “victims” are Larry O’Donnell, CEO of Waste Management, Inc. and Coby Brooks, CEO of Hooters.
The entire format of this show is frequently emotionally manipulative, mainly in an attempt to make the predominantly working-class audience buy into a false alternative to class struggle that the show is trying to sell. After a few minutes profiling the CEOs, and portraying them as very nice and genuine family men with some sort of personal tragedy that happened to them that they have to deal with – Coby with his brother dying in a corporate air crash and Larry with his daughter becoming disabled after a surgical mishap – as the show goes on, it frequently obscures wider economic issues by focusing on individual struggles.
And to get the audience to buy into their rather dubious message, the show has to provide content that will be appealing to this audience. It does this by rather quickly degenerating into spectacle, with the CEOs being forced into a series of humiliating tasks that the workers have to do every day. After one day of working, Larry complains about how his back is “hurting like you wouldn’t believe”, going on about how he had “no idea this job was going to be so physically demanding and mentally exhausting”. Typically the years spent pencil-pushing in corporate boardrooms and lazing around in their mansions has made them utterly incompetent at manual labour; in both episodes so far they have been fired at least once. Admittedly, despite the show’s huge faults, this is amusing to watch.
In both episodes aired so far, and I’m guessing this is going to be a series-long trend, the CEOs featured end up completely shocked by various obvious facts about their company practices. In Larry’s case he’s shocked by how the high-efficiency policies he’s pushed for have made life hell for the workers of his company since they’re barely humanly possible to even achieve, and in Coby’s case he’s shocked at how the public views his company as misogynistic, a company which entirely revolves around scantily-clad women serving people beer.
The most shameful aspect of the show is how it portrays the struggles that the employees of the company have to go through. In the first episode, there is a man on kidney dialysis working for Waste Management. Instead of exploring the implications of a society which forces a man on dialysis to work 4 days a week, he is lauded for how much of a “hard honest worker” he is. A woman has a workload of 2 jobs at once, and has to support both her parents, her husband and her children, and again, rather than questioning why she’s working 2 jobs at once for very low pay she’s touted as an “inspiration”.
Every ‘reality’ show needs a bad guy, and if the CEO isn’t bad, and the workers aren’t bad, then all the blame falls onto the middle managers. Larry seems to be completely oblivious to the practice of docking pay for every minute late and finds it shocking, and gives the manager who is doing this a hard talking to about how it “isn’t company policy”, despite the fact that most companies do this. The “Hooters” episode’s solution to how the entire company is based on degrading women seems to be a smack on the wrist for male managers who act inappropriately to the Hooters Girls and talking about returning to the non-existent “family friendly” age of the Hooters franchise.
They then give the workers featured on the show some sort of reward, such as the man on dialysis becoming an “inspirational speaker”, instead of something that will allow him to live out the remaining days of his life without working, or hiring some of them to give advice to the corporation on some vague goal of being nicer to their workers. It glosses over the fact that nothing has or will change for the majority of the low-paid, over-worked employees in their company. By obscuring this larger picture and focusing on how the CEOs have decided to do some nice things for the few individual workers on the show, the message of the show ends up being that the solution to corporations screwing over the working-class is greater communication between the CEOs and the workers and this isn’t really possible except on the completely individual level the show is based on.