“Undercover Boss”: Capitalist fairy tale

In an age of executive excess, this series is a poignant exercise in make-believe for the underpaid working classes

Topics: Undercover Boss, CBS, I Like to Watch, Television,

"Undercover Boss": Capitalist fairy taleLarry O'Donnell, president of Waste Management, left, and as new hire Randy Lawrence, right.

At a time when the gap between executive pay and the average worker’s salary is painfully wide, CBS presents “Undercover Boss” (premieres Sunday, Feb. 7, after the Super Bowl), a touching fairy tale in which the boss man does menial labor shoulder to shoulder with his anonymous underlings. Of course, the real point of CBS’s make-believe isn’t to show how much the common man suffers from the indignities and injustices of blue-collar and administrative white-collar jobs — although we do get some seriously depressing glimpses at the lifestyles of the not so rich and not so famous. No, the real point here is to demonstrate that the big man in the suit and tie is just regular folks like you and me — you know, except for the fact that he spends half his day golfing and has about a thousand times more cash at his disposal at any given moment than we do.

Oh yeah, and his back hurts like crazy when he’s on his feet all day. In other words, you’d have to have ice water flowing through your veins not to enjoy this elaborate P.R. experiment in spite of yourself. It’s pretty tough to resist the heartwarming tale of Larry O’Donnell, president of Waste Management, who gamely agrees to pretend to be a new hire named Randy Lawrence who’s training in several different low-level positions within his company. Larry is eager, he says, to get a closer look at how the business functions and what the experience of working its lower-level positions might be like.

And sure, Larry is likable enough in his role as a humbler, entry-level version of himself. He does seem to feel horribly guilty for the ways that his company’s policies have been misused or misinterpreted by supervisors, leading to humiliation, inconvenience or overall job dissatisfaction of the ranks. One low-level supervisor runs to clock in after lunch to avoid having her paycheck docked by her boss; a trash collector pees in a cup while she’s out collecting trash, because there’s no time to stop and use the bathroom; a female office worker holds down four different positions at the company at once even though she’s only paid for one job, and she’s about to foreclose on her dream house. (Imagine how the company’s publicists and the show’s producers drooled when they wandered across that very timely P.R. gold mine.)



The workers involved all seem very capable. Larry, meanwhile, can’t do much of anything right in his role as a regular working Joe. Delightfully enough, a supervisor named Walter fires Larry after watching him haplessly attempting to pick up trash on a littered hillside for just a couple of hours.

“Nice workin’ with you, but you just don’t have it,” Walter tells Larry.

“Walter is the only person who ever fired me in my whole career,” Larry says. Well, Larry, that’s because you haven’t technically been working all these years, nor have any of us who sit in front of our computers or talk on the phone or go to meetings all day long, not compared to what working-class people do all day. And when you see Larry in action, you sort of have to wonder how the man worked his way up the ladder in the first place. Meanwhile, Fred, a guy who cleans out Waste Management’s porta-potties swiftly and efficiently without ever complaining about the work, a guy who coaches Larry enthusiastically all day long, seems like natural management material.

“We’re like hunters, we see her prey, we creep up on it,” Fred tells Larry the day they work together, referring to a cluster of portable toilets.

Larry is truly impressed with Fred’s work. He really is. In fact, his experience doing these crappy jobs for his own company will forever change his management style — that’s what he tells a gathering of employees at the pep-rally-style conclusion of the show. And really, he does seem genuine when he says it. But short of seeing Fred promoted and watching as raises are awarded to every last one of the capable workers we met, should we care? Shouldn’t all CEOs be forced to do the really bad jobs at their companies, so they understand how their passing decisions and cost-cutting maneuvers affect real human beings?

It would be nice if this sort of thing might happen without the cameras running. It would be nice if businesses simply started to police themselves, to take on a commitment to fairness and justice instead of simply answering to the board and the stockholders and the bottom line.

That’s a little too much to expect — or at least that’s what the captains of industry and the Once-lers of all stripes tell us. So, instead, we’ll have to soothe ourselves with publicist-invented fairy tales.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>