“Unless your boyfriend is a half-naked magician, I say we stay on the topic of ‘What the hell is that?'” – Better Off Ted
Better Off Ted, now streaming on Netflix.
Set mostly in the R&D Department of limitless scope at the fictional Veridian Dynamics, and narrated by the titular upper middle management wonk, Better Off Ted takes a look at the multitude of things that said wonk (Jay Harrington), a loveably bizzare duo of scientists (Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett), a soulless but benign executive (Portia DeRossi), and others (including Andrea Anders) could get up to in the jaws of a company that seems to be out of Kafka’s riff on 1984. It’s an office workplace comedy.1 Plus it’s got some heart. And some real wackiness. And some pointed satire about corporations. But not media corporations.
I’m going to give my verdict up front here and say that Better Off Ted was a show out of its time. Airing just before a wackier, wittier edge finally gained traction in mainstream comedy2 but launching right around the Great Recession, its two short (13 episodes each) seasons were really just lost in the shuffle.
The cast – all very good TV veterans – would largely continue on as they had before. The generically handsome Harrington and the spunky-with-an-edge Anders have had lead or supporting roles in various series, most of which you may vaguely remember existing. Slavin and Barrett appear in character roles here and there and continue to be brilliant comedians and wordsmiths off screen. Victor Fresco, the series’ creator, continues to be a beige version of Chuck Lorre.
Of note: the show did originate the character Anders would go on to play on Mr. Sunshine. Not in name or anything, but she’s playing the exact same character, and it’s weird.
What’s to Love Now
I stumbled across Better Off Ted during its second season, and dove into whatever episodes the network put on Hulu to test if anyone was watching.3 Comedy nerds would mention this show, even while it was on, like some mystical piece of myth lost in the vagaries of memory. Funny, they would say. And not much more. This was a show that brought some real fascinating twists to single camera sitcom conventions – the physical comedy was frequent and brilliant, and normalcy of extremity in characters was also commonplace. When it worked, Better Off Ted was high-end vaudeville.
What Makes Us Groan
Upon reflection, it so often did not work. Everything in Better Off Ted has the depth of a concept sketch. Almost nothing sustains an entire episode. You can practically hear the characters, and the cast, wanting to continue riffs and concepts and scenes; once the joke is out, though, that’s all that the writers apparently wrote.
Definitely faster, funnier and more watchable than, say, The Big Bang Theory, it never rises to the sort of energy of an Arrested Development, which is what would have most benefited this particular group of characters and scenarios. Key example – virtually everything Maz Jobrani says is absolute gold, yet there’s no rhyme or reason to his inclusion and I’d actually blanked that he was in this series when I originally did the writeup.
Both seasons also suffered from either network interference or general genericism wherein almost every episode gets stuck – really stuck – in an A-plot/B-plot lineup with voiceovers hammering home the parallels and the (sometimes funny) fake commercials doing the same. In nearly every instance the B-plot was more personal, less interesting, and got in the way. It’s a shame, because the more personal notes weren’t poorly done; everything is just poorly paced and integrated.
Much as it pains me to think of skipping this series, I rewatched all 26 episodes and I can say for certain that there are more solid options out there.
With its short run and quite a few laughs each episode, Better Off Ted could be a pleasant-enough background binge while you do other things. Season 1 has most of the show’s real genuine moments, mostly between Ted and Linda and Ted and his daughter Rose. If you’re looking for a bit of non-saccharine sweetness, zip through those.
The real funny stuff happens in season 2 when they ditched all that nonsense and let the comedy cut loose. It still rarely gets above 75% of a good episode though, so you can probably drop in on anything this season and find something to enjoy. The vaudevilliest stuff happens in 2-2 (great asides, great physical comedy), 2-10 (sex with a hot German, ruined by a malfunctioning translation device), and 2-12 (the setup is ancient, but the execution is flawless).