On the subject of TV shows tragically cancelled before their time, (of course we were on that subject, don’t be ridiculous) near the top of that list should be the duo of Better Off Ted and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, two shows created by Victor Fresco. Better Off Ted is amazing, feeling something like a cross between The Office and Arrested Development but with the wackiness turned up to eleven or a high class version of My Name is Earl. I am less sure about the quality of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, but only because I haven’t seen it since it aired. (if only it were on Netflix)My recollection and the word about the internet is that it is largely of the same quality as Better Off Ted. Maybe one day I’ll splurge on the DVD and find out. Better Off Ted, though, is unquestionably brilliant. It deftly combines heart and wit, with real characters in an unreal, or all too real, world.
Better Off Ted is about Ted, who leads a research and development team at a giant corporation called Veridian Dynamics. His team consists of scientists, notably Phil and Lem, and product testers, Linda, and his boss, Veronica. The frighteningly truthful part of the show is the utter disdain Veridian shows for its employees and people in general. They are the epitome of the faceless monster corporation. They are constantly trying to find ways to get more from their employees while giving them less. The unreal side is development team, who are always at work on horrifying and impossible science experiments. The two elements combine for some hilarious and unusual scenarios.
I really can’t go on long enough about how great this show is. The central cast is perfect. All five are great. Ted is a great main character. He is much like Arrested Development’s Michael, a single father trying to wrangle a group of misfits and raise his child to do the right thing. He is different in that he is actually the good person Michael claims to be. Michael, while putting up a front as “the good guy,” is almost always willing to engage his family on their level. Ted general keeps to the straight and narrow, and when he does stray tends to come back of his own accord, not just from his failure. It wouldn’t be a comedy if he always lived up to his ideals, but Ted is at least shown to attempt to stick to them. Veronica, played by AD’s Portia de Rossi, is Ted’s cold, calculating boss. She doesn’t appear to care about anyone or anything, other than the company and her standing in it. While her character does soften in the second season, she never loses that edge. Linda is the weakest link, having not a lot to her character behind her like of Ted and her dislike of the company. Then there are Phil and Lem, a pair of essentially mad scientist who don’t realize that is what they are. Their experiments, hopeful products and general social ineptness drive a lot of the shows humor.
It also has one of the most natural and entertaining love triangles seen in a sitcom, between Ted, Linda and Veronica. Linda and Veronica, as they relate to Ted, show his two loves: doing the right, moral thing and his work for the company. Ted loves his job, and wants to do well and be seen doing well at it. But he is also a good guy that cares about the moral ramifications of his work, if maybe not enough. Linda is all morality; she hates her job and actively, if in a tiny way, sabotages the company. Veronica cares for nothing but the job, any sort of moral concerns are all but nonexistent. It is not really a fair comparison; Linda is obviously the right choice for Ted. She brings out the best in him. But Ted brings out the best in Veronica, only he can get her to see the downside of the company’s amorality. The first few episodes set up a fine, if a bit too precious attraction between Ted and Linda. They both admittedly like each other, but are not comfortable with pursuing a relationship at work. This is further complicated by a relationship Ted had with Veronica. Ted and Linda flirt off and on, almost too much, and it feels natural. There is a palpable attraction there and in the first season things proceed smoothly, setting them up for a series long romance, though the series doesn’t last long enough for that to come to anything. However, in the second season Veronica makes her case. At the start of the show, she is completely cold and emotionless, more an antagonist than a part of the team. Her character is softened in the second season, and Ted’s attraction to her becomes more apparent and understandable. She is still cold and unfeeling, but she feels more a legitimate alternative to Linda for Ted’s affection. Most refreshingly, none of the characters ever really address it as any sort of love triangle, mostly because none of them are actually in a relationship. Ted gets along with both, and Linda and Veronica develop something of a friendship over the second season. Much of that is allowed by the softening of Veronica, who is show as less the instrument of the faceless company and more as another cog in its machinery. She is in a similar position to Ted, only few steps higher on the endless ladder.
I could go on longer about this show, especially about the complete sadness that is Phil and Lem, but the last part of the show that requires mentioning are the Veridian Dynamics interstitials, little scenes that are either Veridian commercials or employee training videos. They are uniformly hilarious, often ending with a great little sign-off statement, like “Diversity, good for us” and “Right and wrong, they mean something.” They are both funny and perfectly illustrate the complete evilness of the company, who cares only about money and how perception can cost or earn them money.
Better Off Ted lasted two half seasons, for a total of 26 episodes. It was watched by no one apparently. I know I didn’t see it; I didn’t even know it existed until I looked up Andy Richter Controls the Universe, to see if it was available on DVD, and discovered that its creator had a second show that had been recently cancelled. Luckily, I found Better Off Ted on Netflix. It is there for anyone who wants to watch it. You should, if you like good television.