Falling down on the job

He’s being genuine; we promise.

This year CBS is using the attention-grabbing post-Super Bowl time slot to showcase the new reality show Undercover Boss, which will debut following the big game on February 7 and then air subsequent Sundays at 9 p.m. It’s a big spotlight for a show that’s mostly on the basic-cable level of job-related reality fare.

Boss’ intro plays up the idea that it’s some zeitgeist-capturing insight into American life, with references to the recession and a promise to show corporate fat cats how average Americans really work. The idea is that a high-ranking official at a large corporation goes “undercover,” posing as a front-line employee and getting a sense of what it’s like to work at their company. Of course this is all documented by cameras (even if it’s disguised as a different kind of show), so only carefully managed responses and encounters will ever make it to air.

The Details

Undercover Boss

And indeed the show’s first episode offers up all the platitudes you’d expect, as Larry O’Donnell, president of garbage-collection company Waste Management, takes various positions in his vast empire. The seemingly affable O’Donnell is “shocked” to discover that certain corporate policies have created demeaning conditions for employees, and “inspired” by the hard-working folks with whom he interacts. The last part of the show involves O’Donnell revealing himself to the employees he worked with, and taking his “lessons” to heart, by allegedly changing company policy and helping ease the hardships of those overburdened workers.

Thus Boss functions in a disingenuous way to reinforce corporate paternalism; never mind the inherent problem that none of these employees actually knows what the president of their company looks like. By choosing a handful of people to help (out of thousands), Boss makes a show of caring without effecting any real change. Not that we should expect real change from reality shows, but Boss touts its positive social values so relentlessly that it’s practically offensive.

Dubious politics aside, Boss is innocuous enough, with some entertainment value in watching a pampered executive get his hands dirty. But its sense of its own importance outweighs any mild amusement.


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