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In need of laughs

Better Off Ted on ABC

Åsa Karlström 3 May 2009

Stereotyped: nothing new with Ted's boffins

I have nothing against geeky scientist conversations, but it would have been nice to hear something wittier

Better off Ted is a TV sit-com on ABC created by Victor Fresco, described as a ‘satirical office comedy’. Ted (played by Jay Harrington) works at a scientific multinational corporation, Veridian Dynamics, as the head of their R&D department. He is also a single dad to a 7-year-old girl. In his role as boss, Ted among other things oversees two scientists – Lem and Phil – and an attractive woman, Linda, in whom he has a romantic interest. His own boss, Veronica (played by Portia De Rossi), is a harsh woman with a strange sense of morale and decidedly psychopathic tendencies.

When I first heard about the show, I thought it had potential: after all, life in an R&D department, with a few scientists, satirical comments and world views mixed in, could make for some interesting situations. So it was with high hopes of encountering ‘The Office meets the Lab’ that I sat down to watch my first episode.

Unfortunately, after fifteen minutes, I was cringing and wanted to turn change the channel. The plot featured, among other things, two people in HAZMAT suits – which I suppose was the writers’ attempt at portraying how scientists dress when working in under secure biosafety conditions – trying to hug each other and kiss through their plastic masks. And worse, the two main scientists in the show wear lab coats on top of shirts and ties. The dialogue isn’t much better than the costumes, as when one scientist to the other: “Don’t you get the feeling looking down the microscope that the plastoblasts think you’re God?” I don’t know how silly I sound in the lab, but this was probably the closest they got to an actual “geeky scientist conversation”. Now, I have nothing against geeky scientist conversations, but it would have been nice to hear something wittier.

Telling myself that perhaps I was too tired to understand the jokes or to see the satire, I decided to give it one more chance and watch the next episode. This time the main plot of the episode was that the company, to save money, has decided to change the motion detectors in the building so that lights only come on and doors only open when people approach. The narrative glitch with these new detectors, however, is that they can’t detect black people. One of the two scientists in the show is black so he gets locked inside the lab overnight, and can’t even get the elevators to work. When they approach Veronica with the problem, she says it’s too expensive to reinstall the old ones, but she can hire a white person for every black person so they can get detected together. I guess it was supposed to be funny.

Overall, I really, really tried to like this show. And I wanted to, since it could have been quite original. But when Ted started conveying his thoughts into the camera (the famous ‘fourth wall’) and elaborating more and more on his romantic feelings about the blonde girl and how it was hard to have casual sex with his boss, I realized that it was doomed for me. In addition to its lack of humor, the two scientist characters are such stereotypical geeks that it is not even innovative. If I were to sum it up, I would say that Better Off Ted entirely lacks charm and interesting characters. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but by the end I was almost hoping that the two boffins would mutate into Dr. Evil and Dr. Bad and take over the world, if only to keep this scientist interested enough to watch the next episode. I guess I will have to keep waiting for a good satirical show with scientists as characters.