“Better Off Ted” as SF

I have several SF shows that I thought I couldn’t wait to watch: the 2009 remake of The Prisoner, the newly updated Day of the Triffids, the latest Doctor Who special, the last two eps of V, the last three eps of Paradox—I have them all right here, and despite my interest in them, I’m just not prioritizing them.

What do I watch instead? What show do I obtain instantly upon release? What show do I make time to watch in a day jam-packed with distractions?

Yes, I watch Better Off Ted (2009– ), a half-hour sitcom in its second season set in the office of a company, Veridian Dynamics, that makes various strange products and attempts to sell them to an unwitting public. Their motto is, “We can do that!” The blurbs for the show compare it to Arrested Development (2003–2006), a zany critical favorite awaiting its 2011 movie update. (Portia de Rossi is in both shows. Coincidence? Er, probably.) You can watch some full BOT eps on Hulu and some other full BOT eps at ABC.com.

Better Off Ted cast members
“Better Off Ted”: Ted (Jay Harrington), Lem (Malcolm Barrett), Phil (Jonathan Slavin, back to camera), and Linda (Andrea Anders) [1]

I submit that BOT is one of the best sci-fi shows out there. Fringe? Uninteresting and too heavy on the impenetrable mythos; the blank lead actress means the show holds no emotional resonance for me. Defying Gravity? Bizarre antifeminist dystopia disguised as a soap opera, and they canceled it anyway—not a moment too soon. Stargate Universe? The usually clean-cut Stargate franchise meeting the dark handheld camera–ness and utter unlikeability of characters a la Battlestar Galactica is just wrong.

Before you exclaim that BOT is not SF but rather an odd workplace comedy, I argue that any text that deals with science, change, and its relationship to humanity is SF. BOT does all this. Further, it shows the scientific method in action—and when people try to circumvent rigorous testing, something horrible happens. Although the show focuses on a middle manager, Ted; his boss, Veronica; and his officeplace crush, Linda, a secretary, my favorite part of the show deals with Phil and Lem, two brilliant scientists who can invent like crazy.

BOT addresses pressing social issues, like in 1.04 “Racial Sensitivity,” which follows the travails of Veridian Dynamics’ employees as the newly installed motion sensors fail to recognize black people. It addresses the intersection between science and dating in 2.01 “Love Blurts,” when VD decides to post genetic matches for their employees, so that they might decrease health insurance costs by creating perfect children. In 1.01 “Pilot,” a scientist, Phil, is cryogenically frozen as a test, with disasterous consequences. Individuality and the psychology of groups are treated in 1.07 “Get Happy,” when people’s cubes are decorated for them by VD in one of several themes, leading to the creation of workplace cabals.

Many episodes deal with the ramifications of various scientific inventions: the compound that causes hair growth; the biocomputer that develops a toxic leak; the nonbeef beef; the transmitter that throws voices over long distances; a weaponized pumpkin; and so on, each invention more ridiculous than the last. But part of the humor lies in the fact that some of these inventions actually seem like a good idea. Nonbeef beef? What a way to ensure our food supply! Hair growth? Millions of bald people would be lining up for that one. Weaponized pumpkins? Honestly, they’ll never see that one coming.

BOT has gotten pretty good reviews. It was created by Victor Fresco, who created cult fave Andy Richter Controls the Universe (2002–2003). I think it resonates right now because it’s a cynical look at the workplace, but it’s not mean-spirited. It shows the company as inept, a product of its hugeness and inability to acknowledge and nurture true diversity. Although the company’s decisions appear to defy common sense, there is usually some kind of explanation for what they do, even if it ends up being ridiculous—like hiring white people to follow black employees around to operate machinery for them in 1.04 “Racial Sensitivity,” instead of simply switching to a motion sensor that can see people of color.

If you’re looking for fun SF that works on several different levels, give BOT a try. You won’t be sorry. Some of these eps would be a great teaching tool to discuss the scientific method and process, the relationship between science and the social, and the applicability of theory to practice. But mostly? They are just freaking hilarious.

Image credit

1. The image from Better Off Ted is from ABC’s Web site and is available here: http://abc.go.com/shows/better-off-ted/photos.

This text is copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. This post was originally written on December 30, 2009. It may be freely copied anywhere. The image is from ABC.com and is copyrighted by them. If you copy this post, please copy the image too and host it yourself. If you read this document at a site other than its original, I may not see any comments you might append, and I’d love to hear from you. Please comment at the original blog post if you wish me to see your remarks.

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