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In case you missed the memo, Severance, one of Apple TV+’s weirdest original series to date, is currently in the midst of its inaugural campaign to unsettle the American office worker’s just-off-the-clock Friday nights. Produced (most notably) by Ben Stiller and starring Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette and Britt Lower, among others, the bleakly eerie corporate “comedy” has, with the simple addition of a little unreal body horror, a lot too-real surveillance, and no fewer than half a dozen existential jump scares per hourlong episode, taken the dark office satire model Hollywood’s spent decades perfecting and turned it into something that feels wholly new.
Oh, and goats. They’ve also added goats.
Severance is an eerie, prestige-y update to what my basic cultural literacy understands to be a well-established dark office satire formula—that is, framing modern office work as a kind of imprisonment within a windowless, dehumanizing box in which blatantly meaningless tasks are performed for the merciless satisfaction of a blonde, power-hungry corporate ice queen. But it also owes something to one of its more ambitious (and equally bleak) forebears: ABC’s cult-favorite “horrible corporate” sitcom, Better Off Ted.
Created by Victor Fresco and starring Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett, and Isabella Acres, Better Off Ted focused on the same question Severance has made so central to its identity (“who are we when we’re at work, and does that person even count as a person?”) but ran it through the quirky single camera sitcom lens. Full of bright colors, an irritatingly catchy jingle-adjacent soundtrack, and the kind of hammy performances you find more often in theatrical productions than on network comedies, Better Off Ted made the existential horror of losing yourself inside a soulless corporate behemoth, well, fun. Ranging from the development of weaponized pumpkins to the repurposing of miscalculated lab experiments to a psychological investigation of the hundreds of ways workers are expected to contort themselves to accommodate their managers’ mistakes—including, in “Beating a Dead Workforce,” literally working a man to death—Better Off Ted’s anti-corporate remit was so flexible that everyone, all the way from de Rossi as the department’s humorless boss bitch to Slavin and Barrett as its bumbling scientists to Anders and Harrington as its always-striving-to-be-moral leads, got to eat. Even Isabella Acres, popping in occasionally as Ted’s (Harrington) eight-year daughter to counterbalance Veridian Dynamics’ overwhelming corporate bleakness, got her share of killer dark-comedy bits.
Frustratingly, as delightful(ly grim) as it was from the pilot, Better Off Ted ended up as so many ambitious network comedies do: proving itself too good for this world. In fact, the series was so short-lived it didn’t even see all of its 26 episodes air. Premiering in early 2009 to broad critical acclaim and returning for a second season later that same year, ABC ended up mysteriously dropping it from the primetime calendar two episodes before what would turn out to be its official series finale, only to officially cancel the series later that May. (Apocryphally, ABC intended to air the final two episodes in June of 2010, but the NBA Finals dragged on long enough that year that that plan was scrapped.)
Fans, to put it lightly, were baffled. As were critics. As was the series creator himself.
“If this was on cable, I think it would be like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” Fresco told Vulture in a pre-cancellation 2010 interview whose explicit goal was to figure out just what had happened to make ABC burn as hot and fast as it did through the cult favorite series’ final stretch. “[I]t would attract a small, but hard-core following and that would be enough to power it through. But the network needs a much bigger group of people.”
True enough, especially in the pre-streaming age. And as critically beloved as Better Off Ted was, hindsight (and the Nielsen archive) shows us that it put up some truly anemic ratings—2.09 million viewers in Season 1 (a more than 50% drop from its debut) and 2.17 million in Season 2. Compare that to how well Workaholics ended up performing for Comedy Central, premiering in 2011 and then not bowing again until 2017 despite only averaging 1.33 million viewers in its first season, 1.84 million in its second season and 0.48 in its seventh, Fresco’s explanation starts to feel even a bit prophetic.
That said, with all its goofy stoner bro-raderie and SoCal improv roots, Workaholics wasn’t really the same kind of show that Better Off Ted was. To compare it—and, by extension, Severance—to something much closer to the “what if workers aren’t even people?” mold, we ought to instead look to Pat Bishop, Matt Ingebretson, and Jake Weisman’s equally dark and barely heightened Corporate, which also ran on Comedy Central but was, like Better Off Ted before it, canceled after just two and a half seasons after disappointing ratings. With its unwavering commitment to underscoring just how deadening corporate culture can be, not just to its drone workers but to the grasping management class that dedicates itself to the company line only to find their loyalty dismissed entirely out of hand the moment it serves the company to pivot, what Corporate’s short life on cable proves to me is that, regardless of how Fresco felt in 2010 (“No knock on family shows … but I just love the horrible corporate environment. It seems like a place to mine for comedy”), hewing too close to the dark reality of neoliberal American striving just won’t work as a commercial (American) comedy, point blank.
As Severance just keeps underscoring, work week after work week after work week, reality is just too close to horror to be palatable for the corporate sponsors whose ads linear TV viewers are meant to not think about too deeply. (Which the barely satirical Veridian Dynamic ads punctuating Better Off Ted underscored in their own time, bookending as they did ABC’s real commercial breaks)
Which, I guess, is all to say that in the end, the most accurate thing about the way Better Off Ted left its fans may be the fact that, when it went out, it was with ABC inadvertently censoring the warning Veronica gives Ted in the series’ unaired final episode about the dangers of taking corporate bullshit too lightly: “Don’t joke about the stuff, Ted. It can tell, and it doesn’t like it.”
Watch Better Off Ted on Hulu
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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