I can’t think of a less soothing way to wind down one’s day and escape into the comforting numbness of television. Although fraught with all of the reality genre’s tricks and tropes, “Does Someone Have to Go?” (premiering Thursday night) feels agonizingly real. And to be completely honest, I couldn’t look away.
The premiere episode takes viewers to a bleak Downers Grove, Ill., office park and the headquarters of a 70-employee business called Velocity Merchant Services, or VMS, which sells credit-card machines and other electronic-payment systems.
“Does Someone Have to Go?” captures perfectly the feeling I’ve had whenever I visit office parks: What exactly goes on here? How is a day filled? How is productivity measured?
“You can ETOC [estimated time of completion] all you want — fortunately, I don’t report to you!” one employee hollers at another. (What joy.)
VMS turns out to be a compelling case study in classic mismanagement and an HR nightmare of nepotism. The chief executive is Dema Barakat, who started the business 13 years ago at age 19 (this is never explained) and now runs it with her husband, Danoush.
What might work in, say, a family-owned restaurant setting has unfortunately stalled out here in the cubicle realm. Dema’s mother, Kout, works part time as the head of accounting; Dema’s brother is a vice president; a variety of cousins and siblings occupy lower rungs.
The producers send Dema and Danoush away for two days, during which the employees are supposed to let it all hang out for the camera, describing the office’s many dysfunctions and personality clashes.
Most nuclear, the producers then gather the employees in the conference room, where they are shown what everyone earns. The disparity here is fascinating, as are the agape jaws.
“I almost threw up,” the director of marketing (who makes $57,285 a year) tells us. “Once you see [everyone’s salary], you can’t unsee it.”
To no one’s surprise, the employees related to Dema generally make more, though not all of them, which compounds the awkwardness. (It’s important to note that Dema and Danoush’s salaries aren’t revealed.)
By the end of day one, each employee has to vote in secret for the colleague they think should be shown the door. Because the reality TV genre prizes agony over all else, the three employees who received the most votes must each argue in his or her own defense.
I won’t give it away (the episode concludes next week, then the series moves on to someone else’s inferno), other than to highlight one more disturbing twist: Two of the three marked for dismissal appear to be the only black men in the whole place, and they make far less than everyone else.
That said, “Does Someone Have to Go?” provides little in the way of a grand statement or meaningful takeaway. In one regard, the show is very much a reflection of how we work and what we’re willing to do to cling to mediocre pay and unsatisfying jobs. In another regard, it’s simply another stop on television’s eternal trip on the humiliation train.
Much happier news about everyday people arrives in the form AMC’s charmingly simple “Showville” (also premiering Thursday), which travels to small towns and holds auditions for a local talent show.
Nothing’s at stake here — no recording contracts, no instant fame, no elimination nail-biters, no big cash payout. Two amiable and ego-free judges you’ve never heard of (an actor and a choreographer) simply pick their favorite four acts and then help them improve. A few days later, they stage the talent show in a local theater or auditorium. The winner gets a trophy. Everyone roots for everyone else.
The first episode takes place in picturesque Holland, Mich., where an immigrant magician competes against a husband-and-wife duo who both play penny whistles; a nerdy singer-songwriter; and another husband and wife who have a slightly saucy sideshow act.
Of late, AMC hasn’t ginned up the most memorable reality programming, with recent lackluster efforts about taxidermy, circus freaks and Kevin Smith’s comic-book shop.
“Showville” is sweet and genuine, but it’s a little like watching baby ducklings try to cross a busy street. It’s a well-meaning, good-humored, hospitable hour of television, reminiscent of the nascent days of cable reality shows in the early 2000s, before everyone figured out that ratings success meant being nasty, famous and selfish. I kept wondering what “Showville’s” twist would be.
There is no twist, except for the fleeting glimpse of “reality” being briefly reclaimed by people who look and act real.
Does Someone Have to Go?
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on Fox.
(one hour) premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on AMC.