TV Preview: "Better Off Ted" on ABC

Jay Harrington (Ted) and Portia de Rossi (Veronica) star in
Jay Harrington (Ted) and Portia de Rossi (Veronica) star in "Better Off Ted," ABC's new sitcom about corporate culture. (By Craig Sjodin -- Abc)
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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Prime-time TV has an important role to play in American life, now more than ever: to counteract with jollity, frivolity or even inanity the depressing news we get during other hours of the television day. Late-night TV should be doing that, too, but its reliance on topical humor keeps it from being quite the escapist playground that prime time can be.

In that spirit, "Better Off Ted," the sitcom premiering tonight on ABC, gets special dispensation; it isn't great, it isn't brilliant, it isn't even uncontrollably funny. But it also isn't about what a terrifying shambles the economy has become, and by default it offers a half-hour's respite from otherwise incessant worry.

"Ted" is set at a gigantic and rather insidious corporation: Veridian Dynamics, but there are no details so far of Veridian executives getting platinum parachutes or scoring gluttonous benefits while, as it were, Rome burns -- or goes under. Veridian has an eclectic agenda; it makes everything from itchy office furniture to breakfast food, plus dabbles a bit, at least on the premiere, in cryogenics.

Ted, director of Research and Development, is played by an able and agreeable actor named Jay Harrington, who physically suggests a cross between Johnny Carson and Dan Rather. Could be worse. He's a single dad with an adorable 7-year-old named Rose who, in next week's second episode, accompanies him to the office and gets to do one of the things that adults in business do all the time: fire people.

Oh, but tut-tut, the show does not take up such issues as unemployment. Ted does have pangs of guilt now and then, but those are mostly caused by questionable practices in his business. Among them: producing absurdly utopian commercials about itself, one of which is seen at the beginning of each episode (at least the first and second episodes, anyway) and gives a concise, euphemistic, essentially ridiculous overview of the corporation and its various areas of mischief.

The employees include Veronica, an icy blonde in a well-fitted gray suit -- and thus a dead ringer for a Hitchcock heroine -- played with devilish assurance by Portia de Rossi. More appealing is perky blonde Linda, played with plenty of charm by Andrea Anders. Linda has developed certain neuroses while attempting to survive in the corporate jungle -- among them, compulsively swiping creamer packets from the cafeteria. She has a drawer full of them, perhaps as a safeguard in the event of national disaster.

Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett, respectively, play Phil and Lem, two Veridian scientists who have a pronounced resemblance to middle-aged versions of the daffy nerds on CBS's "Big Bang Theory." Phil is the poor guinea pig who gets fast-frozen and locked in a capsule -- a la Austin Powers, or Woody Allen in "Sleeper" -- and isn't supposed to be defrosted for quite some time, a plan ruined by an interfering cellphone (and aren't they all?).

"I have the best job in the world," says Phil -- not to any of the other characters but to us, the audience. Victor Fresco, the writer-producer who created the series, likes to have the characters turn and talk directly into the camera, a gimmick that may already be overrepresented in sitcomedy but which is used here fairly effectively. There are so many of these asides to the audience, however, that they can't really be called asides; it's the dialogue between characters that's peripheral, really, and the speeches to the camera that seem like the core of the show.

Officious Veronica once had an affair with Ted, it turns out, and Linda seems destined to have one, too; she and Ted find themselves holding hands at an office get-together. In the second episode, they try to kiss through cumbersome hazmat suits, failing awkwardly, while sirens and flashing lights warn of a toxic leak. Although the sitcom is not set in an America ravaged by recession, there is a swift if not quite Swiftian satire of the modern corporate state.

In one scene, Linda says she hates the woman in payroll who keeps refusing to help her with a problem. "I've got to go find her," she complains to Ted. "Do you know where she is?"

"India," says Ted.

We understand.

"Better Off Ted" is sly, dry and very stylized. Fresco tried to cut away anything that seemed the least bit extraneous. The frequent interruptions for comments to the camera disrupt the flow and make "Ted" sometimes seem like scraps of a show rather than the real thing. But if it isn't pure gold, it still has bright, shiny moments -- and unlike so much of what's on TV these days, it's much more likely to make you laugh than cry.

Better Off Ted (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 8:30 on Channel 7.

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