TV preview of 'Undercover Boss' on CBS

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010; E03

"Undercover Boss" is perfectly primed to be seen by the tens of millions of Americans who will watch that Sunday night ranch-dip delivery device known as the Super Bowl. The circle will be nearly complete: CBS will have made its gazillions on ads and the football players will have earned their own fortunes.

And in trickle-down style comes a show in which ordinary people get paid exactly nothing to experience the strangest sort of practical joke in their workplace, as if they're being "Punk'd" by a Successories poster: The head of the company wants to work alongside them, but -- get this -- they won't know it's him. And the sad part is, rather than tell a story about middle-class anger, "Undercover Boss" is drizzled with the feel-good syrup of corporate bunk.

To judge from its advance hype, the producers think of the show as a purposeful examination of our culture's most pressing division -- the distance that separates members of the everyday working class from the chief executives who decide their fates.

But what we get instead is a hollow catharsis for a nation already strung out on the futility of resenting those who occupy CEO suites. "Undercover Boss" quickly becomes an unbelievably juicy PR opportunity for the companies that agreed to do the project and a manipulative bummer for the unwitting employees who have the misfortune of appearing on it.

Given a new name

In this first episode, we are introduced to Larry O'Donnell, the president and chief operating officer of Houston-based Waste Management Inc., a.k.a. WM, "the leading provider of comprehensive waste and environmental services in North America," according to its corporate profile -- serving some 20 million customers and all their residential, industrial and commercial waste needs. Garbage trucks, landfill management, single-stream recycling plants, and, oh boy, portable toilets. (True trash television, at last!)

O'Donnell is a 50-something stuffed shirt with a gentle twang and likable way about him -- and although the show doesn't mention this, he earns about $3 million a year in salary and stock, according to filing statements required of publicly traded companies. So that we can relate to him, we are briefly introduced to his motorboat, wife, son and mentally challenged daughter. Then he's sent out into the real world, checking into a garden-variety execu-motel (the indignity) and arising the next morning to report for work at one of WM's recycling facilities.

There's an evil genius to how this is done: O'Donnell is given a new name, "Randy Lawrence," and introduced to his new WM co-workers as a laid-off construction worker who is looking for new career opportunities; the camera crew is purportedly following "Randy" to make a documentary about his hunt for a new job.

Given the housing bust and the Great Recession -- and the media's fascination for capturing the heartburn of both -- this sounds entirely plausible to WM's employees. Also keep in mind: The employees have clearly been asked by their supervisors to accommodate the camera crew and to be honest with Randy about his job performance. (O'Donnell tries to bait them with lazybones queries -- "Can you tell me when we get paid?" he asks in his first few minutes -- and judging from what we see, they are all too smart to take his bait.)

Randy is suited up in a DayGlo vest and protective eyewear and put on the conveyor line of a fast-moving stream of trash. He is to separate paper from cardboard, and like Lucy with chocolates, he is soon overwhelmed; the machinery is gummed up with cardboard and the workers are forced to clock out for lunch. A half-hour later, a co-worker darts for the time clock, terrified that she's forgotten to punch back in. She explains that the workers get docked two minutes pay for every one minute they're late punching in, and that their every move is watched by a supervisor, via security cameras. O'Donnell frowns.

And so it goes: At a WM landfill, O'Donnell fails to pick up loose trash fast enough to impress his supervisor, Walter, this episode's Morgan Freeman-esque champion-of-spirit. Although he gets dialysis three times a week, Walter never misses work, keeps hope alive, and all that. O'Donnell is wowed by Walter, but he's moved to tears by Jaclyn, an hourly landfill employee who manages to do three different jobs at once, since corporate-mandated (read: O'Donnell-mandated) layoffs last year. Jaclyn invites this curious stranger-with-a-TV-crew to dinner at her house, and wouldn't you know it? Her paycheck provides for a raft of relatives and her house is facing foreclosure.

The whole enterprise of "Undercover Boss" has a suspicious feeling to it; the disappearance and reappearance of the boss's face stubble from shot to shot would indicate that the chronology of these events was not quite as presented in the final cut. As it slogs on, O'Donnell is made to clean portable toilets in Texas, where he is charmed by yet another upbeat, wise-cracking black man who cleans them every day. Finally, he rides along with a woman who drives one of WM's residential garbage trucks; she shows him the tin can she uses when nature calls, because an actual bathroom break would be disastrous to her productivity chart. She also points out how they're being followed by a supervisor in an unmarked car.

Well, this cannot stand. O'Donnell returns to Houston, suits up and informs his executive staff (mostly male and all white, from what the viewer can see) that his eyes have been magically opened.

The big reveal

Here, "Undercover Boss" makes its big reveal: The employees who worked with "Randy" are brought to Houston and driven to the corporate offices in limousines. They are each shown to a room to sit and nervously wonder what they've done. O'Donnell walks in and tells them who he really is. Rather than be offended that they've been deceived and put in a compromising situation, they are delighted -- even giddy. Maybe because they think they're about to get some cash reward?

Sorry. Instead, O'Donnell gives Jaclyn, who's doing the jobs of three people, a promotion from hourly wages to a salary, with a potential for bonuses. He gives diabetic Walter some paid time off to go motivate other people with diabetes. He promises the only thing a boss ever promises: He will form task forces.

He also hauls in the shifty-eyed middle manager from the recycling plant, the poor dupe who instigated the timecard lateness penalty, and who must now suffer the vengeance of reality TV. O'Donnell gives him a lecture, offloading onto him all of "Undercover Boss's" purported comeuppance.

Then it's out to the parking lot for an employee pep assembly. Huzzah! O'Donnell talks about how much he's learned: It's the power of positive thinking, no-I-in-team and plastered smiles all around. Be sure to check the credits and see if the producers remembered to thank George Orwell.

Undercover Boss (one hour) premieres Sunday on CBS after the Super Bowl; scheduled at 10 p.m.

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