I’m trying to think of ways that “The Job,” an ill-conceived reality competition show premiering Friday night on CBS, could have been slightly more offensive than it already is. Hmmm, maybe if it had groveling and begging. Maybe if they showed it on Labor Day. Maybe if the losers were each given the consolation prize of a Taco Bell gift card carrying a balance just 2 cents below the cheapest item on the menu.
Because what’s the point here? “The Job” would have you believe that its can-do heart is in the right place at the right time: More than 12 million Americans are out of work, the show tells us; the economy is still shaky; times’re tough and all that. To help, “The Job” flies a handful of candidates to television land, where, before a studio audience and all of America, they must compete for a “dream job” with a well-known employer.
In the first episode, the brass ring is to become an assistant manager at a Palm restaurant in Manhattan — for what salary amount and what sort of schedule, we are never told. Three executives from the family-run chain of swank steakhouses sit in judgment while five contestant-applicants, some more experienced than others, answer questions (how much is a 30 percent tip on a $300 tab?) and spend a trial night in the restaurant working a variety of jobs under the camera’s watchful eye.
Meanwhile, there is another panel just off to the side of the first panel, made up of three owner-operators of other restaurants, who are allowed to buzz in and make an offer to one of the candidates before the Palm people decide who they want.
This sounds confusing, but the real problem with the show — besides its exploitative and sad premise — is how slow it is. Much of the hour is spent watching some people stand on a stage and some other people sit in chairs. During their night at the Palm, pre-recorded and shown to judges, the contestant-applicants botch the protocol for serving wine, forget names and table assignments, and fail to recognize one of the owners when he shows up for his reservation, sending him to the bar to seek out the rest of his party.
Lisa Ling, the show’s host, tries to make the proceedings sound a lot more exciting than they are, to no avail. I thought Ling already had a good job — interviewing sex addicts and other fringy folk on Oprah Winfrey’s network, yes? Is she unemployed now, too? Or is she moonlighting?
“The Job” has a way of raising more questions than are answered. The contestants come from as far away as Idaho, Alabama and even Hawaii, hoping to get this job at a restaurant in Manhattan. Like seasoned reality-show contestants, they have learned to spin disaster into personal triumph; the more platitudes they speak, the better their chances. Thus we learn right away about deceased spouses and battles with cancer. Even one of the panelists is moved to ask a contestant — a widowed mother of six — how she plans to accomplish moving her family to New York if she gets the Palm job. Her reply ought to be to ask them what sort of relocation package they’re offering. Instead she assures them she’ll find a way.
“The Job” commits some of the same sins of the far more unctuous (and unfortunately popular) CBS show “Undercover Boss,” in which chief executives of brand-name corporations deceive their employees and work alongside them in disguise; once revealed, they chastise the under-performers and play doubloon-tossing Scrooge McDuck with those who were smart enough to move them to tears, gifting them with bonuses or promotions. Both “The Job” and “Undercover Boss” transmit a gooey, upbeat vibe that is completely tone-deaf to the realities faced by the modern American worker, whose rights and expectations have been consistently hollowed out. On his Comedy Central show the other night, Stephen Colbert landed on the perfect term for “The Job”: “despertainment.”
The thing is, many of us would watch a well-made reality show about people trying to find jobs. I worry all the time about the economy and — from the admittedly absurd perch of someone who is paid to watch television — share the stress of the Raw Deal era, in which the once-fulfilling ideals of “work” have been suffocated by piles of pumped-up résumés. We all want to put America back to work, but what is work anymore? Sitting at a computer? Going to meetings? Texting? Being on a reality show?
(one hour) premieres Friday at 8 p.m. on CBS.