There’s a splendid new comedy on ABC at the moment that a grand total of no one is talking about. It’s called Better Off Ted, which is possibly the worst sitcom name of all time, but it’s the name on the smartest comedy on TV. And until this week, they seem to have gone out of their way to make sure no one finds out.
Networks and studios’ frantic actions to keep clips of their TV shows from appearing on sites like YouTube and DailyMotion are well documented, most famously with Viacom suing Google for the astonishing amounts of free advertising YouTube was offering The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, helping both programmes to become international phenomenons. Understandable Viacom were furious at millions of people worldwide seeing short clips of their programmes and developing an enthusiasm to see more. It was a disaster for them, with other countries around the world recognising the online popularity and purchasing broadcast rights. Surely no amount of money from Google could ever make up for such abhorrent results of piracy. But that’s an aside.
Better Off Ted is a single camera sitcom about a big pharma company, Veridian Dynamics, specifically focusing on a small group of characters in an R&D department. Jay Harrington’s Ted is the straight man to a mix of eccentric scientists, evil bosses and kleptomaniac colleagues, keeping a cool head as his team attempts to develop living balls of meat, jetpacks, and long-term cryogenic chambers. What makes a programme that could so easily descend into the wacky keep safely in the witty is Ted’s calming influence both over the characters, and in turn the writing of the show itself. His steady platform counters the ludicrous water around him.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect, only six episodes in, is the warmth of the relationships. Malcolm Barrett and Jonathan Slavin play two scientists who so very clearly love each other deeply, evoking the fond, comfortable affection of a loving elderly married couple. Andrea Anders’ Linda manages to portray an adoration for Ted as both overtly sexual and enormously meaningful at the same time, with Ted’s inability to reciprocate (he’s “used up” his office affair) somehow completely charming. Even Portia de Rossi’s evil boss manages to exude far more depth than your typical one-dimensional baddy boss character. Rather than being a mean lady with a heart of gold, or a decent person trapped in a difficult job, or whatever other excuse TV normally uses for having their negative character be acceptable, Veronica is far more complex. She is evil. Most of the time. Other times she buries an act of kindness under seven other acts of evil. Not because she’s really a good person, but because she’s a complicated person with both good and evil aspects.
This is possible because BOT (snigger) doesn’t worry about the rules of reality. It’s fascinating that by freeing itself of the laws of the universe, creating a world where people can be frozen solid and survive, or a security system refuses to recognise black people, or blobs of meat can live if fed and cared for, it manages to be far more human as a result. That security system is a fantastic example. I can’t think of a comedy that has handled issues of racial discrimination more brilliantly, and more brazenly. The separate water fountains moment had me gasp out loud in shock – it was astonishing.
Each episode also contains one spoof commercial. Shot in the style of a big pharma ad promoting all-round loveliness and care for the environment, people, employees, etc, they perfectly spoof the bullshit. The one that appeared in episode two (the first episode’s advert was oddly poor compared to the rest) makes me cry with laughter. As spoof adverts, they would of course be the most superb way of promoting the show online. Which leads me to an interesting tale.
They’re not online. Instead there’s some half-arsed equivalents that don’t appear to get the joke the televised versions are using on a perfunctory website. In fact, each seems to repeat chunks of the other, and none are funny. It’s a horrible representation of a simply fantastic programme. So I thought I would illustrate my point by uploading a couple of them to YouTube. I realise this would be in violation of the copyright terms, but since my motivation was to promote the show, I somehow got over that. Having searched for any legitimate version, I donned my criminal mask and hat and sent them uploading. Incredibly, before they had even been posted on the site, they were flagged as violating Fox’s copyright. (The show is made by Fox and aired on ABC.) I have no idea what the technology is behind this, but somehow the one minute long clips were being correctly identified and banned from appearing. Since YouTube has countless tens of thousands of videos being added at any one time, this can’t have been an eagle-eyed human vetting the content, but rather some sort of terrifying computer program. However it was done, it was made sure that no one was going to bloody well promote that show – no sirree bob.
What a silly place they’ve all got themselves into. So desperate to stick their greedy claws into everything they forget that the purpose of a television programme is for people to watch it, thus selling lots of advertising. Fighting against all forms of promotion (and let’s be clear here – even if someone were posting entire episodes online, these would still serve to raise awareness of the show, thus increasing the potential audience for the next legitimately broadcast episode) is pretty awesomely stupid.
Fortunately, the creators of Better Off Ted aren’t awesomely stupid. In fact, they’re just plain awesome, as is proven by this fantastic Veridian Dynamics commercial they released online after it was learned that the show’s finale episode had been bumped off air to make room for Obama’s speech: