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Full Frontal Nerdity

By Seth Freilich | TV | June 30, 2009 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | June 30, 2009 |

We all bitch about the lack of good comedy on TV these days. For every “30 Rock” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” there are twice as many “Two a Half Men” and “According to Jim” type shows. Easy comedy. Obvious and simple humor. Which isn’t to say that comedy has to be smart — stupid and juvenile humor, done right, may the funniest thing of all. There’s a reason the prat fall’s been around forever.

But those of you who bitch about the dearth of good comedy need to start watching “Better Off Ted,” or you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself. Last spring, ABC premiered this show to little fanfare. I remember seeing a commercial and, being entirely underwhelmed by it and further assuming that this was just a spring dump, I decided to skip the show. As seven episodes aired ofter the next two months, however, I started hearing good things about it — a mention by a friend here, a plug by a critic there. Funny show, they’d say. Missed the boat, I’d say. Besides, I figured, it’s already a dead man walking.

Only, it wasn’t. ABC is running new episodes of the show right now (there are 5 new episodes still in the can), and this isn’t just a summer burnoff, as the show will be back on later this fall, paired up with “Scrubs.” So I finally decided to delve in, catch up on the back episodes and see what this “Ted” business was all about. And, as I suggested above, turns out it’s about being a damn funny little show.

Jay Harrington plays Ted Chips Crisp, the head of research and development for a ginormous corporation called Veridian Dynamics. From trying to weaponize a pumpkin to growing meat without cows, Veridian Dynamics is the biggest, coldest corporate monstrosity you can imagine (Jack Donaghy wishes GE and NBC had half the lack of scruples Veridian Dynamics has). Ted’s not as cold and amoral as his boss, Veronica Palmer (Portia de Rossi), and is more of a practical corporate employee, and he’s particularly willing to challenge some of the company’s plans and desires after watching one of the lab rats who works for him get cryonically frozen for a few days (it was supposed to be for a year but, yeah, that didn’t quite stick).

Ted, who’s also a single father of a young daughter who often questions him on Veridian’s corporate shenanigans, narrates the show by breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the viewer. This is a risky gimmick that could fail miserably, but Harrington has just the right level of charm and mild snark to pull it off. Through him, we’re introduced to some of the lab rat engineers working on Veridian’s various projects, primarily Phil and Lem. Poor Phil is the sap who got frozen in the first episode, and he’s a nebbish little scientist with a wife who apparently would like to see his face torn off. Lem, meanwhile, is equally smart, but a more logical and less emotional in his scientific endeavors. He’s also a cornerstone to the show’s funniest episode to date, which I’ll come back to in a minute. The last major character is Linda, who works in the company’s testing department, and is also in a “will they or won’t they” relationship with Ted (and they only reason they haven’t and might not is because Ted has a rule about only having one affair in the office, and he already played that card with Veronica a while back).

What’s refreshing about “Better Off Ted” is that it doesn’t pander its humor to the lowest denominator. That’s not to say it doesn’t do stupid, low-brow comedy, it’s just that, much like “Arrested Development” or “Scrubs,” it manages to balance that humor well with smart sarcasm and word play, without feeling a need to flag those moments for the viewer who might miss them. While the first two episodes were a fine start, it wasn’t until the third and fourth episodes that I became hooked. Particularly the fourth episode (which you can watch online at ABC’s website, along with the other more recent episodes), which was called “Racial Sensitivity” and had some absolutely fantastic and wholly inappropriate humor running throughout. Which is what one might expect when the episode’s underlying premise is that the company has added light sensors to everything to save money, only it turns out the sensors can’t see black people. This isn’t racist, mind you, because “the company’s position is that it’s actually the opposite of racist because it’s not targeting black people, it’s just ignoring them. They insist the worst people can call it is indifferent.” These indifferent sensors lead the company to try several failed solutions which are ostensibly cheaper than just removing the sensors, like giving the blacks their own drinking fountains or having them each get their own “white shadow” to trigger the sensors for them. Needless to say, things don’t work out quite as the company planned.

It was with this episode that I started finding myself routinely laughing out loud. It’s a a very simple-feeling show, giving out good laughs thanks to a solid cast and tight writing. Considering the lack of just about anything to watch on TV right now, not to mention the lack of anything good, this is easily the show I’m most excited to catch each week. ABC will be running new shows through the end of July and, as I mentioned, you can catch episodes 4 through 8 on its website. In these quite summer days, trust me when I tell you you could do much, much worse (see, e.g., reruns of “Gary Unmarried”).

You can catch new episodes of “Better Off Ted” on Tuesday nights at 9:30 p.m. through the end of July.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.