‘Undercover Boss’

Television Critic

Like all storytelling, television is essentially manipulative. The point of any drama is to evoke thoughts and emotions that the audience, left to its own devices, might never experience. So to call CBS’ new reality show “Undercover Boss” manipulative is almost beside the point.

Actually, to call it “new” is almost beside the point; “Undercover Boss” is more like a spinoff of the Fox (originally British) show “Secret Millionaire” in which the rich and privileged were dispatched to troubled (which is to say poor) communities to experience “real life” and somehow make it better. In contrast, “Undercover Boss” sends CEOs and über-bosses into the belly of their own companies to experience “real work” and improve the lives of their underlings.

Apparently, President Obama need no longer fret over the effectiveness of the stimulus package or the current focus on job creation -- the solution to our troubled economy is simply to have upper management spend a little more time in front of the camera with the proletariat.

That’s certainly the message of the season premiere, in which Larry O’Donnell, president and chief operating officer of Waste Management Inc., one of the country’s largest trash companies, decides to get down and dirty with his people on the front lines.

Working beside five folks whose jobs include picking the cardboard off the recycling conveyor belt (wow, that thing goes fast!), cleaning out portable toilets (wow, he’s got a great attitude for a guy with a really stinky job!) and juggling multiple jobs at a landfill, O’Donnell quickly realizes that although he runs the company, he’s not particularly well-suited for any of the work the company does. In a heavily promoted preview clip, he’s told that he just doesn’t have what it takes to pick fly-away trash from the hills.

Now, I’m a sucker for any show that features people doing actual work (chefs, stylists and event planners don’t count) and no doubt these five souls, who come off as a genetic cross of Will Rogers, John Henry and Emma Goldman, are just as extraordinary as they seem. I’m even willing to buy the notion that they have no clue whom O’Donnell is and think they’re being filmed for a documentary about entry-level jobs.

What I’m not willing to buy is that the workers O’Donnell chose to spend time with were not the product of an extensive and exhaustive search of the company’s 45,000 employees for the most TV-ready. The trash picker with the kidney condition? The multi-tasking mom who’s about to lose her house? To which she invites O’Donnell? The sanitation worker so beloved by the families on her route that a mentally challenged woman just happens to have a letter of appreciation in her hand the very day the camera crews arrive?

That O’Donnell has a daughter who suffered brain damage as an infant makes this last bit of theater as heartbreaking as it is objectionable. O’Donnell seems like a miraculously amiable fellow for being in Tony Soprano’s former line of work, and watching him learn how great his employees are and how hard they work is undeniably touching.

Likewise, the scenes in which the employees learn that the scruffy guy they trained for a day is actually the big boss and, more important, he is now prepared to improve their lives, would leave only the hardest heart unmoved.

But it’s one thing to be genuinely touched and another to be assaulted by emotional cues until you are left with the regrettable choice of either surrendering and feeling exploited or expressing your disgust and feeling mean.

More than that, “Undercover Boss,” though perhaps unintentionally, reinforces the very premise it hopes to shatter. The show ends with O’Donnell solving some of the problems he witnessed -- the multi-tasking mom gets a much deserved raise and promotion, the worker with the kidney problems becomes a company healthcare consultant, the friendly garbage truck driver is working to make life a little easier for female employees. All of which is admirable.

But the message is troubling nonetheless. Just diligently doing your tedious/dangerous/difficult job isn’t enough. Even among waste management workers, you have to have something extra to be treated fairly, something that makes the boss notice you. Something that gets you on TV.

Forget the means of production -- it’s the camera crew the workers of the world must seize.