"Corporate," premiering Wednesday on Comedy Central, is a dark show, with an outlook so dreadful and dour that merely to describe it might sound like a criticism. Bounded by hopelessness on every side, it is the opposite of an inspirational comedy – a “despair-ational” comedy, as it were. Its first three episodes — four of 10 were available for review and, indeed, publicly previewed online — are titled, in order, "The Void," "The Powerpoint of Death," and "The Pain of Being Alive."
It has been nearly 20 years since Mike Judge's "Office Space" set a tone for narcotic workplace stories, set in airless, drab, low-ceilinged, cubicle-filled, soul-sucking expanses through which characters drift hollow-eyed. Series like "Better Off Ted" and "The IT Crowd" and "Workaholics" are in various ways precursors to "Corporate," but their tone, even when downbeat, is less thoroughly hopeless than here.
Created by stars Jake Weisman and Matt Ingebretson and director Pat Bishop, whose previous screen credits are largely web-based, it is set in a mega-corporation that sports the motto "We make everything." (Among the company's concerns: bananas, cheap armaments offering "cost-effective carnage," "super-fracking" and a touch-screen tablet "eight times the size of the iPad.") There are splashes of what might be called social commentary amid the satire, but they are swallowed by the larger suggestion that any sort of protest, whether conducted in the street or from behind one’s desk, is misguided and pointless.
Of the two “junior executives in training” at the series’ center, Jake (Weisman) is the darker one, and — because his outlook is cynical, and because he seeks only money and power — contextually the healthier one. Asked why he thinks it's OK to come to work with an untucked shirt, he answers, "Because life is meaningless and nothing we do matters.” His car features a bumper sticker that says, "If you're reading this, you're going to die someday.”
Matt (Ingebretson) is comparatively optimistic, which both brands him as a fool and makes him as much of a sympathetic protagonist as "Corporate" cares to muster. There is not much backstory here, but his includes teaching underprivileged children, until one stabbed him. He crafts beer, "a hobby that completely defines my identity," which briefly marks him as creative before opening him up to mockery.
The difference in their characters, which is a fairly classic comedy dichotomy, is established in the first episode, when they are sent to fire a co-worker.
"Getting to fire someone is like when a mafia don sends you on your first hit," says Jake. "It means we're in."
"I think If I was in the mafia I would be the guy who just stayed home and made spaghetti," says Matt.
Just how they have come to be “junior executives in training" sitting at the edges of meetings with corporate head Christian DeVille (Lance Reddick, imposing and comically imposing at once), is nothing the series cares to explain. Their friendship seems to be based mostly on work-determined proximity and the fact that Matt understands without being told that Jake's "Plan C" is suicide.
Ingebretson and Weisman, who are new to conventional television but are familiar enough types that you feel you've seen them before, get good support from their more experienced castmates. Anne Dudek and Adam Lustick play Kate and John, to whom Matt and Jake report, and who are in turn in thrall to Reddick's Christian: John recounts a dream in which Christian crushed his head ("I was terrified, but honored to be killed by someone I respect so much"); Kate says, "Talking to him is like talking to a gun with an Ivy League education."
Aparna Nancherla plays HR administrator Grace, something like a friend to Matt and Jake but quite willing to exploit them as well, is the company's social media genius. ("You remember that Egyptian revolution in 2011? I started that … with a single hashtag … because I was bored.") Baron Vaughn plays the company's social media genius. He too is mostly out for himself.
There are jokes about fonts and bullet points, about sheep labia as haute cuisine ("It takes just like chicken, except it's the genitals of another animal"), internet memes, the delegation of unpleasant tasks, hierarchical access to food, the commodification of dissent (the fourth episode involves a street artist named Trademarq and a commercialized Protest Fest), the hypocrisy of the young, things hipsters like (food trucks, vinyl), pornography and, repeatedly, death.
I found it consistently clever (if sometimes obviously so), though I rarely laughed. Laughter may not be the appropriate response, in any case.
Where: Comedy Central
When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)