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ABC's 'Better off Ted' succumbs to an unoriginal premise

BY BRIGID KILCOIN
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 22, 2009

"Better Off Ted"
Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.
ABC

2.5 out of 5 stars

Corporate culture has proven to be a common (if unexpected) premise for comedy in the past decade. Dozens of television shows and movies based around cubicle dwellers have been released to receptive audiences, and dissatisfaction with work has proven to be universally relatable. Mirroring these plotlines, ABC’s new sitcom “Better off Ted” tries to provide another window into the working world.

“Better off Ted” is an office-centered satire revolving around Ted (relative newcomer Jay Harrington), the head of research and development at a monolithic corporation named Viridian Dynamics. The company, headed by ambitious boss Veronica (Portia de Rossi, “Arrested Development”) works on outlandish projects like weaponized pumpkins and intentionally uncomfortable office chairs to increase productivity. The company then attempts to pawn off these odd items on unsuspecting investors.

“Ted” feels like ABC’s attempt to produce a critically acclaimed comedy in the style of “Arrested Development” or “The Office,” and the show's stylistic choices make it feel more than a little tired. The wittily blasé voiceover, the lack of a laugh track, the roaming camera — all these elements have been done better by other shows. "Ted" even goes so far as to hire "Arrested Development" alum de Rossi to portray a character noticeably similar to the ditzy Lindsay Bluth. The muted color palette and intro and exit music’s cloyingly sweet piano tinkling right before and after commercial breaks are overly ironic nods to the 1950s work culture that “Ted” attempts to ape. All of this window dressing comes off as extremely forced.

The program also suffers from its choppy storyline. Several plot elements are introduced for a brief period of time — for instance, Viridian Dynamics's decision to cryogenically freeze research scientist Phil (Jonathan Slavin, "Race to Witch Mountain) for a year, or the burgeoning romance between Phil and disgruntled office drone Linda (Andrea Anders, "Joey") — but are left unresolved at the end of the episode. While pilot episodes tend to be less cohesive than regular episodes, the complete lack of conclusion left an unacceptably large number of loose ends. The script feels disjointed and could benefit from a more focused sense of humor.

“Ted” is not hopeless, though. Its strong cast — especially supporting members scientists Lem (Malcolm Barrett, “My Best Friend’s Girl”) and Phil — adds some spice to the lackluster writing. Harrington, as the titular character, manages to be both convincing as a high-powered businessman and down-to-earth enough to sympathize with. And Portia de Rossi, despite the commonalities between this role and her previous sitcom work, is excellent as always, providing the funniest performance among the group. One exception is Ted’s daughter Rose (relative newcomer Isabella Acres), who is unnaturally precocious and holds a more serious tenor than the deadpan humor shared by rest of the cast.

While nontraditional sitcoms normally struggle to find an audience, the position of "Ted" on a major network’s primetime lineup may help it last longer than its competitors. While the show suffers from plot mishaps and forced stylistic choices, if "Ted" is given enough time to find its footing, its solid premise and strong cast may solidify its place in the modern sitcom world.


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