I have a confession to make. I am a killer. I've killed before and despite my best intentions, a small part of me knows that I will kill again. I have murdered with indifference and ignorance and want to atone for my sins. I'm speaking, of course, about all the TV shows that have met an early demise because they didn't get the support they needed in order to flourish. An easy example of course is Arrested Development. The gloriously hilarious saga of the Bluth family was sharp, funny and strangely touching. It was also largely ignored by the masses including yours truly. When I discovered the show on DVD, I kicked myself for not giving it a chance earlier. I don't want to make that mistake again. Better Off Ted is the funniest show I've seen in a very long time. It deserves vocal support from its fans so here's my voice.
Better Off Ted is set in the dog eat dog world of corporate research. Our lead cog in the machine, Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) is the head of a research and development team at Veridian Dynamics, a large multinational corporation with its fingers in a variety of product pies. The two primary scientists in Ted's team are Lem (Malcolm Barrett) and Phil (Jonathan Slavin) while product testing is handled by Linda (Andrea Anders). Completing the core quintet is Ted's boss, Veronica (Portia de Rossi) whose business acumen clearly exceeds her knowledge of common social conventions.
Although my synopsis above may suggest a quirky workplace comedy, the scalpel sharp writing of the show and fearless cast take it to much more surreal places. Places populated by weaponized pumpkins, sentient carrots named Chester, hairy office furniture in need of a good shave and a rugby team named the Syphilitic Conquistadors. What's incredible to me is that most of what I just mentioned are throwaway gags in service of stories that are fully developed slices of insanity. One of the early arcs features Phil being frozen in the name of scientific advancement only to be accidentally thawed ahead of schedule. He comes out of it feeling pretty normal, except for the few times when he stops cold in the middle of whatever he's doing and lets out a scream that, I imagine, sounds like an Ostrich in heat. The rest of the arc consists of Veronica's increasingly desperate attempts to perform some damage control in order to ensure that Phil doesn't sue the company. Another episode features Phil and Lem developing a cowless meat product (affectionately named Blobby) that unfortunately "tastes like despair". My favorite episode of the season, Racial Sensitivity, takes what could be a racially charged premise and spikes it with so much spot-on satire based on corporate wrong-headedness that it emerges feeling weirdly prescient.
As brilliant as the writing for the show is, I have to give a massive amount of credit to the talented cast that delivers demented lines ("You couldn't pull off a caper if it was sitting on a plate of lox") with such glee and panache that even the most biting of episodes comes of as breezy fun. Jay Harrington leads the charge as Ted, with a characterization that is reminiscent of a young, suave George Clooney. As the title character, he also has the tough task of selling a running narration during each episode where he repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience. That he does so without letting the narration feel labored or expository is a credit to his abilities. He also manages to make his portrayal of an ambitious company man appealing enough that we want him to end up with Linda who clearly adores him. As Linda, Andrea Anders brings a conflicted sweetness to her role. She portrays the character with the strongest moral compass in the entire cast. As you can imagine, this makes her a bad fit in a place like Veridian Dynamics where moral flexibility is greatly appreciated. Her internal conflict manifests itself in strange ways. She steals coffee creamer and wastes paper towels in order to assert just a bit of control over her work day. Her only solace is flirting with Ted who refuses to enter into a relationship with her due to his past with his ex-wife. Their flirtations bring a good deal of heart to the well worn 'will they or won't they' dynamics.
Although Ted and Linda have their fair share of humorous neuroses, the true comedic smart bombs of the show are the trinity of Lem, Phil and Veronica. As Lem and Phil, Malcolm Barrett and Jonathan Slavin take the nerdy scientist stereotype and imbue it with such innocence and wild-eyed desperation that they steal every scene they show up in. They are desperate to be popular. They are desperate to be noticed. Most of all they are desperately loyal to Ted ("Ted is like the angle opposite the hypotenuse, he's always right"). Both actors are also excellent physical comedians as seen in their demonstration of why they are the best dancers at the Christmas party. In many ways, the most complex character of the show is Veronica as played by Portia de Rossi. She appears to be the intelligent doppelganger of Arrested Development's Lindsay. Although Veronica is as much of a social misfit as Lindsay and has similar daddy issues, Portia sets her apart by making her a woman of action. She will gladly slash at her underlings with her sharp tongue but can be fiercely protective of them when push comes to shove. Supplementing the central cast are Maz Jobrani as the maniacal Dr. Bamba and young Isabella Acres as Ted's daughter Rose who happens to have more common sense than most of the adults around her.
I know it's a minor detail but it's always a highlight of any given episode, so I want to specifically draw attention to the fake Veridian Dynamics promos. These promos take the form of vaguely soothing words that play over stock images only to end with taglines like "Family. Yay." or "Teamwork. It keeps our employees gruntled." Even taken out of context, these promos would be hilarious but when viewed in terms of the episode's subject matter that is being directly commented upon, they become sublime.
The show was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. I found the image to be very sharp and clear. I thought I noticed a few minor instances of moiré and slight digital noise but I had to look pretty hard for them. The colors popped off the screen while accurately capturing the wood tones of Ted's office and the sterile environment of Lem and Phil's lab. Overall, this was a wonderful video presentation and was a pleasure to watch.
The audio was presented in English 5.1 Dolby Digital and Spanish Dolby Surround. I elected to view the show with the English 5.1 audio track and was impressed with the quality of the mix. The characters voices came through loud and clear on the center channel while the surrounds were put to good use by the lively musical track employed by the show. Given the cubicle farm setting, there was also a good deal of background chatter from other employees present in the mix which added a nice dash of realism to the shenanigans on screen.
Subtitles were available in English for the deaf and hard of hearing, Spanish, French and Portugese.
The show has been released without any extras whatsoever. This is worrisome and gives me pause regarding the fate of the show. I would have really appreciated an audio commentary or at least a few interviews with the writers and cast of the show. Given how much unadulterated fun they bring to the screen, a little more time with them would have definitely been welcome.
When I first watched Better Off Ted, it was a true revelation. I didn't think that sharply written satires with pitch perfect acting could even be made in the current TV sitcom environment that often punishes creativity and rewards rote brainless material. Despite a troubling lack of extras, the pleasing audio and video presentation of this brilliantly funny show makes it Highly Recommended.