Better Off Ted was a workplace comedy that ran on ABC for two seasons from 2009 through 2010 for 26 episodes. The series focused on Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington), a middle manager with something of a conscience trying to find the right balance between his conscience and fulfilling the needs of the soul-sucking international conglomerate he worked for.
Ted worked for Veronica Palmer (Portia de Rossi), who was all-in for the company, although it is not entirely clear that she draws a distinction between herself and the company, except when it serves her purposes. Ted oversees a couple of scientists who create the strange inventions the company, Veridian Dynamics, require, only rarely questioning if making things like a weaponized pumpkin means that they are mad scientists. The two scientists, Lem Hewitt (Malcolm Barrett) and Phil Myman (Jonathan Slavin) form an excellent comedy team, able to play off each other with either taking on the role of comic or foil (although Barrett tends to take the straight man role a little more often). Linda Zwordling (Andrea Anders) also works for Ted as a quality assurance analyst who views the scientists as nerds and fears Veronica’s mercurial moods.
Although primarily a contemporary mainstream workplace comedy, Phil and Lem’s inventions clearly have a science fictional element to them. In the first episode, the company decides the cryogenically freeze Phil and later episodes see the scientists creating a hover vest for children to wear (which, of course, would be a prototype for later military use). Veronica’s first line is telling Ted that the company wants to make a metal that is hard as steel, can bounce like rubber, and is edible, to which Ted responds, “We can do that.”
While Phil and Lem are generally happy to do science for the sake of science (and fall into the all-too-common trap of all types of scientists are interchangeable), occasionally, they do pause to question the ethics behind their inventions for the company, although as soon as a new project is placed before them their eyes glisten and they are off to the next shiny thing, the challenge being more important than the ethical considerations.
In addition to the main cast, the show had a support cast that moved in and out of episodes, the highlight of which were Dr. Bhamba (Maz Jobrani), who was a foil to Lem and Phil and revels in the theoretical evil uses for his inventions, and Janet S. Crotum (Patricia Belcher), who would defend even the most obvious typos made by the company as intentional (“The company says that wasn’t a mistake. They explained that the ancient Mayans prophesized Fribsday, the first ever eighth day of the week, which will occur in 2024, and the company believes should be celebrated casually.”). The show also managed to work in several appearances by Ted’s daughter Rose (Isabella Acres) by having her attend after school care at the company, a situation which was rife for abuse by a company like Veridian Dynamics, but also acts as the voice of reason for Ted.
The halls of Veridian Dynamics are always full of other workers moving between their cubicles and watching them instead of the main action gives the viewer the feeling that the extras were handed whatever random prop was at hand and told to carry it through the scene, adding to the somewhat surreal nature of the company.
Being released in 2010 when shows like Scrubs, The Office, and Parks and Recreation were all on the air, Better Off Ted also strongly broke the fourth wall (screen?) with Ted often talking directly to the audience about what was happening on screen and the decisions being made, noting when he gave in to the company’s way of doing things that he wasn’t proud of his actions.
Only lasting two seasons, Better Off Ted never really got past the initial introduction of the characters and setting up their situations. Although there were a few specific stories that were carried across multiple episodes, such as the aftermath of Phil’s cryofreezing, all of the episodes stand on their own. Had the show lasted longer, it is possible that there would have been more story arcs that were introduced and resolved. As the series stands, the sexual tension between Ted and Linda remains unresolved (Ted explains he can’t have a relationship with her because he already has had his one workplace affair), but Linda’s desire to write a children’s book mentioned early on does come to fruition in a way that is both surprising, but perfectly in line with working for Veridian Dynamics.
The characters relatives also make some appearances. Lem’s mother, the brilliant scientist Stella Clifton (Khandi Alexander) shows up in one episode and Ted’s brother, Billy (Eddie McClintock) also makes an appearance. Linda has several family members show up in one episode. On the other hand, Veronica’s sister is often mentioned but never really seen and Phil’s wife never makes an appearance on the show. These guest appearances and references are done in a natural way and help flesh out the characters to show their lives beyond the walls of the workplace.
At its best, Better Off Ted offers a satirical take on the modern American workplace, looking at relationships, corporate ethics, employer-based healthcare, networking, professional rivalry, and harassment. The characters are all likable, the writing is clever, and the production time has clearly chosen to pay attention to details.
Many of the episodes also include a public service announcement for Veridian Dynamics, modeled after the sort of vague ads run by large corporations to bolster public opinion. As with many things they do, Veridian Dynamics doesn’t quite understand the purpose of these ads and allows a little too much truth to filter into them, as seen in the still at the bottom of this article.
Better Off Ted is currently streaming on Hulu and can be rented or purchased on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu. DVDs of the show can also be purchased.
Steven H Silver is a seventeen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology, Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings, was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.