Monday, May 16, 2011

Undercover Boss (CBS)

debuted 2/7/2010
60 minutes

"Undercover Boss" is an example of the right premise at the right time. With the country still fighting an economic downturn, it's appealing to watch corporate higher-ups take a turn at the bottom of the ladder. The show debuted after the Super Bowl, with nearly 39 million people tuning in.

On "Undercover Boss," CEOs from across the nation take on a fake identities to work on the ground floor of their companies. Along the way, they get to know the personal struggles of the people who work for them. They witness first hand if the company is delivering on its promises. At the end of each hour-long episode, the CEO featured relays their finds to the home office. And they reveal their true identity to the employees they encountered, who generally receive a reward for their helpfulness and hard work in the face of (generally) tough times.

You probably could have guessed how the episodes end before I told you. No company would volunteer for this without multiple chances to look good. As you can imagine, many parts of the show act as an infomercial for the company featured. It's expected, but still not easy to digest.

The same goes for the fate of the workers they meet. The CEO just happens to be trained by the single mother, or the hard-working newcomer to America, or the aspiring-but-still-in-school entrepreneur. These people were probably put through the same casting process as a Real World contestant.

But i
t's still satisfying to watch them receive their sizable gifts and praise at the end; even if the lessons taken away are temporary for most involved. The CEOs are shown at home with their families, and often confront personal issues themselves. But at the end of the day, they're still the ones with the big check and nice house. Economic realities mean every cashier can't suddenly get health care. But again, it's still satisfying to see some people get to be king or queen for a day.

How fun an episode is largely depends on what company is being featured. They could be visiting a fast food restaurant you and I frequent every week. Or, in typical positive-to-the-company language, we could be visiting the southern United States' largest growing mail-in laundry processor. Whoopee. I watched two episodes, each with different personalities. One was a little more exciting than the other, but both felt a little dragged out.


Even if you take away the positive PR and "coincidental" finding of hard luck cases, it's just not that exciting. Let's compare to another hour-long reality show - "Wife Swap." You know two families are going to have philosophical differences. You know they're going to live in each others' shoes for a week and take something away. But the characters each week are vastly different, the conflicts they encounter are different, and you don't know whether the families will take away something positive from the experience, or something negative.

With "Undercover Boss," I feel like every week will be the same. The CEO will work at their business and witness imperfections. They'll meet good, hard-working folks who could use a helping hand. They'll give them gifts of increasing worth, subtitle the post-script outcome, and roll credits. I could come back to it given the right company, or with some time off from watching again. But based on these examples, I've had enough for now.

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