Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Female Power Fantasy Goes Absurdist (Better Off Ted)

Before we get into pilot season, I want to look back at some cancelled shows and think about what really makes a good female character. So, to start that off, we have Veronica from Better Off Ted.

Most of you probably didn’t watch Better Off Ted, as evidenced by its second season cancellation. This is sad because it was a great show. Much more satirical and biting than The Office, it dealt with similar themes of frustration with coworkers, unrequited crushes, and corporate hell. It just did it with a tongue-in-cheek style that was much more in line with Community. It’s a hard show to pin down, but I’ll try.

The show follows Ted Crisp, a middle-management drone at Veridian Dynamics. Veridian is an exciting and innovative corporation. Which basically means that at any given time you have a good chance of being experimented on, subjected to cruel levels of psychotic company bureaucracy, or being shot into space. All of these things could happen at any moment.

Ted is in charge of Research and Development, which means that he’s the one helping his scientists, Phil and Lem, come up with Veridian’s great new product. They’re very good, and he’s very good at motivating them. Ted has an awkward office crush on Linda, who heads up product testing and feels like her soul is being sucked by her corporate overlords, but he can’t act on his crush because he already used up his office affair on Veronica, his hyper-competitive, freakishly strong, and mildly insane boss. Ted also has nine-year old daughter named Rose, whose mother is off in Africa inflicting help on people who probably don’t want it.

It’s a cute setup, but what really set this show apart from any other workplace comedy is two things. First, Ted actually loves his job. He doesn’t rage against the man. He is the man. And he likes that. It’s a different take for a protagonist in a show like this, and frankly one that I find very satisfying.

Second, Veronica. Just Veronica. Played by Portia de Rossi in what I consider her best role (sorry Arrested Development fans, we’ll get to you later), Veronica isn’t just a talking head or a neurotic working-woman. She’s commanding, fiercely intelligent, and slavishly devoted to the company. But she has a softer side that she’s not comfortable dealing with. She really adores Rose, but has no idea how to relate to her on a human level. This means that Veronica’s bonding time with Rose usually turns into her teaching Rose to fire people or how to make corporate decisions.

While this is, for the record, hilarious, it also highlights how well her character is written. You see, you never hate Veronica. Even when she’s doing insane things like insisting that the company wants Phil to be cryogenically frozen, or trying to convince Ted that they have to weaponize pumpkins, you like her. She’s crazy in a pair of high heels, but she’s interesting crazy.

It would be too easy to write Veronica as just another corporate drone. Her character is headed in that direction, with every other line referring to how much “The company would like that, Ted,” or “I don’t think you want to test the company on this.” She loves the company. What makes her unique is that she loves the company a truly disturbing amount. And that’s what makes her funny.

Added into all of that, Veronica is actually a genuinely well-rounded character. It’s hard to think of comedic characters this way, but she really is. We know about her relationship with her father (tricky, they like to do corporate espionage on each other), her secret love of dancing (and specifically of appearing onstage as a magician’s assistant), and how her competitive nature has impacted her career (too many examples). Veronica’s not perfect. Not by a long shot. But she is compelling.

Most of all, though, we love Veronica because of the way she cares. In a lesser show, Veronica would be all cold company bitch, or she’d be constantly panting after Ted. Here, she’s neither. She likes Ted. Respects him. But she doesn’t feel a deep and meaningful need to settle down with him. In a way, that makes me want her to even more.

She cares about Ted. Not sexually, as a person. When a glitch with his new company id changes his name and accidentally gets him fired (it’s a very strange show), Veronica doesn’t take this lying down. The company wants to replace Ted. She won’t let it. So she does the crazy. She figures out a way to shut down the entire company computer system, from New York to Malaysia, in order to make it reboot and reinstate Ted. That’s caring. Even if she is kind of a bitch about it.

In a way, it’s easy to love Veronica because she’s a female power fantasy. She’s the strong, smart boss, working with her respectful male subordinate. The company loves her, she can do anything she wants to, and she looks great in a suit. For little girls growing up with second wave feminism, this is what we were taught to aspire to.

And, yes, Veronica is totally a power fantasy. But she’s more as well. She’s a caring woman who isn’t sure how to express that. She’s as much an examination of what the power fantasy does to a person as she is an embodiment of it.

Veronica has layers. Layers are good.

Better Off Ted is an absurdist comedy about workplace life. It doesn’t have to strive for realism, and in most cases it doesn’t. Would a realistic show have an episode where the security cameras are upgraded and now can’t see black people? Probably not. But that doesn’t stop it from being hilarious.

It also doesn’t stop the show from being emotionally realistic. Sure, the plots are insane and the characters are heightened. But their feelings are real. When word gets out that Veronica is a magician’s assistant in her spare time, her feelings are truly and genuinely hurt. When Ted realizes that his job might be making him a bad person, and more than that, a bad person to be around his daughter, you feel his sadness.

And when you realize that Ted is a single father who doesn’t just not mind spending time with his daughter, he relishes it, you feel pretty damn excited.

Veronica, like all of the characters on this show, is both a complicated person and a very funny caricature. She can be both, and it’s okay. Comedy doesn’t have to choose between smart and silly. Those are not mutually exclusive concepts. And a show doesn’t have to be realistic to make you feel for its characters. 

Arrested Development fans can lol at another Bluth child falling into the sweet embrace of magic.

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