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The Televisionist, Sept. 23


'UNDERCOVER BOSS': A scene from last season.
  • 'UNDERCOVER BOSS': A scene from last season.


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I know a lot of people love the CBS show "Undercover Boss" — the show that supposedly features CEOs working anonymously with the rank and file of their companies for a week to learn what it's like in the trenches — but I find its "ain't rich folks just like us?" message a little hollow.

For one thing, the bosses that get sent into the field have a full camera crew in tow. Even if I were to buy the idea that your average employee is stupid enough to be "real" while there's a camera crew around, capturing every word, fart and declaration of managerial stupidity, I have a very hard time believing that the army of public relations people and image consultants at your average billion dollar corporation would allow filming for national broadcast to occur without making a few discrete phone calls to let Bob out on the loading dock in on the fact that he's representing the company before an audience of 30 million people. Call me crazy, but in a world where a video clip can go viral in 10 seconds and cost your company $15 million dollars worth of business overnight, something tells me they're giving the warehouse boor who likes to tell jokes about brown people the week off when the "Undercover Boss" crew is in the house.

Whatever the case, I've learned enough to know that if something has become an honest to goodness sensation like "Undercover Boss," you'd better listen. And what it says to me, with the ghost of Tom Joad always whispering in my liberal little ear, is that the American public is much too ready to swallow propaganda, especially when it's packaged with a box of Kleenex and a stirring soundtrack. The message of "Undercover Boss," in case you didn't hear it over the sound of ringing cash registers, is this: Attention, citizen! The higher-ups are just like you ... which you would soon discover if you were ever to scale the fence at the country club and get to know them.

Since that might really screw up somebody's tee time, CBS instead brings the mountain to Mohammed, giving giant corporations millions of dollars in advertising by making the guys at the top look like Joe Blow for a week, performing and often screwing up at menial tasks ("He kin wear a suit, but he can't run no forklift like me!") for a few days. After that, the newly unmasked boss proves himself and his company to be caring, loving souls by doling out promotions and other goodies to the underlings he's met along the way.

While CBS insists that no one featured on the show is being paid by the network to appear, it definitely would not surprise me to learn that the street runs the other way; that these companies are actually paying CBS to be featured on the show, given how much public goodwill the sight of a CEO giving a free education to a struggling single mom might provide them. Does that possibility piss me off? A little. Here's how much: You know how Al Jolson performed in blackface? I am officially coining the word "Peasantface."

Yes, I'm taking this way too seriously. It is, after all, just a show — and a reality show at that. But the whole Great Depression Part Deux thing and all the Tea Baggers shouting the economic equivalent of "Let Us Eat Cake!" has got me wanting to go Che on the corporate types who got us in this gatdamn mess. Given that, all I can think of while watching "Undercover Boss" is: Thanks, boss! You helped one person, or two or three, with the camera there to capture every sniffle and tear. But how about all the other poorly paid, struggling and underappreciated folks who work for your company? What about the ones that didn't get some face time and a hug from Boss Hog while wearing a company-logo T-shirt on primetime CBS? What about them?

That said, this week is the debut of "Undercover Boss," season two. Featured bosses include the CEO and chairman of Chiquita brands picking cabbage, the senior VP of NASCAR changing tires real fast and the CEO and president of Direct TV putting up satellite dishes.

For a week. After that, it's back to their executive washrooms, walnut-paneled offices, and million-dollar country homes, where they can bask in the joy of having helped. Makes you proud to be an American, don't it?

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