Undercover Boss USA – A fairy tale of class collaboration

TV review: ‘Undercover Boss USA’
Tuesday, 8.30pm, TV One

The Spark August 2010

‘Undercover Boss USA’ is a peculiar show; a show hard to imagine being produced any time before the 2008 economic recession. The show is an attempt by ‘reality’ television to tap into the growing class anger caused by the recession. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the extremely over-the-top and unsubtle opening narration:

The economy is going through TOUGH TIMES! Many hard-working Americans blame wealthy CEOs, out of touch with what’s going on in THEIR OWN COMPANIES! But SOME BOSSES are willing to take EXTREME ACTION to make their businesses BETTER!

Set to very dramatic music, the words “EXTREME TIMES CALL FOR EXTREME MEASURES” pop up. The show then reveals its premise; each week will feature “the boss of a major corporation” going “undercover” for a week as an entry-level recruit to the company to experience the practical consequences and hardships caused by policies made at the top of the ladder. For the first two episodes, the “victims” are Larry O’Donnell, CEO of Waste Management, Inc. and Coby Brooks, CEO of Hooters.

The entire format of this show is frequently emotionally manipulative, mainly in an attempt to make the predominantly working-class audience buy into a false alternative to class struggle that the show is trying to sell. After a few minutes profiling the CEOs, and portraying them as very nice and genuine family men with some sort of personal tragedy that happened to them that they have to deal with – Coby with his brother dying in a corporate air crash and Larry with his daughter becoming disabled after a surgical mishap – as the show goes on, it frequently obscures wider economic issues by focusing on individual struggles.

And to get the audience to buy into their rather dubious message, the show has to provide content that will be appealing to this audience. It does this by rather quickly degenerating into spectacle, with the CEOs being forced into a series of humiliating tasks that the workers have to do every day. After one day of working, Larry complains about how his back is “hurting like you wouldn’t believe”, going on about how he had “no idea this job was going to be so physically demanding and mentally exhausting”. Typically the years spent pencil-pushing in corporate boardrooms and lazing around in their mansions has made them utterly incompetent at manual labour; in both episodes so far they have been fired at least once. Admittedly, despite the show’s huge faults, this is amusing to watch.

In both episodes aired so far, and I’m guessing this is going to be a series-long trend, the CEOs featured end up completely shocked by various obvious facts about their company practices. In Larry’s case he’s shocked by how the high-efficiency policies he’s pushed for have made life hell for the workers of his company since they’re barely humanly possible to even achieve, and in Coby’s case he’s shocked at how the public views his company as misogynistic, a company which entirely revolves around scantily-clad women serving people beer.

The most shameful aspect of the show is how it portrays the struggles that the employees of the company have to go through. In the first episode, there is a man on kidney dialysis working for Waste Management. Instead of exploring the implications of a society which forces a man on dialysis to work 4 days a week, he is lauded for how much of a “hard honest worker” he is. A woman has a workload of 2 jobs at once, and has to support both her parents, her husband and her children, and again, rather than questioning why she’s working 2 jobs at once for very low pay she’s touted as an “inspiration”.

Every ‘reality’ show needs a bad guy, and if the CEO isn’t bad, and the workers aren’t bad, then all the blame falls onto the middle managers. Larry seems to be completely oblivious to the practice of docking pay for every minute late and finds it shocking, and gives the manager who is doing this a hard talking to about how it “isn’t company policy”, despite the fact that most companies do this. The “Hooters” episode’s solution to how the entire company is based on degrading women seems to be a smack on the wrist for male managers who act inappropriately to the Hooters Girls and talking about returning to the non-existent “family friendly” age of the Hooters franchise.

They then give the workers featured on the show some sort of reward, such as the man on dialysis becoming an “inspirational speaker”, instead of something that will allow him to live out the remaining days of his life without working, or hiring some of them to give advice to the corporation on some vague goal of being nicer to their workers. It glosses over the fact that nothing has or will change for the majority of the low-paid, over-worked employees in their company. By obscuring this larger picture and focusing on how the CEOs have decided to do some nice things for the few individual workers on the show, the message of the show ends up being that the solution to corporations screwing over the working-class is greater communication between the CEOs and the workers and this isn’t really possible except on the completely individual level the show is based on.


  1. http://www.avclub.com/articles/undercover-boss,37961/ may be of interest too, a review of the first episode…

  2. derp de derp says:

    fawning portrayals in the New York Times showed said CEOs having to go without summer homes or second yachts (God forbid!)

    Heh, relevant.

  3. Barrie (AWSM) says:

    Ive watched all the episodes so far and they are very formulaic. Its remarkable how the CEO always manages to find somebody within the organisation who has a particularly hard luck story such as e.g. recent family berevement, thus making the CEOs ultimate token support seem even more munificent and theres always the villain in the form of the arrogant NCO level grunt who is incompetent or unpleasant and gets reprimanded.

    As your review noted, the real questions never get asked and its unintentionally revealing how easily the line blurs between working poor, unemployed and homeless in USA. On yesterdays show one of the sychophantic employees was ‘rewarded’ by being given health benefits and another had previously been a homeless runaway when younger. In next weeks programme the boss cries when learning that an employee had been homeless prior to working for them. The real lesson is not how grateful they should be to be employed by enlightened despots but the reality of the poor conditions workers are in (and they dont even cover the many ‘illegals’ working in the USA who face much worse conditions of course).

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  5. Skellyfree says:

    Hi all,

    I am based in England and have watched this show from the beginning (though, we are obviously a good few episodes behind you guys). I totally agree with what has been said in the above posts; in fact, while watching the lastest episode about the CEO of Fastsigns (a company I know very well in the UK), I Googled the show specifically to see what people thought of the show’s authenticity – what with the over-the-top music and the players (and I would call them “players” as opposed to “participants” as they seem as if they are performing in a fable-drama about good versus evil in the work place, rather than a made-for-tv “reality” show.

    What amuses me the most – as has been said – is that the show’s producers genuinely seem to think that we, as the audience, are so stupid and accepting of the fact that the companies featured are giving these nicey-nicey rewards to the three or four individuals they have “worked” closely with in each heart-wrenching episode (and not, as I feel they really should be doing, implementing realistic and therefore, sustainable opportunities (such as better pay and conditions) to the entire, often thousand-strong workforce – those on the ground, who really are put through the mill, on a daily basis, and not just when they have to clean toilets or make beds for two or three hours!

    Added to all of this guff is the “‘Sob story of the week” element, which seems to be the focal point of the show and the angle for the now-humbled boss to show their more humane side and be able to empathise with their lowly employees (yeah, right!), thus, at the end of the show, waving their Fairy Godmother wand and making everything right once again in the land of Narnia (sorry, I meant in the world of the minimum-waged factory worker).

    All this said, I do watch the show with interest, because, at the end of the day, I am actually a big softie and like to see what tears are shed (OK, admittedly, sometimes they are my own…) at the end of the episode, by the grateful employees and what level of prizes are up for the offering this week…it’s like watching my favourite gameshow, actually…

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