As far as original comedies on TV go, the pickings are pretty slim. But while most networks have finally shied away from the laugh track era (aside from CBS, at least), even that is slowly becoming stale in this era of TV. So what else can one hope for when it comes to a television show that feels wholly original and fresh? Well…you can go back to the 90s for ideas that didn’t work then that might work now. Such is the case with Better Off Ted, a comedy from Andy Richter Controls the Universe creator Victor Fresco.
As head of research and development at Veridian Dynamics, good guy Ted Crisp (Harrington) leads a quirky team of the world’s smartest scientists on a mission to make the impossible possible. From cow-less meat to deadly pumpkins, no project is too bizarre, or too unethical, as long as it’s profitable. Working to appease his beautiful boss (DeRossi), Ted struggles occasionally with his conscience — and his attraction to a comely co-worker (Anders) — but it’s all in a day’s work when you’re Better Off Ted.
I avoided this show like the plague for several reasons. For one I thought it looked stupid and ABC couldn’t seem to advertise it as anything more than a show where people frequently had sex with one another (yawn). And two it was on ABC, a network I generally try to avoid when it comes to new shows (hello Flash Forward and V, two promising but ultimately disappointing shows). But with the season going into repeats for the most part and this show’s first season arriving on DVD, now was a solid time to give the show a chance and ignore the promos that ABC whipped up for it.
And honestly I think the marketing for this show is what kept it down in the ratings. What this show is advertised as is something wholly generic and uninteresting and what the actual product is, instead, something that is about as original as you can get on TV today. The characters are fresh, but familiar enough to be relatable, and the plots are rarely “get in my pants” focused as so many other shows are hellbent on going towards. Sure, there’s some office flirting, romance, and the occasional showing of people getting it on (although each time we see it, it is quite literally the same sequence repeated several times throughout the season), but all in all it’s a pretty wholesome show with some biting dialogue and serious wit to back it up.
It all makes sense, of course, since this show is from Fresco. I’d just recently watched Richter and seeing as how this show’s packaging makes no mention of it, I had no idea just how much like Fresco’s previous comedic outing this would be like. Honestly it feels like some giant mash up of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Scrubs and a bit of Drew Carey Show. It’s a bit more grounded in reality than Richter was but it still has that certain aloof feeling to it that keeps it not feeling totally sane. The crazy inventions and experiments that go on in the show only help further drive this feeling home.
The show is incredibly original as well. Almost as strong as My Name is Earl was in its early seasons; it felt new and original and the characters and their situations just felt so human and real. At the same time the dialogue manages to be relentlessly entertaining with constant back and forth’s between the characters that go nowhere (particularly the segment in the second episode of the season between Harrington and DeRossi’s characters) and story lines that carry on throughout the season that bring a sense of cohesion to the entire thing. Plus there’s a bit of The Office-style romance with a “will they/won’t they” type scenario that, as or right now, has yet to get old.
When it comes to the characters itself it’s another mixture of greatness. DeRossi once again plays a cold and slightly disconnected (emotionally) individual that just works for her in every way. In fact you could probably call her character Lindsay Fünke pretty easy…although Veronica in Better Off Ted has a greater sense of independence. The scientists, played by Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett, are always entertaining as well with their frequent spats. Star Harrington gives a slide George Clooney vibe in his mannerisms and acting style, which only adds to his appeal when he’s with his on-screen daughter. It’s those sequences that help ground the series further as it often takes the show away from the office environment and opens it up to the “real world.” Although whenever the show gets grounded, one of the hilarious “Veridian Dynamics” training videos/ads gets played to take you right back to the aloof world that the show inhabits.
And having said all of this I rarely found myself laughing out loud or chortling for extended periods of time as I often do with comedic shows I enjoy. Honestly this show is superbly written and acted, but it’s done in a subtle way that it doesn’t bowl you over. It’s a steady stream of jokes and while there are a few which make you laugh out loud, you’ll likely just have a smile plastered on your face for most of the show. It’s a solid show all around and its insistence on not focusing on people constantly having sex is a welcome breath from the current crop of shows on air, although at the same time this show isn’t exactly family friendly. Quite a few times there were some salty jokes that were definitely not for the PG-rated ears, but overall it’s a pretty tame show in terms of how far it takes jokes. Although the “Racial Sensitivity” episode genuinely surprised me with how blatant they were with some things…and then repeatedly grinded those same jokes into the skin like broken glass. Kudos to the show for having the balls to stick with a joke and run with it the entire episode, as sensitive as it might have been.
Overall Better Off Ted is a true delight to watch. I quite literally watched the entire show in a single five hour sitting (with a couple breaks, of course), but it really didn’t feel like five hours. Which is a testament to how well written this show is. With it returning to air on December 8th, I doubt it’ll find many viewers in the “off” season of television, but here’s hoping that those looking for a way to kill a Tuesday evening will cozy up to this and Scrubs on ABC. Highly Recommended.
Fox brings Better Off Ted to DVD in a standard two-disc clear amaray case. The jacket is double sided, with the reverse housing details of disc contents and imagery/graphics from the show. Disc art is the same for each disc (although there is a variant in the blue coloring used) and menus for both discs are nigh identical, save a single number at the top of the screen. No slipcase or insert is included and this release is incredibly barebones.
Video is a bit mushy for a modern outing. I’m so used to getting test discs with watermarked video from Fox that I thought that was what I was watching at first…but, nope, this is the final retail product. The compression and noise throughout both discs is pretty ridiculous; maybe I’m just used to Blu’s now, but the detail was really bland and smudged when you got up on the picture. Not too much worse than the feed that my local ABC affiliate dishes out, mind you, but it’s definitely quite sub-par as far as transfers go.
The audio option, a DD5.1 mix, is also quite unimpressive, although that has more to do with the lack of something to toss into the surrounds than anything. The only segments that made much of an impact were the “Jabberwocky” presentation and the final bit of the season finale with the dove flying around the room; you finally noticed the surrounds and subwoofer kick up at that point, whereas they were only briefly heard from previously.
Extras? Nope! There is literally nothing here. No extras, no commentaries, no bloopers…nothin’. Incredibly disappointing, especially since the video transfers were so compressed. I’d hoped for at least a little something, but I guess Fox didn’t want to invest more into this series than they already had, as it’s very unlikely it’ll see a third season (or even the complete airing of the second season, as I have a feeling ABC is going to give this show the Eli Stone treatment unless season two airings take a massive viewer upswing).
Overall this set is Recommended, but only for fans. The complete lack of extras is a serious downer, as I’m sure the blooper reel for this show is quite lengthy.
Better Off Ted: The Complete First Season is now available on DVD.