54. "Racial Sensitivity," Better Off Ted (2009)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Compared with the shambling, semi-improvisational tone of the American version of The Office, an episode like "Racial Insensivity" is focused, quickly paced, and understandable to a first-time viewer. There's the reveal of a ridiculous problem — a motion detector governing the lights, elevators, and automatic doors of an office tower fails to detect black people — followed by further boneheadedness on the part of management before the heroes finally devise a solution. But few current sitcoms work this way. Instead, shows from How I Met Your Mother to Modern Family concentrate on stringing together character beats without much regard for coherent stories. Better Off Ted is geared toward fans of Preston Sturges and old-fashioned satire like The Man in the White Suit, and I don't think there are many of those in the 18-29 demographic.
Lem: (an African-American, to his white co-worker) It gets dark whenever you leave the room.
Phil: Ohh... how can I get mad at you when you say things like that.
In choosing a Better Off Ted episode, I considered "Jabberwocky" (in which the company management becomes obsessed with a product that doesn't exist) and “The Impertence of Communicationizing” (in which a mistyped memo says that employees "must NOW use offensive language"), the latter included in the Classic TV History Blog top episode list.
But it's hard to top the pungency of "Racial Insensitivity," in which the Veridian company blithely installs separate, manually operated drinking fountains for the convenience of its black employees.
The A.V. Club includied "Racial Insensitivity" in its Very Special Episode department, with Noel Murray providing a good summary of Better Off Ted's theme:
[s]ometimes people with fiscal power really do actively look to screw over those who don’t. More often than not, though, the screwing process is the result of an entropic chain reaction. A group of people in one room comes up with an idea to make money, and doesn’t consider—or care—how it’s going to affect the people in the rooms all around them.
The personification of that attitude is Veronica Palmer (Portia de Rossi), the self-assured equivalent to 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy. ("My door is always open to you," the executive tells a group of employees. "Please close it on the way out.") In "Racial Sensitivity," she parrots the company line — disturbingly common in today's political discourse — that racism can't exist unless it's overt and intentional:
Ted: The system doesn't see black people?
Veronica: I know. Weird, huh?
Ted: That's more than weird, Veronica. That's basically, well... racist.
Veronica: The company's position is that it's actually the opposite of racist, because it's not targeting black people. It's just ignoring them. They insist the worst people can call it is "indifferent."
Indifference on the part of ABC, and arguably TV viewers, ensured a short run (26 episodes) for Better Off Ted, but that's approprate for a show that knew how to get in and out of a story fast. Too bad there aren't more shows trying to emulate it.
• Better Off Ted doesn't have a laugh track, but the peppy music can get a bit much in trying to underline jokes. It's still better than the montages set to boring alterative rock songs on some other shows.
• The ominous establishment shot of the company's skyscraper, shot from below and including a darkening sky, reminds me of the crows circling the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant every time it's shown on The Simpsons.
• Better Off Ted is streaming on Netflix; below is a micro version of the episode.