"Undercover Boss," CBS's new docu-reality show, has a simple but fertile premise: Chief executives for major American corporations covertly take on entry-level jobs in their own companies.
The idea of these captains of industry going into the blue-collar trenches to see how the other 99 percent live obviously has struck a chord with viewers. Thanks to a post-Super Bowl launch that drew nearly 40 million viewers, "Undercover Boss" is the network's second-most-watched series, behind only "NCIS."
It's easy to see why. It's a great concept (borrowed from a British series, naturally) that is smartly produced, fast-paced and involving.
My favorite part is the prologue, when the chief executive officer assembles his executive committee to announce that he will be going undercover.
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In the pilot, the big cheese at a waste management company portentously announced, "I'm actually going to go out into the operations, into the field," as if he were venturing on a survival mission in the Amazon equipped only with a spork. The other suits at the conference table all but gasped. The very idea!
Of course, life at the bottom of the food chain isn't so bad when you get to drive back to your mansion in your BMW at the end of the shift. Maybe unwind by knocking around a few balls on your backyard putting green.
One of the show's most amusing motifs is that the big honchos are not very good at the grunt jobs. There's a lot of spillage and breakage.
Watching the CEO of 7-Eleven struggling to keep up as he slapped fritters onto a bakery assembly line recalled nothing so much as Lucy Ricardo in the chocolate factory.
During the week they spend punching the clock, rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi, the bosses discover that they have both saints and scoundrels in their employ. Among the latter: a chop-busting, belittling manager at a Hooters franchise. He is gently reprimanded in the end — at least on camera. But a board member makes this Orwellian threat: "We can definitely retrain, from a legal perspective."
Likewise, the virtuous are rewarded in the show's coda when the inspired and humbled boss lavishes bonuses and promotions on the wage slaves who labor valiantly and without complaint.
What a great Dickensian ending. Who among us doesn't want to believe that our hard work eventually will be recognized and rewarded? Who wouldn't care to subscribe to the old-fashioned, probably apocryphal idea of compassionate corporate masters who really have our best interests at heart?
Because on "Undercover Boss," the slumming lords always set out with noble ideals. They intend to save jobs and improve working conditions. Squeezing out more profits? The thought never crossed their minds.
Some things never change, even in "Undercover Boss'" capitalist utopia: The boss holds all the cards. He's the only one who knows that his every act and utterance is going to end up on national television and can thus conduct himself accordingly. Scrooge McDuck would act magnanimously in these circumstances.
It's hard to believe the employees can really be kept in the dark about this ruse. You mean to tell me that the driver of the honeydipper truck doesn't know something is up when the new guy helping him pump out the porta-potties is being trailed everywhere by a camera crew?
"Undercover Boss" works on so many levels. It even instills a hint of paranoia. Don't complain about your job. The guy next to you could be a spy. Just shut your mouth and tote that barge.