Along with last night’s mammoth Super Bowl ratings came the news that 38.6 million people watched the debut of CBS’s new reality show Undercover Boss, in which executives work incognito within their own companies. Did those people see an entertaining, emotional work that celebrated American workers? Or a manipulative, cheesy piece of big-network p.r. for executives looking to burnish their image while they keep squeezing every dime out of their workforce?
Yes! And yes!
In last night’s premiere, Larry O’Donnell, the president and COO of Waste Management, took on jobs including sorting recycling (resulting in a Lucille-Ball-at-the-conveyor-belt moment), picking litter and cleaning toilets. He learned that a woman driving a garbage route for WM is surveilled by managers in pickup trucks and has to pee in a coffee can to keep on schedule; trash sorters wear heavy gloves to avoid getting stabbed by needles and are docked two minutes for every minute they’re late from their half-hour lunch. He related his personal story—including have a daughter with special needs—and found himself moved, humbled and vowing to help his overstressed workers out.
Great guy, right? Well, maybe. Sure, he handed out promotions and raises to the few people whose stories we saw. It was moving to see a woman with overwhelming family and job responsibilities get a bump up that kept her from losing her house.
But is there anything reason to believe anything is better company-wide? Every problem O’Donnell witnessed comes out of shareholder demands for productivity, to wring more work out of every penny of wages. Does anyone believe there aren’t plenty of other workers in the same straits in a company the size of Waste Management? You stop cutting costs, you disappoint the market, and you get canned. If Larry O’Donnell has too much of an Ebenezer Scrooge change of heart, Waste Management can find another Larry O’Donnell.
All we got, really, was a chastened (and nice-enough-seeming) O’Donnell chewing out some middle managers–whom the show made out as the bad guys for implementing O’Donnell’s policies and could hardly vigorously defend themselves–and talking about “task forces” and “making things better.” The fact that the show couldn’t say more about the female garbage truck driver’s situation than that she’s “holding Larry to his promise” says everything.
But that those stories even got told—even if we shouldn’t kid ourselves that anything seriously got changed—is something. Primetime TV, you’ll probably have noticed, is not exactly a hospitable place to the stories of blue-collar workers like Waste Management’s employees. In fact, almost the only shows out there treating working-class people as characters in any depth are reality shows like Deadliest Catch.
Service workers easily become invisible, part of the plumbing, if no one calls them to attention. Seeing the exhausting work that goes into making your garbage disappear was a primetime rarity, and it’s a worthy thing for people to know that their garbage may just be collected by someone who has to pee in a coffee can in order to make her targets on time.
There was something bogus about the way Undercover Boss presented O’Donnell’s human, sympathetic reactions and individual gestures as proof of some kind of systemic change. But it’s also a bogusness that I think people in the audience are well-equipped to see through. You’ve worked a job; you know how organizations work; you know how sh*t rolls downhill.
All the pieces of my critique of Undercover Boss, in other words, are there for anyone to pick up on if they’re inclined to. I suspect people will see the show—as we see so many things in this society—as a reflection of what they already want to believe about workers and businesspeople. But the criticism of Undercover Boss as a propaganda tool is a common one of reality TV, and one I can’t sign on to: namely, This is a dangerous show, because other people—who are not as smart as I am—will be suckered by it and take the wrong lessons.
I don’t buy that; people today, and reality viewers especially, are if anything skeptical to a fault. And I think any criticism of a work that depends on its pernicious deceptions—to which the critic himself is immune—is specious.
Undercover Boss is emotionally manipulative, because it’s a primetime entertainment show. But it’s also a show about CEOs abasing themselves, at a time when people are suspicious of the powerful. And it’s a show, at its base, about how crazy hard ordinary people work for a dollar. It’s not going to do anything, in the greater sense, to make things better for them. But if it means a few of them get attention for what they do, I’ll take that deal.