The premise for an awful reality show and the premise for an excellent reality show are one and the same. A strong reality premise—strand people on an island, race around the world—is what gets your attention. But what makes it mean-spirited or good-hearted, excruciating or delightful, sleazy or gratifying, is the execution.
Protestors drove ABC’s Welcome to the Neighborhood off the air in 2005 before it ever debuted, because of the premise (seven couples, including minorities, competed to win a house and were judged by their future neighbors); later, after actually seeing all the episodes, gay-rights-advocacy group GLAAD endorsed it. Spike TV’s The Joe Schmo Show–which surrounded a “contestant” with actors–could have been a cruel joke; it turned out to be a pitch-perfect and good-natured parody.
All of this is to say that, despite its premise, I went into Does Someone Have to Go?—Fox’s new reality show in which coworkers select some of their number for possible firing—assuming that it might not be as bad as you would think.
As it turns out, Does Someone Have to Go? is exactly bad as you would think.
Now admittedly, the title itself was a pretty good hint that this show was not going to take the high road when it came to conflict resolution in the workplace. The series visits a string of troubled workplaces, promising to “give employees a voice” in solving the office’s problems—by confronting one another, blaming one another for the dysfunction, and voting for three candidates for possible elimination.
You could probably make a good reality show about visiting a workplace, identifying what and who isn’t working, and forcing some sort of crisis to make clear what the group needs to do better: that’s essentially what, say, Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant: Impossible does in the food-service business. Those shows can be overdramatic or manipulated, but when they work—see, for instance, the absolutely bananas “Amy’s Baking Company” episode of Kitchen Nightmares–they can be revealing snapshots of how a bad workplace gets that way, and how individual neurosis becomes everyone’s problem.
The problem with Does Someone Have to Go? is in its founding ideas and assumptions. I’m just going to quote Fox’s description here: “Almost every office across the country has some level of dysfunction, which often can be attributed to just a few select individuals – those co-workers who might be viewed as anything from lazy to incompetent to quite simply having a toxic personality that poisons the entire workplace.”
In other words, if something’s wrong where you work, the problem isn’t management—God forbid—it’s you, or one of your shiftless coworkers. So go find a scapegoat! To help in that pursuit, the show prods sores by having employees badmouth each other in private interviews—which it then shares publicly—and revealing every participating worker’s salary.
It’s the crabs-in-a-barrel philosophy of management: whip up ill will, stir up resentment, and then set the employees out to pull down people who have risen slightly higher from the bottom. In the first episode (part one of a two-parter), credit-card-processing company Velocity Merchant Services opens itself up to the cameras. In short order, the staff have been reduced to reality-cliche shorthand (one talks too much, one is a pushy jerk, one is a slacker), but a wider issue surfaces: several employees are members of the owners’ family, and may be getting paid too much for too little work, with impunity.
Now, maybe there’s an interesting problem here: there’s at least the suggestion that the owners of VMS, in hiring family members, are showing favoritism and ill-using the company’s resources. That’s a problem, and possibly a failing of the bosses–but they’ve been taken out of the equation. No one’s going to fire them. They’re not going lose anything, except that a relative might be fired. Though, as the show at least acknowledges, who wants to fire the boss’ mom at risk of getting canned yourself when the cameras leave? At worst, their “punishment” is that they get to reduce payroll, and have their underlings take the blame for it.
(Does that happen? In the next episode, we’ll get to see the bottom-three employees—each of whom makes less, usually much less, than six figures—plead for their actual livelihoods on television. So, yeah, that promises to be all kinds of fun.)
The obvious comparison for Does Someone Have to Go? is CBS‘s Undercover Boss, and it’s true that, depending how a particular episode plays out, that show can essentially be millions of dollars’ worth of free PR for a corporation. But Boss at least operates from the assumption that the person running a company might be out of touch, might have made mistakes, might have something to learn. In the world of Does Someone Have to Go?, somehow the biggest problems are the people with the least power and influence.
In reality, the proper answer to Does Someone Have to Go? is, “Yes, whoever signed the company up for this sleazeball reality show.” The real dysfunction here is, that’s never gonna happen.