CBS’s Undercover Boss has always had it both ways. It pokes fun at egregiously overpaid executives without actually critiquing their entitlement — sort of like a reality-show version of The Office, except with each episode ending with faux uplift courtesy of a supposedly benevolent corporate culture. The point of the series, if there is one, is that business leaders can only receive an honest view of their respective companies by donning a disguise and going undercover with entry-level workers—one-half of The Prince and the Pauper, with social mobility directed entirely downward. Presumably, the suits can then learn how to improve their companies. But the question has always been, would they even attempt improvements without the loving gaze of cameras directed their way?
The season two finale, which aired last night, laid bare the inherent absurdity of the entire series. Tim White, the Chancellor of the University of California-Riverside—he had 67 new voice messages, so we know he’s important!– would assume a costume mustache and infiltrate the ranks of his non-salaried employees. Is this a college-set Disney film from the ’60s? Sadly, Tommy Kirk was nowhere in sight.
First, White would share his achingly heartfelt story about coming up in the world by his bootstraps as the son of Argentinean immigrants. Second, he’d reveal his cover story. He’d pose as a private school employee named Pete Weston researching the public school experience for a documentary. Because we all know you get your most unprejudiced perspective of your work environment when flanked by cameras.
To start off, “Pete” would work as a teaching assistant for a freshman organic chemistry class. He was shocked to see that 250 students packed the lecture hall—anonymity hardly being the ideal learning condition. The students were shocked that their TA couldn’t pronounce “catalyst” or “hydrolysis.” Cue close-ups of yawning 19-year-olds!
Sadly, the Undercover Chancellor’s subsequent jobs fared little better. He forgot if O goes before P when sorting textbooks at the library and realized the difficulty of walking backwards while conducting a campus tour. Anyway, if we didn’t know it was difficult, the rimshot sound effect when he stumbled provided edifying punctuation.
Watching the show I’m reminded of Ovid’s myth Baucis and Philemon. It follows the gods Zeus and Hermes as they descend from Mount Olympus, adopt human form, and find shelter and hospitality courtesy of a humble elderly couple. For their kindness, the gods reward Baucis and Philemon, while condemning everyone who had shunned them to die in a flood. No, this isn’t a crazy tangent. It proves remarkably instructive for reading Undercover Boss.
Take last night. For their kindness and professionalism, Tim White sent an assistant track and field coach to a camp to hone his skills, found donors to help pay off the student loan debt of his student supervisors at the library and the campus tour group, and created a Women in Science scholarship in honor of the organic chemistry professor whose class he hijacked.
Last night’s installment lacked the punitive component of the Baucis and Philemon myth, but it’s been front-and-center in other episodes, with executives mercilessly condemning their companies’ middle managers for policies they themselves had enacted. The disturbing result of a corporate culture in which middle management is scapegoated is a two-tier hierarchy of executives and entry-level employees, with nobody in between. By doing so, Undercover Boss has, in effect, unwittingly endorsed the eradication of the middle class.
Believe me, White’s acts of kindness are heartwarming. It’s nice to see a university chancellor take the time to identify with his students and faculty as individuals. But the presentation here essentially proves that that’s the exception, not the rule. After all, the gods rarely come down from Olympus. The mortals the Undercover Bosses encounter don’t challenge executive authority but accept their subservience, showing appreciation for the tiny acts of munificence from their betters, who are proven to be just that because of their charity.
I suppose Americans struggling to make ends meet don’t revolt against this plutocratic propaganda because even the poor among us seem to believe they are just millionaires going through a rough patch. However, the particular gratefulness with which Undercover Boss’s charity cases receive their temporary financial Band-Aids suggests a depressing new acceptance of social immobility. It seems we’ve devolved from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to Who Wants to Meet a Millionaire.
Jimmy Hoffa is rolling over in his cement-covered grave.