'Undercover Boss' finale: A call for rebellion against this corporate propaganda

undercover-boss-white

Image Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

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.

Comments (72 total) Add your comment
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  • Steve

    Oh the irony of a EW calling for rebellion against corporate propaganda when EW prints studio/network propaganda on a daily basis in the guise of news.

    • Kate

      Erm, I guess the difference would be Entertainment Weekly is an entertainment site, not a news site. Please tell me you don’t come here for your update on world affairs.

      • Kristen

        I don’t come here for my update on world affairs or any political commentary for that matter. I think that’s why I was so surprised to see this hit piece on a harmless show on their website. Seriously? You are paid for your opinions on the show, not for crackpot theories about how it’s secretly killing the middle class. Put your Che t-shirt on and go back to your bong.

      • yesyousuck

        “a hit piece”? He is hardly the first to recognize this show for what it is. Also, if you do not see how popular culture and entertainment intersect with political discourse see how a reality TV mom called Sarah Palin somehow eeks her way into political news and a blowhard TV host like Donald Trump can dominate the news with asinine statements about the President’s citizenship bona fides. Even without that circus pop culture has always influenced American values as much as it reflects the same.

      • Bob

        “ekes” – not “eeks”

        and yes, this is total corporatist propaganda.

        and yes, i too was surprised (that’s a bit of an understatement) to see something almost like a call for a “rebellion against corporate propaganda” from the pages of EW.

        i quite liked the comparison to ovid’s ‘baucis and philemon’ tho – quite appropriate really for the show’s thesis.

        the reason why donald trump dominates the news is because the corporatocracy needs diversions – investigate the concept of KAYFABE and then bear in mind that “the donald” has a history of involvement with WWE – and then bear in mind that the “two party” system is a sham and a lie and consider the notion (if you haven’t already) whether there is really just a UniParty – we certainly saw evidence of one in the fall of 2008 when “both” wings – those who bow before the elephant totem and those who bow before the donkey totem, dropped all pretense of factional opposition to line up behind demands that Wall Street Plutocrats be given the keys to the nation’s treasury – whether it was John McCain, George Bush, Obama or Nancy Pelosi, they all could agree on one thing – welfare for bankers.

        “pop” culture is prolefeed.

    • Tom

      Oh I could not agree more that EW will go out of their way to do more stories about certain shows then others by not just a little but a lot

  • John

    This is a strange critique/commentary. Why should the Chancellor of a university be compared to billionaire? Do you even know how much work they do? What they have to deal with? I think not.

    • Kate

      I do. I work in a university. Yes, they have to deal with some unpleasantness, but largely they are paid exorbenant amounts of money and routinely screw over those under them to look better themselves. I used to think a university would protect it’s students/employees until I experienced it. I have never been in a more cover-your-ass environment in my life, and I’ve also worked in the prison system. No, he’s not a billionaire, but many of these Chancellors have similar mindsets to the corporate machine.

      • Tivo

        Well said, Kate. I have never worked in a prison, but I agree with Kate that the university system is filled with people who would sooner screw over you and your future than look bad. It’s weird that there are so many idiots-who-would-be-king making the decisions, and so many paralyzed-is-that-all-there-is people working for them.

      • John

        I work at a university,too. I’m faculty and I also work with the administration. Sometimes stuff doesn’t get done; it’s true. But, more often than not it is because it takes a long time to get people on the same page, to be diplomatic and respectful of people. The people who take on the higher level administrative jobs have a big responsibility that affects institutions that are meant to benefit society at large now and in the future. They’re not there to build a company that makes a profit. So, the writer’s attack on corporate America seems completely misdirected at this Chancellor. Accuse him of incompetence and of losing touch with those he represents if you want, but don’t equate him with a profiteer. Secondly, Kate, rather than point fingers, work on the fixing the problem.

      • titaniumtestes

        Hey Kate, go back to Russia, bytch!! Stalin needs another blaugh job!!!

    • anna

      I was confused too. Half the article sounds like UB helps people, so it is acceptable entertainmet. The other half sounds like the writer is opposed to the entire show with its “agenda”.

      I was really confused by the show last night. While it was nice to see an administrator try to understand and make a difference at his school, where did the money come from? I know he said “donors” for some of the scholarships and things, but what about the rest of the money?

      • titaniumtestes

        Ha Ha Ha!!! Anna, you probably get confused by tying your shoes!!! Leave thinking to those qualified!!

      • kitt76

        Do “those qualified” include people who use three exclamation points between sentences, titanium? It’s either one or none, buddy. You should learn basic grammar skills before you call people stupid.

    • Znachki

      What happened with the Cancellor, was about what I expected. When I was attending the University of Washington, the student paper had something they called “The Gerb Watch”. Anyone spotting Gerberding, the President of the university, was supposed to notify them, as sightings were so rare. I became more than just a joke. One of the priorities in picking his successor was that he be more visible on campus.

      • Znachki

        sigh…Chancellor

  • M&J

    I do like watching UB but I’ve always wanted to know if after the show, did the working situation(s) for ALL of the employees improve? You know that for the select few employees that are showcased, their situations improved. But did work situations for the rest get better because of the show? Would love to see some follow up on that. Because if it only benefited the employees showcased and not everyone else as a whole, it kind of misses the point doesn’t it?

    • Lea

      I work for Frontier Airlines, and sadly, conditions have yet to improve. He promised we’d get back the money that was taken from us after the bankruptcy, but it has yet to happen. With oil continuing to go up, it’s doubtful we’ll ever get that money back.

      • titaniumtestes

        So find another job! It ain’t too hard to figure out!! You waiting for another government handout?? Just because Barack Osama in president, doesn’t mean you have to go on welfare.

  • Tammy

    I have always liked parts of the premise this show–specifically showing the upper management of companies how little they know about the amazing amount of grunt work that goes into making a company run, let alone be successful. However, my main gripe has always been how the “underlings” in the company are chosen and give some reward just for participating in the show. While so many of the employees who have been showcased are deserving of a nice break in life, I can assure you that there are 100’s or 1000’s more employees in each of those corporations just as deserving of a break. Some people leave their “woe is me” tales at home, and don’t share it with someone, especially on the first day they meet them and train them on the job, in front of a camera, no less! I can only hope some of these companies went one step further and incorporated some type of corporate-wide reward system for deserving employees, either those who improve their job performance in some way, or to help those who fall on hard times. Although, I know I would have to be almost desperate to speak up and ask for assistance, as I’m sure many other hard-working Americans are the same. I just think these little “bonuses” the select few get should somehow transfer over to being corporate wide as well. I guess I live in a Utopian society in my mind where everyone is treated fairly. But, it would be a nice after thought…

    • Moral Defen

      What is fair?

    • J.Norman

      Honestly, If I was one of these CEOs, I would worry more about how oblivious these people are. I mean how no one questions why there are all these full camera and lighting crews around to produce an “entry level training film”
      I realize that there are literally tons of feet of film that is discarded to every foot that makes it to the show and they may very well edit out anyone who shows even a glimmer of intelligence in wondering whats going on. It would seem that the ones who actually make it to the TV show are:
      1) Totally oblivous idiots
      2) Unimaginative dolts
      3) Really smart people who have seen the TV show, are aware of the concept, and tell the CEOs exactly what they want to hear (which will benefit the employee later)

  • Brad

    I couldn’t sit through the entire episode. The university board should question how its chancellor could be so incapable of reasonably simple tasks. I suppose these examples were included to give some appreciation to the worker bees performing those tasks. The moments of tearful reflection while “alone” in his office chair, as well as tearful soul-baring with those he establishes newfound friendships, would have all seemed genuinely sincere if I could somehow forget that they could see the cameras and producers in front of them. I really try not to be cynical, especially when there is a positive message to deliver, but I don’t appreciate anything trying to pass itself off as something it clearly is not.

    • Mike

      I came away thinking that the chancellor is an absolute idiot – no wonder california is broke.

      His salary is probably an easy million $/yr + pension – and the guy does not even know the alphabet, can’t talk and walk backwards at the same time, can’t pronounce some basic chemical terms or operate low tech equipment.

      The only saving grace is that the tour guide and the library people seem like very nice and are the type of people that should rake advantage of an education – but then again, I always get the feeling that these jobs are staged because they like to highlight the good rather than the incompetent.

  • MrWriteSF

    Minor point I suppose, but when I was in college, TAs usually headed up lab sessions or small discussions, not full-on lectures. Then again, with the UC system in dire financial straits, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that a TA is a cheaper source of labor than a full professor.

  • Alicia

    It is very disturbing that the chancellor of a university doesn’t know that “o” comes before “p” or that he can’t pronounce the word “catalyst.”

    University chancellors make mid to high six-figure salaries. For that kind of money should basic familiarity with English alphabet and common words be expected? (Really, should the head of a university of have at least a junior high school vocabulary?)

    As for the article, I have to agree with its argument. The show really is obnoxious. The fact that CEO of companies have to go on a TV show to understand how their companies operate shows their incompetence and how divorced they are from the realities of how regular people live.

    It’s all very sad to see the destruction of the middle class, both white and blue collar, before our eyes. Sadly, too many people, like some of those leaving comments, just don’t seem to care because their lives are hunky dorey for now.

    It’s also a fallacy to say that the this site or the author should make social commentary. That makes no sense. EW is an entertainment news publication that offers insight and >criticism< of our culture, whether that's film, TV, books, etc.

    I find it very disturbing that those who choose to visit this site feel that freedom of speech should not apply to the author beyond what they as readers want.

    • Alison

      Alicia, I’m sure you’re perfect and have never second-guessed yourself on the alphabet when caught in a mundane task. I hope you’re enjoying your high horse.

    • Mother Nature

      @ Alicia
      I agree with everything you said. I wonder how long this guy will last now that his (lack of) basic competencies are out there for the world to see and judge? In a perfect world, he’d be back in the mustache before too long, begging for a job.

  • Alicia

    Whoops meant to say “should not make social commentary.”

    Again, great article. The show is just propaganda of the worst kind.

    P.S.

    That mustache was pathetic. It was too dark for his face. LOL . He looked like Luigi from Mario Bros.

    • titaniumtestes

      I thought he looked like you mom.

      • Squishmar

        I just have to say “Bravo” to all who ignored this troll’s comments all the way throughout the posts. I hate to be the one to break the record… but I think he needs to change his name to “tiny testes” now.

  • Stee

    I couldn’t believe he was complaining that returning books to the shelves was a hard job and “we have to look into a new way of doing this.” Really. Alphabetizing is too hard for a man who supposedly used to teach science but can’t read catalyst or hydrolysis???

    And how come he can round up all these donors for random scholarships and grants but prior to this wasn’t able to round up any funding for a new track and bleachers as part of an annual giving campaign? Does he have any clue what the facilities are like at his campus???

  • Nancy

    I enjoyed this show at first, but since it is so formulaic, I find myself unable to watch it anymore – although somehow I still do catch parts of it until I have to switch to Real Housewives to relieve the tedium.

  • Kristen

    I liked the one with the guy from Mak Trucks. it is much harder to close plants and throw people out of work so you get a bigger bonus when you have met those people face to face. And I love a company where the people speak up! I think the ones where all the employees are white collar are less fun then the ones where there is a huge disparity between the leader and the employees in education and income. Let’s hear it for people who get dirty and work hard for a living (sometimes just barely a living).

    • Moral Defen

      So what do you do when you lose your job and can’t pay your mortgage?

    • Moral Defen

      So what would you do if you had the make the choice of downsizing and saving a 1000 jobs or keep everyone employed and going out of business? Life is relative and not always perfect, easy to critize others than think what would I do.

  • Duck

    What I find ironic is that one cut throat business, the media, goes in and semi-exposes the failings of other businesses. It’s the kettle calling, no, shouting that the pot is black.

    Having worked in both the corporate arena and in the media, I can attest that the media has nothing to brag about.

    If anybody wants to see gods and goddesses looking down their collective noses and attempting to control the lives of lessor beings, one should be able to observe the real behind the scenes activities of any media group, not the mutual admiration drivel that is usually presented for public consumption…..

    By the way, does any one know how much politics goes into hiring a Chancellor to ANY school ????

  • Chullina

    I am a student at UCR and I was very disappointed at the Chancellor. How it easy it must have been to chose 3 jobs that didn’t really address the problems at UCR. And the camera angles only caught the “beautiful” areas of UCR. What a coincidence that the new building that was opened less then a year ago was the chosen department for the lecture course, or that the camera seemed to be obsessed with the huge letters “UCR” that weren’t there at the beginning of the year. Which reminded me of the letter that Chancellor sent out when he announced he had done undercover boss where he said that the show had first approached him more than a year ago. Funny that the university then decided to spend thousands of dollars on decorations UCR doesn’t need. The chancellor should have taught a workshop, discussion or lab where–all courses that were designed for a small group of students and are now packed with more than 30. He should have worked with the gardeners, or the janitors who have to clean after 20,000 students. Or how about working the financial aid office where they make twenty mistakes that affect the future of hundreds of students every hour. How about he address how the university is slowly sucking the life out of all artistic majors. Why didn’t he film inside the physics lecture hall where most science classes are taught. Was it because the seats are falling apart, or the building is falling apart. Too ugly to show on TV huh Mr. Chancellor?

    • Chullina

      ugh, i found grammatical errors after posting. I am mad; sue me.

      • Still

        Nice post–wish it was higher up on the page where more people could read it.

  • laney

    I liked this show in the first season because it was more about what the companies could change about the way their employees were treated or what they were expected to do. Now the show ends with some money being thrown at some good people for good measure, but where are the real changes in the CEO and the company policies? I really dislike the format the show follows this season and almost makes me think that the CEO’s are just doing this to appease rather than to enact real changes to help real people down the line. So, if the show’s writers and creators continue down this path of patting the employees on the head and handing them a free vacation or some cash I won’t continue to watch another season. It is disgusting. I want to see corporate American bosses truly making company wide changes to treat their employees like they are worth every penny they make for the companies.

    • RS

      Fat chance.

  • Aakin

    What I find fascinating about you all is you watch this show thinking somehow that these people are going to actually change. In reality all this show is is free advertising for the corporations, executives, etc… It’s not a reality show as much as it is a 45 minute advertisement for whatever stinkfest that executive works for. That executive has no desire or responsibility to change. It’s sad because you are being entertained by an executive making a mockery of his employees when, unless you are an executive, you are that employee!!! This show always opens up with the “I started with nothing and…” story. If you ask yourself for one minute ‘why do they do this’, it’s because you are all naive enough to
    A) believe it and except it as truth
    B) think that we don’t live in a plutocracy where merit has little to no value whatsoever.
    C) Think that you can be that way too.
    D) Are obviously too dumb to ever, and I mean ever, run a large organization (unless it’s running into the ground)
    You, who watch this show, are being played like a fiddle.

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