Despite what you might have heard, the sitcom isn’t dead.
It’s a common misconception, though, and when the highest-rated comedy over the past four seasons has been “Two and a Half Men,” it’s easy to see why.
In reality, the sitcom has been roughed up and largely forgotten as it clings desperately to life — basically, it’s become George O’Malley at the end of last season’s “Grey’s Anatomy” — but it isn’t dead. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the dysfunctional genius of “Better Off Ted” (9:30 p.m. Tuesday, KTNV-TV, Channel 13), which kicks off a fresh batch of summer episodes this week.
The sitcom, which is every bit as great as its title is horrible — really, it sounds more like some wacky 1980s body-switching comedy — takes place within Veridian Dynamics, a soulless, anything-for-a-buck corporation that manufactures everything from jetpacks and weaponized pumpkins to new food sources such as a test-tube-grown meat blob and the eight-legged octo-chicken.
It’s part of a comedy renaissance that’s happening, of all places, on ABC, the same network that let “According to Jim” flail about for eight undignified seasons. This fall, though, the network is launching a two-hour Wednesday comedy block with series built around established sitcom veterans.
Kelsey Grammer’s “Hank,” about a suddenly unemployed tycoon, hasn’t yet been made available to critics, but Patricia Heaton’s “The Middle,” about an offbeat Indiana family, has some amusing moments — no small feat given that the average new sitcom contains roughly as many laughs as an orphanage fire.
I can’t wait to see more of Courteney Cox’s “Cougar Town,” about the dating misadventures of a recent divorcee. And I laughed so hard at Ed O’Neill’s “Modern Family,” a documentary-style look at three very different households, it triggered a coughing fit that very nearly knocked me off the couch.
But back to “Better Off Ted.”
The series focuses, naturally, on Ted (Jay Harrington), the head of research and development at Veridian, his co-worker Linda (Andrea Anders) and scientists Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett) as they suffer through daily injustices handed down by their boss, Veronica (Portia de Rossi), who’s only slightly more compassionate than a panini press.
Think “Dilbert,” but sexier.
At Veridian, child care doubles as both a sweatshop and a janitorial service.
When it’s suggested that employees be allowed to decorate their cubicles, Veridian does it for them. Only so as not to risk offending anyone, each cubicle is given one of four randomly assigned, nonconfrontational themes: classic cars, space, cats and the Green Bay Packers.
And Tuesday’s episode reveals the medieval fight club in the Veridian subbasement.
But it’s the “Racial Sensitivity” episode that truly stands out. Fans who’ve seen it speak of it in awed, reverential tones, and it’s deserving of every prize from Emmy to Nobel.
In it, Veridian installs money-saving motion sensors that control everything from the lights to the doors, the water fountains and even the elevators. The only problem? The sensors don’t recognize black people.
When Ted complains, Veronica assures him corporate is fixing the problem. “In the meantime,” she reports, “they’d like to remind everyone to celebrate the fact that it does see Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Jews.”
Unfortunately, Veridian’s solutions range from installing separate manual drinking fountains for black employees like Lem — “Thank God,” he sighs, “we don’t have a company bus” — to hiring white people to follow each black employee and trigger the sensors.
Human resources soon realizes that it’s illegal to only hire white workers to follow the black employees, so more black employees — who, in turn, would require their own white employees — must be hired.
Because Veridian doesn’t care about anything but the bottom line, the faulty sensors aren’t removed until Ted and Lem are able to prove that if the company keeps hiring white people to follow black people to follow white people to follow black people, by June 27, 2013, Veridian would employ every person on Earth.
The episode was as fearless as it was flawless.
You can almost see the painstaking effort that went into it, because, honestly, if you introduce a blacks-only drinking fountain, you’d better be real certain it’s obvious the joke is about corporate greed and insensitivity run amok.
It’s that kind of attention to detail, after years of indifference, that just might keep networks from pulling the plug on the sitcom once and for all.
Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at email@example.com.ELSEWHERE
Penn & Teller’s Showtime series with the problematic name returns for its seventh season at 10 p.m. Thursday. This time out, the Las Vegans set out to expose the hypocrisy of everything from orgasms to the Vatican.
AND E!’S “TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY” TURNS ITS ATTENTION TO CRISS ANGEL, INCLUDING A TOUR OF HIS LUXOR SUITE, AT 10 P.M. WEDNESDAY.