Undercover Boss is watchable if generic and heavy-handed, and it’s no Dirty Jobs

For the first time in 15 years, a network debuted a brand-new show after the Super Bowl, and it was a reality series: Undercover Boss. (Six years ago, incidentally, CBS debuted Survivor All-Stars, and nine years ago, it was the debut of Survivor Australia, and so many people expected Heroes vs. Villains to follow, but CBS didn’t think they needed to help.) It’s a decent series, but not great.

The series certainly arrives at the perfect moment, celebrating the way hard-working, blue-collar workers suffer because their bosses are disconnected. It’s impressive that, on last night’s episode, Waste Management’s Larry O’Donnell could recognize and admit the negative impact of his decisions, and that the show was honest about showing some pretty horrifying things, like the female worker who has to pee in a can.

But Undercover Boss is also exactly risky, because the show ultimately turned O’Donnell into a hero, which it presumably will do with all its CEOs. Aren’t these executives brave for going undercover for a few hours and then fixing the problems! Everyone comes off well, although in the first episode, there’s an attempt to find a quasi-villain with that recycling plant manager, and that–along with other parts of the show–come off as heavy handed, manipulated attempts to create drama in the editing room.

The other big problem is that while the reveals are fun, nothing much happens, and the specific change that occurs as a result is vague at best. Some of what we learned in the post-show text is rather non-committal: Janice “is working with [Larry] to create a more female friendly environment.” What does that mean? You get the feeling that every episode will come off like an advertisement for the company (though no money changed hands either way) regardless of what is uncovered.

Ultimately, the show is interesting but oversimplified; can someone with a camera crew following them have any real idea of what’s going on in a day unless they have editors helping them out? Ripping off Morgan Spurlock and sending CEOs undercover for 30 days, or even a week, would make more sense, but of course, working bosses and those watching the network’s budget prefer a shorter shoot.

Also, there’s already a series that introduces us to the hard, under-appreciated work so many men and women do: Discovery’s Dirty Jobs, on which Mike Rowe is a far more engaging guide to the working world. He does more in a day than the undercover boss did in an episode.

Beyond that, the worst part of Undercover Boss is the way the show looks and is constructed. Besides being filmed in SD (really?), it’s frustrating that they went with the generic network reality template. From the blah music to the heavy-handed narrator, it’s so very familiar, which is especially odd considering that CBS has three of the most distinctive reality series on the air today (even if Big Brother‘s challenges look they were assembled by a kindergarten class taking a break from making macaroni pictures, it’s still a distinctive look).

Future episodes will feature bosses from Hooters, White Castle, and 7-Eleven, which have potential for interesting footage; maybe Hooters’ CEO will discover rampant sexism and work hard to fix that? After five episodes, Undercover Boss‘ first season will face off for its second half against The Celebrity Apprentice, which is not only more visually engaging (thanks to Mark Burnett and his team) but also far more revealing.

Undercover Boss: B

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.