Better Off Ted Season 1, Episodes 3-4: “Through Rose Colored Haz Mat Suits” and “Racial Sensitivity”

Our regularly scheduled Ted coverage was preempted yesterday by the NBA playoffs (HEY IT’S LIKE REAL LIFE!), so we’re catching up tonight.  Thankfully it was worth the wait, as these two episodes rank among the finest the show ever produced.  As good as they are individually, I especially like thinking about these two in connection with each other, because they in some sense represent very different styles for the show but also highlight its core strengths.

“Through Rose Colored Haz Mat Suits” leans heavily on character interaction, bringing the cast members together in various pairs (some usual, some quite unusual) with excellent results.  The dialog is fast and furious but the episode still has room for heart.  “Racial Sensitivity” focuses more on workplace satire, moving character interaction to the background and favoring ridiculous situations over extended banter.  Ted pulls off both styles with aplomb, proving the show could go in a number of different, interesting directions and still produce quality results.

The catalyst in “Rose” is the eponymous character, Ted’s young daughter.  I mentioned last week that Rose acts as Ted’s external conscience, checking him when he gets carried away by the winds of business.  One of Ted’s big themes is the way that corporations affect the private lives of their employees, and this episode brings that dynamic front and center, as Rose must spend the day with Ted at Veridian.  After a brief taste of Veridian’s daycare center (the kids are forced to do menial tasks for the company) Ted decides that he must bring Rose along for the ride.  This creates many problems, though.  First Rose perceives an imbalance in Phil and Lem’s relationship, namely that Lem tends to boss Phil around.  This launches the lab partners off into their subplot, where they try to find a workable system for shared control before finally realizing they work best as equals.

Meanwhile Rose’s connection with Linda forces Ted to reconsider his “one office affair” rule.  He and Linda even kiss (sort of, since they are both wearing haz mat suits at the time), but he eventually re-backs down when he fears Linda may abandon Rose like her mother once did.  Finally, Rose befriends Veronica, who in the episode’s best subplot learns that kids can be useful for something.  After noting that adults control their temper around Rose, Veronica starts to use her as a way to keep firings as efficient and painless as possible.

The brilliance of the epsiode lies in large part with its pairings.  The show gives us one solid, meat and potatoes pairing (Phil and Lem), one pairing to move plot forward/provide the awwws (Ted and Linda) and one out of the blue, gangbusters pairing (Rose and Veronica).  On the surface, the Rose/Veronica plotline seems odd at best: why would ambitious, busy Veronica invest time in a small child?  Then the show provides a killer hook.  Veronica is programmed to use those around her to get what she wants, so naturally she would want to utilize Rose’s emotion-blocking power to make her life easier.  But then the episode adds another twist by making it clear that Veronica has genuine affection for Rose.  She has moved beyond the stage of merely using people to a place of real human connection.  Possibly she even sees a little bit of herself in Rose.

Lurking beneath the surface of all this character interaction, though, lies Ted’s usual supply of corporate satire.  Though not as emphasized as an episode like “Racial Sensitivity”, “Rose” still has a sharp satirical edge.  One point it makes is the strange way in which adults interact with children.  The corporate manager who freely yells at Veronica trails off as soon as he realizes Rose is in the room, at which point he descends into cooing and head patting.  Never mind that Rose clearly understands the situation; to the manager she is just a kid.  The epsiode also uses children to highlight the undignified nature of life at Veridian.  Yes children are forced to paint the lines in the parking garage, and yes they are used to supplement the janitorial staff, and yes they are even asked to fire employees, but are these actions only ludicrous when performed by children?  The daycare worker makes sure to point out that the children are being molded into the workers of tomorrow, which for them means hard labor and fewer breaks.  They even “work their way up” the system.  Robbing children of their spontaneity and carefree sense of play helps to emphasize that, under big capitalism, the playfulness of all human beings slowly gets leached away.

If the uncaring attitude of the corporate world towards individuals forms a part of the background for “Rose”, it moves front and center in “Racial Sensitivity”.  Insofar as any episode of this show became well known, “Racial” is probably the most famous half hour Ted ever produced.  And no wonder, since it very smartly tackles the touchy subject of race through a ridiculous (yet sadly believable) situation.  Put simply, Veridian’s new motion sensors, which run everything from the lights to the elevators, do not detect the light particles which bounce off of black people.  This causes Lem and Veridian’s other black employees to quite often literally end up in the dark.  After the initial solution proves worse than the problem (the company sets up other, hand operated devices just for the African Americans, leading to a classic scene where Lem discovers an old school drinking fountain with the sign “Manual Drinking Fountain (For Blacks)”.  His response: “Thank God we don’t have a company bus.”), Veridian attempts to solve to problem by providing each black employee with their very own white person to follow them around and activate things for them, but this causes problems since the company cannot just hire a bunch of white guys without hiring more black guys, ad infinitum.  In the end Veronica, Ted, and Lem manage to convince the higher ups that it would be more efficient to return to the old system, since under the new one everyone in the world would be working for Veridian by June 2013 (“And we just don’t have the parking for that”).

I think Ted has two very salient targets for its satire in this episode.  The first has to do with the callousness of Veridian towards its African American employees.  Veronica makes the observation that it is not about race for the company, and never was.  They care about one thing and one thing only: money (the company motto, engraved in the lobby, is “Money over people”, which sounds nobler in Latin).  Something very important (yet very difficult) to remember: issues of race in the United States are impossible to separate from issues of class.  But the episode also targets people who would excuse their own racism by claiming neutrality.  The big theme of the episode is the powerlessness of those whom society ignores.  Many (white) people rally around the battle cry of “Why should race matter?”, which sounds noble on the surface but in fact ignores the depth and complexity of the issues of race in America.  Too often ignoring race translates to ignoring racism, and while there are perhaps a few leaders who are too quick to play the race card, there remains a good deal to be done to set things right.  The episode ends on an especially dark note, as things at Veridian return to the pre-improvement status quo, which the company spins as a civil rights victory for them.

All this rambling makes the episode sound self-important, even a bit pompous, which is really totally inaccurate.  The episode zips along with a real sense of fun, reveling in its bizarre scenarios.  It even finds time for some character development.  Lem, who boasts and swaggers about sticking up for his rights in the company, proves to be a spineless coward when faced with direct confrontation.  Veronica, so often presented as tough and uncompromising, fights for the right thing to be done.  There is even room for some Veronica/Ted tenderness, as she helps him decipher Linda’s confusing behavior regarding her boyfriend.  To top it off the episode is riotously funny, even with a (relative, for the show) dearth of one liners.  The scene where Lem and his coworkers march determinedly into the elevator, only to discover that it shuts down the minute the one white guy leaves, is classic, laugh-so-you-don’t-cry material.  It’s ridiculous enough to be funny, but realistic enough to make you think twice.

Funny Stuff

“Rose” contains one of my favorite lines from the show, period.  Phil tries to explain a new weapons system with Rose in the room: “We looked at what would happen if we dropped the (pause) bunny from an aeroplane at 30000 feet….  at that altitude the bunny would (pause) cuddle everyone witin a 2 mile radius. Within 4 miles everyone would be (pause) snuggled so badly they would need to be hospitalized…”

A great one from Linda.  “Kids – God’s little awkward moment machines.”

Once again, Portia de Rossi puts on a masterclass.  Her deliveries of these lines to Rose are pricless.  First, “You have the most beautiful skin. I wish i could peel it off your face and attach it to mine.”  Then, after Rose says thank you when Veronica gives her a very unusual compliment: “Yes. Thank you is correct.”

Episode 4

Veronica explains Veridian’s new sensors: “The company’s position is that it is actually the opposite of racist since it doesn’t target black people, it merely ignores them. The worst you could say is that it’s indifferent.”

A few examples of Lem’s struggles with self-confidence: “I have my dignity.  Now will you please take me to the bathroom?”  [on confronting Veronica] “Plus if i get enough guys, maybe she won’t know which one’s me.”  [When actually expressing displeasure to Veronica] “I am really angry about this. Or, you know, just angry. Whatever feels right to you.”

Unfortunately I could not find the clip of the Veridian ad from “Rose”, which is a shame because it is hilarious (it’s about family).  Here’s the classic one on diversity:

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