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Television Review

When the Big Cheeses Try Menial Jobs

'Back to the Floor' puts executives in the trenches for a week. Although the shows offer lessons, the fun is in the turnabout.

June 21, 2002|JOSH FRIEDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unscripted shows offer vicarious thrills for varied tastes: You can live the life of an aging rocker on "The Osbournes," woo singles on "Temptation Island," bungee jump into a snake pit, or whatever, on "Fear Factor."

Now comes a fantasy for every disaffected workplace grunt. No, not a 30% raise (get real), but a chance to see top executives descend from the boardroom and head "Back to the Floor" to sweat alongside the riffraff for a week.

In tonight's two-episode premiere, the chief of the conservancy that runs New York's Central Park dons gardening gear and picks up trash, crack vials and an appreciation for the toiling her staff does every day; then the boss of Burger King's British operations makes Whoppers and quite a mess at the chain's central Liverpool restaurant.

Co-produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and the BBC, "Back to the Floor" is a six-part series airing during the next five weeks. Future half-hour shows feature the chiefs of Carnival Cruises, Heathrow Airport, a private prison company and a British pottery factory.

At the end of each program, the executives return to their boardrooms with a better sense of how their company works, although in some cases these lessons are almost as superfluous as Jerry Springer's "final thought." The fun comes from watching the bigwigs whine and bungle their way through the simplest tasks.

Native New Yorker Regina Peruggi is a fund-raising whiz who works on Fifth Avenue--what does she know from gardening? During her week in uniform, she reports to work at 6:45 a.m. and helps pick up the 6 tons of trash that the park's gardeners must remove daily.

She wonders why there aren't more coffee breaks and why the crews don't have high-tech rock picker-uppers. Later she gripes about having to swing a pickax to reseed lawns, scoffing at the "medieval" tool.

But Peruggi never loses her humor. Examining the blisters on her hands, she figures she can use her work experience to raise money: "I'm going to have to go out and show my hands, the calluses, and say, 'See, we need your help.' "

Fund-raising, which covers most of the park's budget, has been tough in the wake of Sept. 11, but when layoffs become necessary, Peruggi ultimately decides to trim managers rather than staff.

Eric Bonnot, the polite Frenchman who runs Burger King U.K., has trouble standing the heat at one of the chain's busiest franchises.

When Bonnot arrives wearing a suit, tie and nervous smile, the minimum-wage staff already is resentful at having to do extra cleaning for his visit.

One worker sneers, "I hope by the end of the week he's gone home and he's absolutely knackered."

On the job, Bonnot can barely open the cash register, and he spills about a gallon of soda per drink order. The manager has to remind him to smile and ask customers, "Do you want to go large?"

Bonnot explains, "I can't get my feet, my hands, my brain and my smile to all work at the same time."

This episode illustrates how unscripted shows can alter reality. An irritated worker complains about the "special treatment" Bonnot gets in the form of extra coaching, as additional crew chiefs are brought in during his shifts.

Even back on the floor, some people are more equal than others.

"Back to the Floor" premieres at 10 tonight on KCET. It is rated TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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