Jay Harrington costars with De Rossi in the new sitcom "Better Off… (Craig Sjodin / ABC )
It's hard not to root for "Better Off Ted," which premieres tonight on ABC. Lord knows the networks could use a nice big hit right about now, and someone has to breathe life back into the comedy genre before the last quirky detective or doctor idea is scraped up.
Certainly the premise of "Better Off Ted" is rock-solid, if not wrenched from today's headlines -- a take-down not only of those multinational corporations-without-borders but also of our consumer-based obsession with research and development no doubt seemed timely and unassailable back when it was greenlighted. Now, of course, the most odious job is better than no job. But the bloodsucking quality of corporate America is an evergreen, and creator Victor Fresco has brought his own mad-scientist twist to things.
Close your eyes and imagine the love-child of "The Office" and "Fringe" and you'll have Veridian Dynamics, the setting for "Better Off Ted" and possibly the best company name ever invented. Here, among those now-iconic bleached-out, soul-free cubicles and ill-lighted conference rooms, attempts are made to turn pumpkins into weaponry (the country in question has a pumpkin surplus), rubber into diet food and humans into Popsicles.
Here too the Ted in question (Jay Harrington) must cope with Veronica (Portia de Rossi), who rules Veridian with an icy absurdity and a bun pulled so tight it may constitute cosmetic surgery. He must also navigate the codependent swamp of the top research team (played by Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett), the attractions of the rebellious yet anxiety-fueled Linda (Andrea Anders) and the ethical dilemmas of single parenthood.
Oh, and he also provides the voice-over. Go Ted!
Everyone involved in "Better Off Ted" is smart and funny and exactly the sort of person you root for -- Fresco was behind the short-lived but much beloved "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." "Desperate Housewives" and "Private Practice" alum Harrington is handsome and sexy in a deadpan, user-friendly way. Anders is not only hilarious, but she also did time on "Joey," so she's definitely owed. And who doesn't love De Rossi, here taking her role as Lindsay on "Arrested Development" and ratcheting it up a leggy notch or seven?
If it sounds like there's an "and yet" coming, there is. "Better Off Ted" is funny, it's just not as funny as it might be, or should be, or, with any luck, will be. Absurdity-satire is difficult to establish and takes time to find its rhythm, especially when it only has a half-hour to work with. In the first two episodes, there is a self-consciousness about the various setups and relationships that even the lightest comedic touch cannot smooth away. While Anders' Laura is hilarious when caught with a drawer full of stolen coffee creamer, the stolen creamer itself is not. When Slavin's researcher allows himself to be frozen because Veronica wants to see "if it's possible," the actors carry out their various tasks of outrage, complacency and nerviness perfectly, but still the freezing, even with its nods to "Sleeper," isn't funny.
The banter, however, is terrific, with a nail-gun-staccato precision that brings to mind the exalted "His Girl Friday," and both De Rossi and Harrington are masters of the modern micro-double take, that slight pause (hitched eyebrow optional) mid-joke that acknowledges the absurdity of the situation, the audience's awareness of it and the actor's awareness of the audience. It's a dangerous stunt to pull on TV, but De Rossi in particular elevates it to an art form.
Which is why watching these early episodes puts a strain on certain back muscles, the ones a person might use while watching a child's first big performance or a film made by a very dear and talented friend -- you want it to be Really Great, you know it could be Really Great, and if only you can hold yourself completely still and focus all your best thoughts onto that stage or screen, maybe it will be.
'Better Off Ted'
When: 8:30 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)