The premise for “Undercover Boss” seems particularly timely — a made-for-reality-TV fantasy for financially beleaguered times. Amid concerns that wealthy CEOs are “out of touch,” the narrator notes, those same execs will walk a mile in their employees’ shoes, and can theoretically right wrongs transpiring far underneath their noses. CBS is banking on the concept to the tune of a post-Super Bowl launch, and it’s probably not a bad bet. Still, it’s a shame the production isn’t a little less obvious, from the “Survivor”-like musical flurries to the warm fuzziness that ensues around the two-minute warning.
Actually, the main thing missing from the “Boss” premiere (small spoiler alert, sort of) is that there’s no real comeuppance moment. Waste-management company CEO Larry O’Donnell III is clearly moved by seeing life from his workers’ perspective, but he doesn’t, for instance, catch a supervisor overstepping the bounds, which might have been truly cathartic.
As is, the program bears considerable resemblance to Fox’s “Secret Millionaire,” a 2008 show that also parachuted the wealthy and privileged into modest circumstances, opening their eyes (and pocketbooks) to the struggling folks they meet. The timing might be more advantageous here, but the execution is virtually the same.
O’Donnell cleans toilets, tries manning a conveyer belt that brings to mind Lucy wrapping those fast-moving chocolates, and marvels at how “physically demanding and mentally exhausting” the work is. The presence of camera crews is explained by saying it’s for a documentary about entry-level jobs, allowing the CEO to secretly interact with several parts of his company before the big reveal.
There’s some power in that, but the premiere’s emotional crescendos come across as surprisingly muted. Perhaps if David Vanacore’s alternately pounding and maudlin music were toned down, we’d actually have the space to feel something, as opposed to being bludgeoned over the head with it.
It’s comforting, of course, to think the guys in charge really hide big hearts underneath those Armani suits, and that witnessing the conditions endured by ground-level staff will make them better managers. Still, somehow the promotional tease for “Boss” that CBS previewed at its upfront presentation last spring packed more of a wallop than does the completed hour.
After its football-boosted kickoff, “Boss” will air opposite “Desperate Housewives,” which already vanquished CBS’ heart-surgery drama “Three Rivers.” Prospects for the Eye web’s less-literal tug at the heartstrings to yield healthier results will hinge almost entirely on whether desperate economic times amplify the hunger for this kind of feel-good endeavor.
If not, “Boss” could easily become more undercover with each successive hour — one of those bright ideas that wasn’t fully realized in the manufacturing phase.