Despite its popularity in basic-cable environs from Bravo to Spike, the business-makeover genre has a mixed track record on broadcast networks. Fox seeks to bring its reality brand to the format by framing its latest summer fill-in “Does Someone Have to Go?” as an ostensibly relatable speculative proposition: If given the chance to ax someone around the office, who would you pick? The employees spend a lot of time agonizing over the choice, amid a show that insists, “The stakes are real.” Perhaps so, but cloaked in all the customary, heavily dramatized trappings, it ultimately feels like “Survivor: Dunder Mifflin.”
As with some of Fox’s other summer shows, such as Gordon Ramsay’s “Hotel Hell,” the program makes a somewhat greedy misstep by seeking to spread the drama surrounding each of the three companies to be featured over two parts, beginning with Illinois-based Velocity Merchant Services. While that provides more time to get acquainted with the people involved, it also creates the need to stretch their “Oh this is so tense” banter to the point of flabbiness.
Family run, VMS’ husband-and-wife owners inform their employees that they will be empowered to select three people for potential termination. Along the way, the staff is treated to taped interviews conducted with each of them bad-mouthing colleagues, and (in the most uncomfortable segment) a slide show detailing everyone’s salary. (How all of this cleared legal is anyone’s guess, but one suspects the usual reality-show waiver, already voluminous, was phone-book-sized in this case.)
The main issue, which isn’t necessarily detrimental from a promotional standpoint, is the inherent distastefulness of turning someone’s dismissal — especially in this economy — into entertainment. “This isn’t a gameshow,” one of the employees notes. “We’re messing with people’s livelihood.”
Yet gameshows have always been aspirational, offering ordinary people the chance to win something fabulous. Here, the idea is to threaten taking away someone’s job, which — while obviously designed to tap into apprehensions about high unemployment — sounds like a George Carlin joke run amok.
Indeed, everything about “Does Someone Have to Go?” quickly dispenses with any notion this is an “experiment,” as advertised, and rather screams TV elimination game — from the urgent music to the prolonged voting process (determining who’s “safe”) to the art-deco, “Mad Men”-style opening titles. Moreover, each employee is introduced with an onscreen label — as in Shawn (the Jerk) or Zoe (the Slacker) — intended to reduce them to handy stereotypes.
Thanks to the editing it’s easy to be misled regarding the participants’ stated agony, and since the premiere doesn’t provide much resolution, we still don’t know if the underlying question “Does Someone Have to Go?” will be answered in the affirmative. Taken at face value, though, while the premise hardly plumbs new depths for the genre, it doesn’t set the limbo bar especially high either. From a critic’s perspective, the main down side when reviewing a show so obviously intended to provoke hostility is one suspects such slings and arrows are privately welcomed, hoping righteous outrage will inspire people to see what triggered all the fuss.
“I feel like I’m watching people get beheaded,” one woman mutters as the salaries of her co-workers flash by.
Hey, if this doesn’t work, maybe next time.