A new American fantasy

Riches? Fame? How about getting the boss to listen?

February 06, 2010

It dawned on me last weekend while waiting three hours for a cable TV repairman that for all the talk of this country's transition to a "service" economy, service in this country has never been worse. Corporate cost-cutting and downsizing have taken their toll in most every industry.

From airports to shopping malls, you can hear the story from workers at every level: "We have five people to do the work of 10 and so we're overworked, underpaid and fear layoffs are coming." The term "customer service" usually means sending customers to a Web site or a call center half a world away.

The recession hasn't caused companies to rethink this approach; it's caused them to turn the cost-control screws that much harder. Flown anywhere recently? Things may be great for George Clooney in "Up in the Air," but that's pure Oscar-nominated fiction. Here in real life, even first-class customers wait on the tarmac with the rest of us poor schmucks in steerage.

In my mind's eye, I saw a Comcast technician swamped by orders, silently cursing his superiors, doing the best he could under the most trying circumstances. At least, that was the most compelling narrative I could come up with since "Chad" in the company's Ontario call center hadn't a clue why he never showed. But here's the news: Our working-class desperation, bone-headed executive decisions and economic strife have not gone unnoticed. After tomorrow's Super Bowl, CBS unveils a new show, "Undercover Boss," that appears to tap the current zeitgeist perfectly.

Here's the premise: A CEO abandons the comforts of his ivory tower to spend a week working anonymously in the trenches of his company, with a documentary camera crew in tow. To his fellow workers, he's just a new recruit, the 21st century prince as a pauper.

Waste Management Inc. President Larry O'Donnell III cleans Porta-Potties, learns how to drive a garbage truck, picks up litter at a dump and sorts recyclables. But he's not truly the star of the show. The real heroes are the people he encounters -- the cancer survivor who juggles six jobs at a landfill and fears home foreclosure, the woman who runs across the lunchroom to return to work so her pay won't be docked, the guy who takes pride in clean toilets and instructs his new companion: "It's not a job, it's an adventure."

But perhaps the employee who best symbolizes our current state of affairs is the female garbage truck driver who, at one point, must make use of the "pee-can" she keeps on board. In an interview this week, Mr. O'Donnell confessed on "Oprah" that he assumed she'd simply been talking about a stash of nuts until he realized that a tin can was the only rest facility available on her busy route.

No doubt Mr. O'Donnell and other bigwigs figure they'll get positive press for mingling with the minions. At the end of the episode, the big boss gets to bestow his riches on the lucky employees -- better pay, better work rules and other promised reforms.

He is the beneficent corporate wizard in pinstripes handing out hearts, brains and courage to a deserving few.

Yet it's all genuinely compelling. The workers realize they've finally gotten a chance to be heard, and not with some forgotten note in a suggestion box. A boss has actually walked in their shoes, suffered the petty indignities, recognized the ridiculousness of management decisions.

Now that's a cathartic moment. CBS insists it is a form of documentary. It's probably closer to "Amazing Race," "Survivor," and the other kinds of manipulated reality shows to which TV audiences have become accustomed. Nonetheless, it is particularly satisfying.

We live in a society that seems increasingly dehumanized and divided along socioeconomic lines. It's a place where bailed-out Wall Street executives consider million-dollar bonuses justified while 41 U.S. senators think helping blue-collar people afford decent health insurance is a socialist plot.

Most of us will never have our daily frustrations acknowledged -- much less rectified -- by the faceless big dog in the corner office. Finally, some TV producer has figured out the American dream, circa 2010.

--Peter Jensen

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