'Undercover Boss' makes a case for CEO as hero

February 07, 2010|By David Zurawik | david.zurawik@baltsun.com | Sun TV critic

The most successful reality TV shows are those that connect to larger societal trends.

As more and more Americans started to focus on healthy eating, along came NBC's "The Biggest Loser." As the concept of globalization took hold of American thinking, " The Amazing Race," with its international treks and challenges, took off on CBS.

But of all the many reality series that have come and gone since the debut of "Survivor" on CBS in 2000, I cannot remember one that did a more efficient job of trying to plug itself into the culture than "Undercover Boss," the new CBS show that premieres tonight after the Super Bowl to what will surely be an audience of tens of millions of viewers.

"The economy is going through tough times," viewers are told in voice-over at the beginning of tonight's pilot. "And many working Americans blame wealthy CEOs who are out of touch with their own companies."

As the words are spoken, viewers see a quick-cut montage of Wall Street, ticker tape, home foreclosure signs, empty storefronts and a plush boardroom. There is also a fleeting image of well-dressed men drinking brandy and smoking cigars.

In a matter of seconds, all the hot buttons of the economic meltdown and continuing financial jitters are being pushed: loss of homes, layoffs, business closings, anti-corporate resentment, executive bonuses, fear and anger.

But then, the narrative suddenly shifts to an upbeat tone with the words, "But some bosses are willing to take extreme actions to make their businesses better. Each week, we'll follow the boss of a major corporation as they go undercover in their own companies."

And the screen fills with the image of a well-dressed man walking into a locker room, shedding his pinstriped suit to put on the hard hat, fluorescent vest and work clothes of a laborer.

This is the CEO-hero of "Undercover Boss." Yes, you read that right: CEO-hero.

Sunday night, it's Larry O'Donnell, president and chief operating officer of Waste Management. In coming weeks, the list of protagonists will include the CEOs of 7-Eleven, Hooters, White Castle and Churchill Downs.

Joseph M DePinto, president and CEO of 7-Eleven, stars in the third episode, and his undercover excursion brings him to Halethorpe, where he works on an assembly line alongside Phil Shearin at Bakery Express, baked-goods supplier for all the 7-Elevens in the Mid-Atlantic region. The southwest Baltimore County facility employs 300 people.

The segment features Shearin, a bakery worker, showing DePinto, who is undercover as a new employee, how to handle a station on the assembly line. When Shearin leaves the CEO on his own, the camera captures a scene that might remind some viewers of Lucy Ricardo ( Lucille Ball in "I Love Lucy") in the chocolate factory, with the boss incapable of keeping up with the line, according to Eli Holzman, executive producer of the show.

"Joe, from 7-Eleven, even referenced that in struggling with the [assembly] line, because I don't think he ever anticipated how challenging it would be," Holzman said. "That Baltimore facility was one of the really fun locations that we went to, because that line produces an enormous volume of baked goods for 7-Eleven. ... And Joe was in front of the fryer because he was working on doughnuts, and he was really struggling to keep up. At different points, he just totally failed. And he was astonished to find himself so exhausted and flummoxed."

An assembly-line moment is featured tonight during O'Donnell's first stop inside the bowels of Waste Management. Posing as a laid-off construction worker trying to win an entry-level job at the company, O'Donnell is shown to a conveyor belt where an experienced co-worker demonstrates how to pick cardboard and other recyclables off a fast-moving line of trash. There are various bins for the various kinds of recyclables.

O'Donnell seems sure that he understands the job. But as soon as the supervisor steps away, the CEO is overwhelmed, and a large piece of cardboard whizzes past, jamming the expensive machinery. O'Donnell seems genuinely embarrassed and even distraught at the damage his mistake caused.

At the end of his day on the line, he says he can hardly believe how mentally and physically exhausted he feels. He also vows to find out which middle manager is responsible for a policy in which workers like the one who generously showed him how to work the line are docked two minutes' pay for every minute they clock in late.

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