‘Boss’ is on-the-job straining

DAN LITTLEJOHN/CBS Waste Management president Larry O’Donnell is featured in the first “Undercover Boss.’’
Waste Management president Larry O’Donnell is featured in the first “Undercover Boss.’’ (Dan Littlejohn/CBS)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 6, 2010

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CBS has decided to turn prime real estate - the post-Super Bowl slot, when tens of millions of Doritos-stuffed football fans are already on their couches - into a waste dump.

The waste being dumped is “Undercover Boss,’’ a feeble new reality series that pretends to be healing the hostilities between high-earning CEOs and the working class. With the help of a glib, personality-free narrator, the show sends one corporate boss per week into the trenches of his or her own company to feel workers’ pain. In the premiere, Larry O’Donnell, head of 45,000-employees at Waste Management - which deals with landfill, street trash pickup, and portable toilets - puts on steel-toed boots and gets down and dirty. The pretense is that, during the recession, it’s time for the boss and his worker bees to bond.

But this empty “Prince and the Pauper,’’ tomorrow night on Channel 4, is more like a condescending PR campaign in support of management than a heartwarming exchange of sympathies. It comes off as an apology for the people who are not feeling the recession, who still want their companies to run efficiently even while they’re having to cut back on employees and benefits. Ultimately, we’re supposed to see that O’Donnell, riding the garbage truck and picking cardboard off a conveyor belt laden with garbage, has feelings. He doesn’t like the recession, either.

The poorly constructed premise has O’Donnell showing up at WM’s locations in New York state and in the South as an Average Joe trying out entry-level jobs for a documentary - thus the camera crew. But seriously, some of the people he encounters, if not all of them, are probably guessing he’s a top dog. Some of them surely have seen a photo of their uber-boss, whose undercover name is Randy. And even if they don’t know who “Randy’’ is, this is the era of reality-TV tricks. Wouldn’t they wonder if the documentary explanation were some kind of ruse? Wouldn’t they be at their very best, just in case? It never quite feels like we’re watching ordinary WM employees who feel free to say what they want. There’s a sense of an invisible gun at their backs throughout, as if they’re being pressured to appear happy for the cameras.

Furthermore, in the fakeness department, the workers that O’Donnell spends time with are all working-class heroes of some kind. A man with an iron-clad work ethic despite being on dialysis, a do-anything cancer survivor - they’re made to order for reality-style melodrama. In one sequence, a garbage-truck driver just happens to be honored by someone on her route - a mentally challenged woman who reminds O’Donnell of his own mentally challenged daughter. It’s all too good to be true - so poorly produced, that is, that it doesn’t know how to hide its manipulative setups.

Oprah has given this show her endorsement, so I could be entirely wrong and cynical and shallow. Maybe I should look for work cleaning portable toilets for WM. Or maybe I just should have ingested a few bags of chips before tuning in.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit


Time: Tomorrow night, after the Super Bowl