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Review: 'Undercover Boss' - Series Premiere

by Isabelle Carreau, posted Feb 8th 2010 8:30PM
Undercover Boss(S01E01) Networks usually give the post-Super Bowl time slot to household series or to series they really believe in and want to offer a ratings booster. This year, CBS decided to give the post-Super Bowl time slot to the new reality documentary series 'Undercover Boss.'

The series follows high-level CEOs are they go undercover in their own company to examine how things work outside of their ivory towers.

In the premiere, Larry O'Donnell (pictured right), president and COO of Waste Management, got out of his suit and put on worker clothes to live a day in the lives of four of his employees.

Does the concept work? Will I tune in for more? My two cents coming up!

I should warn you that I enjoy reality series, especially when they put people out of their comfort zones like on 'Survivor' and 'The Amazing Race.' I'm willing to give almost every reality series a shot to grab my attention. So post-Super Bowl slot or not, I would have watched the 'Undercover Boss' premiere.

I also wanted to watch 'Undercover Boss' because I was intrigued to find out how the boss would be able to go undercover without being recognized since it was clear from the teasers that the show wouldn't use heavy makeup and costumes to change the CEO's appearance. Waste Management is a huge company so I was able to buy that lower-level employees didn't recognize Larry O'Donnell.

I really enjoyed the premiere because Larry seemed committed to the experience and had fun while doing it. Their choice of employees for him to work with was also spot on as they were sociable and had touching stories. It was also great to see that he learned from the experience and changed some policies within his company to improve procedures and quality of life. A happy employee will be more productive.

The editing of the episode was also interesting. First we got a glimpse at Larry's normal job. Then we were treated to him going undercover, which included seeing him try to do the various jobs, interacting with the employees but also secretly commenting to the camera about how he was feeling as the day went on. Once the undercover week was over, the employees were brought to the HQ where they learned the truth and Larry announced the changes he'll make. The episode ended with a glimpse at what happened a few weeks later, which was great as it allowed us to know if the changes made a difference and what the employees featured on the show were up to.

I wonder if in an upcoming episode we will see a CEO who, after going undercover, doesn't think changes are needed. I doubt it since it would make him and the company look bad on TV. I also suspect that Larry (and the other CEOs) did a few more jobs than what we see on the show so that the editors can pick the best three or four undercover days. Plus having footage from a few more jobs would allow them to cut one if, for example, someone finds out the new worker is in reality the CEO.

I'm also pretty sure that there is some type of writing or scripted segments as some of the events, like the woman who read her appreciation letter to the garbage lady, seemed to good to be true. I'm sure the lady does appreciate the garbage lady a lot and that she would have written an appreciation letter to her eventually, but what a coincidence to have her read it when the CEO was there undercover!

No matter, I'm willing to give 'Undercover Boss,' an hour per week as it's fun to see a high-level employee get out of his comfort zone to see how their workers are doing.

What did you think of 'Undercover Boss'? Will you watch it weekly? Do you think it'll become one of the popular reality shows? Share your two cents in comments below.

[Watch clips and episodes of 'Undercover Boss' and other shows at SlashControl.]

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I am shocked that the COO of Churchill Downs was actually able to find Americans on the backside. I worked at the track most of my life and had to struggle with money because of all the illegal immigrants I had to compete with. I was completely outnumbered. They work for very little and also live in the free dorm rooms at the track. (a 10x10 cement room) Most of them send their money home to their own country, where they have huge farms. The only people making money in this game are the trainers.

March 14 2010 at 10:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I got sucked in. I loved the show. It will be interesting to see if other CEOs respond like Larry did and make positive changes.

The thought struck me that you couldn't buy advertising like that for your company. The PR value of a COO acting like Larry must be awesome. This is all like that movie "Heaven Can Wait."

Yes, I love it, but I am all for hopey changey :)

February 09 2010 at 7:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I enjoyed the show a lot and found it to be compelling. I think they chose wisely for the first show as I liked Larry O from the very start - he struck me as an all round pretty good guy in or out of the thousand-dollar suit. My favorite segment was about the man doing the portable toilets. Not only was he pretty self-motivated with pride in his work but he was tremendously supportive and motivating to the new guy, really cheering him on. I am so glad that this was recognized as he is truly a hidden talent.

We keep hearing 'CEO' but in fact Larry and perhaps others down the line wil be lower in the food chain thus minimizing the likelihood of them being outed. Larry was COO.

February 09 2010 at 7:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sir Yuck-Yuck

once was enough for me
I will stick with Survivor, the Amazing Race, Big Brother which are also on CBS-Tv

February 09 2010 at 5:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

First off, Applause to Larry O'Donnell.

This show is worth watching, and I'm glad they addressed the reason why the camera crew was following the new guy around, though I agree with that there may be segments that get edited out because the boss may be recognized or some of the employees are suspicious of having a camera around.

I wish that more corporate types and administrators would put themselves in the shoes of the workers that actually make the company function to see how the policies are affecting morale and productivity. Speaking from the experience of many jobs I've had: the best ones with the happiest employees are invariably the ones where the boss is working beside you....the worst ones are always the ones where the boss is somewhere in an office issuing policy without seeing the effects.

A lot of employees may have some excellent ideas about how to improve a company, but their ideas may never get heard by the upper management due to being quashed by politics & ambitions lower in the chain of command when those ideas make it into the suggestion box.

Also, there could be existing conditions that negatively affect productivity that never get passed upwards (those politics and ambitions again) the corporate type could address after witnessing it firsthand. (As was portrayed in this Waste Management episode.)

It would be beneficial to companies and business in general if all CEO, COO, and Board of Director types would step down from their lofty perches once in a while and see how the working conditions A) are being a detriment to productivity and B) can be improved to increase productivity and worker morale which would in turn increase profits.

I believe a key reason that Southwest Airlines has continued to be profitable while the other airlines are struggling with finances...founder and former CEO Herb Kelleher would frequently get out and perform the jobs along side of his employees including such tasks such as baggage handling, so he "gets it" and there is not as much of a disconnect between management and labor.

Of course, this all depends on those in upper management having an open mind to see how all the different aspects of the company fit together and can be improved for the overall benefit of the company instead of short term profit.

My thoughts on the reality/documentary debate:

Reality- CHOOSING a cast member based on interesting personalities (that will frequently be likely to clash with other CHOSEN cast members) and filming them in unscripted situations, then editing the footage to maximize drama or reinforce a theme. Primary focus is entertainment value for ratings & advertising $.

Documentary-Filming people (or animals) as they are , then edit the footage to document some aspects of the subject (environment, behavior, lifestyle, etc...) as they go about activities they would be doing even if there was no camera around. Primary focus is educating the audience about the subject.

February 09 2010 at 2:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I liked the show. Cheesy, a bit. Predictable, yes. But I think it is good that bosses (especially those at the top of the company) get a feel for what their employees go through daily, and even perhaps what the customers have to deal with. I read recently that less than 2% of our public transportation group's employees (in our metropolitan area) actually ride public transportation - so there's no way they could ever understand what problems regular citizens have to face when they depend on public transportation every day.

I don't remember exactly what the "back story" was for the camera crew - I think they said something about following a worker (I think they said "Randy" was in construction) trying out different jobs. And though some people may be on their "best" behavior for the cameras, I don't think it's possible to cover up all negative behavior, even if the employees wanted to. Like the issue of getting docked 2 minutes pay for every 1 minute tardy - that manager (Kevin?) clearly didn't think anything was wrong with that policy which you could see in his body language. And in the promos for next week's episode, there's some issues to be dealt with there.

Not to mention the fact that some people don't care about looking bad on tv - look at all the people on reality shows!

February 09 2010 at 12:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Brett: Sure I agree there is such a thing as "documentary TV" ... news shows like 20/20, Dateline, and the like are "documentary TV" when they are more than mere interviews and more than mere recitals of the day's events. When they have a topic and investigate it, interview several people about it, study it from all sides... that's "documentary." But like you said, creating a situation, filming it, and editing out the most boring parts is reality tv, if anything. It's not "documentary TV."

Martin: So the CEOs are not wearing thousand dollar suits. Big deal - they don't show the CEOs firing all the "regular" employees who gave them shit, wasted the company's time, stole office supplies, told dirty jokes, etc. Lots of employees are going to get fired as a result of this show.

February 08 2010 at 11:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's refered to as a "documentary" and not a reality TV show so they don't have to pay the workers scale. The "Boss" gets paid (like he needs it). But the workers get nothing. It's a loophole in the labor law. I for one will not watch the show.

February 08 2010 at 11:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to John's comment

Uh...the boss doesn't get payed either. Please take your self-righteousness elsewhere.

And to whoever said it wasn't a documentary because they had some sort of set up: ever see Bowling for Columbine? That's a similar situation and is also a documentary. Sure, he doesn't go undercover but it's still the same.

February 09 2010 at 2:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Whether it's called "documentary" or "reality" doesn't matter; no one's getting paid scale.

February 10 2010 at 1:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Martin Schwartz

I really enjoyed this show. It casts ceo's in a better light - something that is needed - given all the bad publicity they get. Recognition of CEO's is context based. Clean shaven, thousand dollar suits, paneled offices - take away that context and you can easily fool people. The reason companies are not hiring more is they are asking their regular employees to do more, i.e., be more productive. This saves on insurance costs, training costs, and is a protective hedge against uncertain markets. The result is overworked employees - a bad thing. Here was one CEO that got it, at least in a small way, and tried to do something about it, again, at least in a small way. My hats off to the show.

February 08 2010 at 11:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I didn't watch the show but I'm wondering...

If the show becomes popular, and CBS is betting on it with a post Super Bowl slot, how will they continue tricking people in following seasons without them getting suspicious?

February 08 2010 at 11:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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