TV's Newest Hero: The CEO

Say what you will about CBS, but don't accuse it of safe programming. Sure, the network is overrun with middle-of-the-road fare such as Criminal Minds and Ghost Whisperer, but rather than give one of its highly rated dramas the benefit of the Super Bowl's massive lead-in audience, CBS chose a rookie: Undercover Boss, a new reality show starring well-heeled CEOs, which is perhaps the perfect postgame salve. Saints? Colts? Who cares? We can all agree on one thing: CEOs are losers.

It's hard to imagine a more fraught time for a show about business bigwigs. CEOs sit at the bottom rung of favorability ratings, trailing even lawyers and—gasp!—members of Congress. In fact, Undercover Boss, in which CEOs surreptitiously work among their entry-level employees, is an extension of a recent trend in advertising to put head honchos in front of the camera. The CEOs of Sprint and Domino's Pizza have starred in commercials portraying them not as solemn stuffed suits but as everymen with jobs to do who would be exactly like you if not separated by a few tax brackets.

Undercover Boss is competent TV, but it won't rehabilitate the image of the CEO. In the premiere, we follow Waste Management's Larry O'Donnell as he travels from his Texas headquarters to upstate New York for his secret mission. He tries doing the company's dirty work—picking up and hauling trash, sorting recyclables, and cleaning Porta Potties—ostensibly to find out whether the cost-cutting measures he's handing down from his ivory tower are reasonable for those who implement them. O'Donnell learns shocking things: that his employees work really hard for not much money, that some of them are in dire financial straits, and that in spite of it all, they have the gumption to maintain positive outlooks. Worse still, the show doesn't deliver on its implicit promise to give the CEO the ground-level performance evaluation he desperately needs. In a recycling plant O'Donnell visits, he's mortified to learn that manager Kevin docks employees two minutes' pay for every minute they're late. Later, the employees O'Donnell met are flown to Texas, including Kevin, who gets dressed down for breaking company policy. The show presents itself as a highly unusual corporate experiment, when it's really just business as usual—the guy at the top rolls over on someone else when his own policies backfire.

Undercover Boss wouldn't feel so manipulative if it weren't part of a larger pop-culture effort to burnish the reputation of the guy in the corner office. Kelsey Grammer starred in the short-lived Hank, a comedy that humanized an ousted CEO. The upcoming sequel to Oliver Stone's Wall Street attempts to do for the money-hungry what Born on the Fourth of July did for Vietnam vets, recasting iconic predator Gordon Gekko as a reformer who tries to warn about the dangers of unchecked avarice. It's a common storytelling instinct—to explore whether those cast as villains deserve the contempt. Maybe one day we'll be ready to question whether corporate America really is to blame for all our woes. But considering that Conan O'Brien just left NBC $32 million richer and also, somehow, a symbol of moronic executives steamrolling the little guy, we're not ready to invest in a new punching bag just yet.