Did these reality shows actually show some respect for working people?

By Ken Tucker
Updated March 26, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was class warfare on a Sunday night: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution premiered on the same evening as a new episode of Undercover Boss with a CEO working alongside employees packing and shipping products.

Michael Rubin is the founder and CEO of GSI Commerce, which ships online orders for a large number of various American retailers. Going undercover, Rubin worked filling boxes, sealing and slapping address labels on them, and sitting in with employees taking customer complaints by phone.

Unlike the last couple of dull weeks, this one benefited from the energy of Rubin and a much better editing job by the producers. Last week, I really wanted to know how that vapid suit that runs Churchill Downs got his cushy job; this week, we were shown how Rubin arrived at his position. It seems he made his own opportunities — we saw a quick montage of businesses Rubin started while still a teenager; he appears to be a self-starting entrepreneur.

By the end of the hour, we had the usual bunch of ”heroes” and a ”villain.” The former included a woman who worked seven days a week and in her scant free time raised money for her child’s football team. Rubin gave the team $5,000 for equipment; I think she might have been happier with a GSI Commerce job that paid her enough to work only five days a week, but, hey, that’s the arbitrary Boss way.

The ”villain” was a woman who was rude on the phone to a customer who’d been sent damaged goods. We were told later that, even after being ”retrained,” she is ”no longer with the company.” In general, I was impressed with Rubin’s own pep; as bosses go on Boss, he behaved as though he remembered what it was like to work to exhaustion with something other than his thumbs on a Blackberry.

Meanwhile, on the premiere of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the Brit ”Naked Chef” traveled to ”the unhealthiest town in America,” Huntington, West Virginia, in an attempt to help the people there to eat better food. The dynamic was an inherently tense, dramatic one, since folks who like fried food as much as these citizens do were bound to rankle at the notion that some foreign visitor would come in and sneer at the deep fryer prominent in their kitchens.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution proved to be more interesting than its tidy premise, however. The smarty-pants Oliver, accustomed, on his own TV shows, to being the most sarcastic guy in the room, was taken aback when he showed up at a local radio station to drum up some publicity for his stunt and was met with a host who matched him quip for sensible-point about Oliver’s mission.

And while at first Food Revolution was able to score some easy laughs at the local school serving ”breakfast pizza” and clashing with Alice, the school cook who doesn’t like being called a ”lunch lady,” the hour took some interesting turns. Oliver seemed genuinely surprised to discover that these school breakfast- and lunch-suppliers were following USDA rules that require, essentially, two starches — that’s one main reason they serve bread and rice in the same meal.

In other words, this is what Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has in common with Undercover Boss: The people who do the work, who have to execute the orders of their ”superiors,” are hamstrung by stupid rules and poorly-thought-out policies.

It’s just that Food Revolution ends up having sympathy and fondness for working people — so far; that could change, of course — while Undercover Boss manipulates their emotions for the cameras.