The Comedy Central series was a merciless satire that blended outrageous gags with an oddly humane cynicism.

By Darren Franich
August 26, 2020 at 01:37 PM EDT
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Failure is almost a lost fact of television culture. Streaming services don’t release numbers, except when they brag about metrics you can’t trust. Meanwhile, desperate network honchos cursed with declining ratings swear fealty to post-numeric metrics: Engagement, prestige, buzz, “the fans.” Once there were cancellations. Now you see announcements about a “fourth and final season” or a “wrap-up movie,” and rumors of revivals ever after.

Maybe every series really can be some kind of success in this utopia we obviously inhabit, and even the least seen Lifetime scripted drama is just a streaming deal away from popularity. Or maybe it’s all a big lie, creative accounting to pad everyone’s resume. Failure is not a helpful narrative. The people who make the TV show want to keep working, and you get your next job when everyone needs to pretend to be impressed with your last job. The people who watch the show have infinite options, and want to feel they’ve bet on a winning horse. The people who cover the show — hello! — must convince readers (and editors) that this thing they’re writing about deserves the coverage.

Did we lose something, though, when TV conversation edged into fervent boosterism? And when, more crucially, the people working on low-viewership shows stopped grappling with the cruelness of audience indifference? “We’ve been given plenty of chances,” said Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) in a great late episode of Arrested Development’s original run on Fox. “Maybe the Bluths just aren’t worth saving. Maybe we’re not that likable.” That sitcom was a wondrous failure full of unlikeable people. The fans rallied, Netflix made more seasons, and those seasons were just awful. Beware salvation.

So get one thing straight: Corporate, an excellent show ending Wednesday on Comedy Central, is a failure. Its first two seasons averaged a few hundred thousand viewers in its original time slot. Those measly totals don’t reflect On Demand or DVR or online views, but I don’t see much evidence of a sizable cult. The show’s official Twitter page has fewer followers than I do, and I mostly tweet screenshots of spaghetti westerns. Comedy Central ordered a shortened final season, only six episodes long. “Shortened final season” is better than nothing, and it’s also a negative affirmation: The equivalent, say, of a boss who ends an email about recent mass layoffs with some especially meaningful exclamation points, “Your hard work is so appreciated!!” (David Simon has been hearing the words “shortened final season” from HBO since 2007.)

The failure was noble. Corporate has always been good and was frequently awesome. Co-creators Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman star as Matt and Jake, two junior executives at the nefarious ultra-corporation Hampton Deville. Their lives are bland, farcical, and horrific. They don’t seem to have much of a social existence outside their office — and their office is an overlit nowhere bubbling with generalized anxiety and shattered-mirror images of contemporary American society. Matt’s a sadsack who wakes up every day as a happysack, constantly slipping from hopeful optimism into bag-eyed exhaustion. Jake’s a pessimist whose cynicism is pleasantly zen. He has made peace with the fact that he has no control over his mostly pointless life; he’s a cat person, of course.

Their CEO, Christian (Lance Reddick), is an executive megashark seeking easy money on global hardship. Things he will try to make a quick buck on include: natural disasters, loneliness, 9/11, internet toxicity. Christian’s lieutenants Kate (Anne Dudek) and John (Adam Lustick) are preening toadies who spend their workdays stealing credit and shifting blame. The most likable character is Grace (Aparna Nancherla), and that likability is quietly astonishing because Grace works in Human Resources. In Corporate’s tilted world, HR complaints are screams into the void: Grace hears about everything terrible at Hampton Deville and can do absolutely nothing about it. She’s an oddly serene presence, but things are often calm in the eye of a hurricane.

Corporate is a hyperbolic satire, with plots that express clear-cut ideas about various -isms. Season 1’s best episode, “Trademarq,” features a Banksy-in-all-but-name mystery artist known for his chic activist vandalism. It turns out this cultural renegade is his own corporation, with a board of directors. That disenchantment is the Corporate nutshell. Even the anti-capitalists are capitalists. The prison is a prison; the escape is also a prison. You can spot the same instincts in “Society Tomorrow,” another season 1 standout. It’s sort of a goof on Black Mirror and Game of Thrones fandom, tracking how everyone at the office breathlessly obsesses over a dystopian science-fiction drama called Society Tomorrow while ignoring their own encroachingly dystopian existence.

Jake is the only person who doesn’t watch the series. “I’m not really a sci-fi fantasy binge-watch brainwashed-by-pop-culture type of person,” he explains. What he’s arguing, really, is that medium is the message. It doesn’t matter if everyone loves a show about the moral corrosiveness of technology and modern society, if they express that love on social media platforms while buying things on their smartphone and refusing to have a coherent conversation about the latest round of mass shootings.

I know this sounds like brilliant material for a mediocre thinkpiece, and Corporate has made fun of thinkpieces, too. You may be getting the sense this isn’t for everybody — the ratings prove that! — and, in fairness, most people watching television probably don’t want their TV to explicitly tell them they are wasting their lives watching TV.

I assume people reading a TV review don’t want to hear that, either. So keep in mind that there’s a stealth humanism powering Corporate, with relatable social comedy and over-the-top hilarity mixed into Hampton Deville’s paranoid landscape. At one point, Matt’s unwillingness to end his emails with an exclamatory “Thanks!” causes widespread panic. There is prankish one-upmanship in the break-room, a Seinfeld-worthy investigation of the etiquette of engaging with security guards, and a remarkably endearing breakaway story where the coworkers discover how different they all act on the weekend.

The third co-creator, Pat Bishop, directed almost all 26 episodes, and he found a good rhythm between rapidfire banter and absurd visual gags. To quote the Society Tomorrow fans: It’s not just the storytelling, but also the cinematography! The cubicle rows, executive suites, and boardrooms all look vaguely haunted. And unlike certain other office sitcoms about office people living office lives in the office, Corporate could do all kinds of eccentric adventures outside of the workplace. Season 2’s “The Concert” depicts the precise moment in one’s 30s when one no longer wants to (or physically can) stay out late on weekdays.

Season 3’s standout, “Black Dog,” takes Jake’s overwhelming cynicism seriously as a clinical depression, sourcing his constant rat-a-tat banter to a horrific imaginary friend (voiced by Bob Odenkirk!) nudging him towards oblivion. The penultimate episode, “F--- You Money,” will stand as the defining portrait of the sunny existential vacancy corporate hotel chain on a Wednesday, where everyone on the make, from the bellhop to the swagger-y traveling salesman (William Fichtner!) And don’t forget the very special episode about a business trip to the home of a lunatic murderous cowboy billionaire (Kyra Sedgwick! What guest-stars!)

Corporate could leave the office because Corporate never really left the office. In the series’ estimation, all life is an extension of heavily mediated, constantly surveilled workplace drudgery. Everywhere is a cubicle. Everyone begs you for a five-star rating. National mourning is a consumer product. Kids are addicted to streaming cartoons created by an algorithmic higher intelligence.

And it was all very funny, partially because the major characters were more than just nihilistic talking Dilbert types. On a worse version of this sitcom, like maybe one made in the 2000s, Jake would’ve been the brash mansplaining conscience. Weisman found something halfway noble and gentle in his acerbic loner. He was like a researcher curious to see how much worse things would get. The wonderful Dudek shaded Kate’s corporate-drone ambition with layers of sympathetic striving: Here was a woman joyfully self-immolating her individuality so she could be as powerfully terrible as any powerful, terrible man. Season 3 reveals a secret trash-talking friendship between Kate and Grace, the kind of just-right second-phase sitcom development that could’ve powered all kinds of subplots through season 6.

Not to be, alas. It’s a dark moment in history, as Corporate kept reminding us, and those constant reminders may have chased away even the most adventurous viewers. It’s notable that the TV mainstream has spent the last couple years fleeing into the warm embrace of the American remake of The Office, a great five-season show that lasted nine years and imagined that all your annoying coworkers could choreograph a dance number at your wedding. This final season arrived amidst surging pandemic numbers; I’ve seen some people describe the new episodes as oddly nostalgic experiences for maskless open workplaces, which proves people really can get nostalgic about the most terrible things. Even so, Corporate’s bleak sensibility vanquished any chance of a big audience. People enjoy darkness, but mostly when that darkness is something triumphed over, not the air we’re all choking on.

Worth pointing out, maybe, that Corporate emerged at the tail end of a brilliant era for Comedy Central. Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, Nathan For You, Review: These and many other boundary-pushing goofs already look eons removed from the network’s new cool plan to make more ‘90s cartoons while extending The Daily Show’s runtime. Corporate’s a hard sell in any climate, to be fair. It wasn’t just white guys feeling depressed about high-paying jobs, but it wasn’t not that. Did some executives get the joke a little too well?

Supreme positivity was a sin Corporate often denigrated. So let’s do the show justice by explicating its faults. Hampton Deville could feel too vaguely defined, a do-everything globo-company with an HQ in a generic metropolitan Anytown. That vagueness was part of the surreal worldbuilding, I know, but I think it was also a crutch. Specificity sharpens satire. Here, characters had to talk around the precise nature of an encompassing national tragedy, and by season 3 nobody beyond the main cast had more than one (funny!) dimension. Christian was a full-fledged demon, played by Reddick with a slithery exuberance. But the sheer ludicrosity of the CEO’s magical-realist existence (he keeps a sword in his office!) made him a lovable horrible boss, which is one of the worst lies television teaches you.

And the series finale is just okay, not one last high point. It lands on a note of genuine apocalypse, which every previous episode renders unnecessary. On Corporate, the world ended long ago — maybe at the turn of the century, maybe when everyone started their gradual exodus from physicality into digitality, maybe before any of us were born when the Supreme Court decided corporations were people. It’s Christian who gets the last words: “Sometimes life can be so painful, you just have to laugh!” You had to laugh at Corporate, painful as it was. We weren’t all watching it, but we’ll keep living through it.

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