Shayne Looper: ‘Undercover Boss: the Prequel’

Shayne Looper

At the conclusion of the 2010 Super Bowl, CBS introduced its reality show hit “Undercover Boss.” Each week viewers watch the CEO of a large corporation go undercover as a rank and file worker in his own company, where he discovers what life is like on the other side.

In the pilot episode the chief operating officer of Waste Management, a company with 46,000 workers, is bossed around by an unsympathetic foreman, ordered to fill bags with trash and clean portable toilets. In another episode, a university chancellor is humbled by a disastrous experience as a teaching assistant.

Each episode gives viewers the pleasure of seeing the big guy get his comeuppance. In the process he comes to appreciate the plight of his employees and determines to make changes in company policy. But the biggest — and most emotionally satisfying — change happens in the character of the boss himself.

The question that reviewers and bloggers ask is this: What happens after the episode ends? Does the boss’ short stint on the line make an ongoing difference, or is the show nothing more than 45 minutes of corporate kitsch? 

Labor types pan the show as a shameless stab at self-promotion. It is, they claim, a cheesy and hypocritical public relations campaign. And in these days when the blue chips are gorging themselves on billion dollar profits while the anemic American economy is still reeling from all those bailout transfusions, corporations could use some good P.R. 

One reviewer, Walter Kim of Bloomberg Businessweek, plays off the show’s religious overtones, though it might be more accurate to speak of its undertones. In his article, Kim uses the kind of language that would make an Evangelical Christian feel right at home. He writes about “testimonies,” “the coming of a new kingdom,” “soul journeys” and even refers to the Sermon on the Mount and the Damascus Road. 

There is good reason for all this religious language. “Undercover Boss” is a reworking of the old, old story, the same one we heard in Sunday school when we were growing up. And as is sometimes the case, the prequel is even more compelling than its successor.

The story of the original “Undercover Boss” begins with the launch of a new enterprise. It is a creative venture with boundless scope. (Read the book of Genesis for the account.) The workers are junior partners, enjoying remarkable benefits. But they are not satisfied. 

The workers become convinced that they can run the massive undertaking better than the boss, and vote to take control themselves. Rather than shutting them down, the boss lets them live with the consequences of their choice, and it’s not long before the project goes awry. Unhealthy competition, unfair treatment, prejudice and abuse spring up everywhere.

The boss, while remaining behind the scenes, introduces new blood into the venture. While everything is spiraling out of control, he presents one family with the task of restoring the project to health. They — the Abraham family — achieve various degrees of success, but eventually lose interest in the larger project as they pursue their own success. That’s when the boss goes undercover. But his is no short stint. It lasts about 33 years.

The apostle described it this way: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood.” According to the story, he entered the workforce as a member of the Abraham family, and experienced all the hardships and trials of the common man. But unlike “Undercover Boss,” when he tried to put things right, his own workers put him to death. 

But that episode ended with a “To Be Continued” message. Another — titled “Revelation” — is in the works right now. In this one the boss (“Lord” is the term the story uses) is finally revealed. He returns, set things right, and the great project finally gets off the ground.

Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Michigan. He can be reached at salooper@dmcibb.net.

The Daily Reporter