It’s difficult to discuss the state of work today without dissecting workplace power hierarchies and the cultures they permit. From Hollywood to the media to the academy, Americans are increasingly recognizing that when a top tier of usually white, usually male executives wield vast amounts of power, the potential for abuse is high. In #MeToo posts, women have written about the many varieties of workplace sexism. At the same time, as the movement has tended to center the voices of white women and celebrities, many have pointed out how crucial it is to attend to the complexities of race and class as well. These acknowledgments are both depressingly overdue and hopeful. They suggest that in the future, experience of such power imbalances might also be represented in American culture—on television, in movies, in music and fiction.
Perhaps it is with these changes in mind, then, that Corporate—a new show on Comedy Central that seeks to satirize, as its name suggests, corporate culture—strikes such a sour note. The series stars its creators-writers-executive producers Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman who play “Matt” and “Jake,” two junior executives-in-training at the multi-national corporation Hampton DeVille. Endlessly pushed around, Matt and Jake are our underdogs: two sad-sack lackeys who share a tiny windowless office, while making jokes about suicide, free office food, and the aspirational genre of pornography that involves all the women who’ve ever dumped you apologizing. We’re supposed to sympathize with them, I think, though the problems they encounter don’t seem all that significant.
Meanwhile, the offices in Corporate are, for an international company in the age of global capital, unrealistically white. As if to balance out the show’s straight white male protagonists, Lance Reddick plays the company’s autocratic CEO Christian DeVille, Anne Dudek and Adam Lustik (of Mad Men and The Office fame respectively) his sycophantic executives, and Aparna Nancherla the company’s human resources representative. There is also an East Asian man at the office named Bruce, though we haven’t heard him say anything yet. (We only know his name is Bruce because Dudek’s character at some point says at an office meeting: “I think I speak for everyone… Bruce?”) This collection of characters tends to reinforce Matt and Jake’s implicit privilege, rather than undercut it, since Matt and Jake are relatively developed characters with individual motivations, portrayed against a cast comprised of racial stereotypes.
Reddick’s Christian DeVille might have been a refreshing divergence from the white men who have portrayed TV office bosses, from your dopey Michael Scotts to your mythological Don Drapers. Yet Christian is hardly a fully realized character himself. We first see him (true to type for the hyper-disciplined worker) waking up at 6.30 a.m. to work out at his boxing bag. That is, until he learns his company has made an insensitive tweet that has gone viral. He then picks up a nearby samurai sword and slashes the boxing bag. One might say that Christian falls pretty close to the stereotype of the “angry black man,” only, in this case, given an unexpected and, as the show seems to suggest, threatening amount of power. The other black character is stereotyped in a different way. Baron (Baron Vaughn), the company’s “social media guru” who writes tweets while listening to opera feels like Corporate’s take on the overeducated and overcompensating Harvard snob, Toofer, on 30 Rock.
Nancherla portrays Grace, who is probably the company’s most sane and likable character. While everyone else is bouncing off the walls of caricature, Grace is the closest the show gets to having an uncanny voice of reason. Her voice, however, is nonetheless constantly disregarded as the company charges ahead in its attempt for world domination. At one point, Grace notes that the company’s pitch to be the CIA’s exclusive weapons supplier in their coup to overthrow the Bolivian government is, to quote, “a war crime.” Happily for Hampton DeVille, their PowerPoint spurs “several wars.” She simultaneously does the work of noting the company’s failure at humanity while also representing the futility of this labor.
At board meetings, two other presumably junior executives-in-training flank Matt and Jake—though, as with Bruce, they don’t actually speak. These female coworkers are always on the edges of the show, or just outside the frame. This neglect of female characters is all the more surprising in a moment when Hollywood is finally confronting its double standards when it comes to female labor. At this point, I’m not sure whether it would’ve been wiser simply not to have represented female coworkers at all, rather than show them but have them conspicuously silent.
Corporate’s attempts to hold a mirror up to the absurdities of office life are somewhat predictable and ultimately unenlightening. At one point, the company makes a Whistle Blowing app that employees can use to report complaints and abuses in the workplace. Jake starts using it to call out anything he takes slight offense at—he complains when Matt throws out an almost perfectly good banana, or when he spies a woman picking her nose. At one point, Jake reports an older man for taking his shoes off during a meeting. “Why would you get someone in trouble for that,” asks Matt. “That guy’s a racist,” Jake reasons. “He’s a white guy over fifty, so probably.” Matt takes a beat to reflect on this and then asks if Jake thinks they too will be racist when they’re fifty. “Of course,” Jake says. (Jake is the more “chill” one.) Instead of revealing the contradictions of human behavior, as a good satire does, Corporate simply reinforces what we all already recognize as offensive behavior.
Unlike other office shows that include a range of tenderness and sympathy for its characters (The Office, 30 Rock, Enlightened), Corporate serves up characters that are hyperbolically unlikable. At no point does the show make any serious commentary on the systemic flaws of corporate culture, or suggest that this culture might have had a hand in turning its workers into petty and, ultimately, forgettable stereotypes. The characters in Corporate, we’re led to believe, are not so much the products of a toxic corporate culture as they are themselves fundamentally terrible people. Episodes don’t culminate in character or plot development, but tend to circle around insensitive humor—a sign perhaps of the potential stagnation of Corporate’s limited perspective on office culture. At the end of the pilot, for instance, we get an actual representation of “apology porn”—the subject of one of Matt’s jokes—when a group of women, shot from above, shower the viewer with choruses of “I’m sorry.”
Perhaps Corporate will take a surprising turn mid-season. Perhaps one simply needs to watch the entire season to understand the overall arc and intentions of the show, but as of now its handful of clichés don’t quite add up to a smart critique of corporations. (Though it can be done: For a phenomenally intelligent and funny satire of office stereotypes, please read Ed Park’s Personal Days.) Perhaps the show’s myopia is a symptom of its origins—Comedy Central started developing the workplace comedy back in November 2015, long before the tide of #MeToo reckonings—or its creators’ own blindspots. (Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman used to work in an all-male comedy troupe called “Women.”) Either way, for a show about office culture, what seems most urgent right now is certainly not to hammer home how bad corporations are—low-hanging fruit indeed—but, if anything, to begin to understand them so as to change them.