Like all successful reality shows, CBS’s Undercover Boss sticks to a simple formula: The (usually male) CEO of a large American company disguises himself as a bottom-tier worker to get an inside look at his business. He meets workers and management types, sees how hard (or not so hard) they work and comes to appreciate their struggles. Then he reveals his identity. Employees who have proven their worth receive gifts from their now-benevolent overlord. Sometimes, their working conditions also get a facelift — Shoppers World fixed its Wi-Fi, Checkers received a new drive-thru speaker. In one exceptional case, Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates restored its 401(k) plan.
Seven seasons in, Undercover Boss seamlessly exposes the everyday suffering of workers under late capitalism and at the same time reassures viewers that the system is self-correcting.
Take the first episode of Season 4. Mitch Modell, head of Modell’s Sporting Goods, learns that Angel — alongside whom he’s worked the till, stocked the shelves and waited on customers all day — is living with her children in a shelter because she can’t afford housing on her sales associate salary. Reduced to tears, he gives her a promotion and buys her a house. Hearing this news, Angel falls to her knees, weeping.
But at no time does Modell express concern about how other workers in Angel’s position may be similarly struggling. Today, nearly four years later, a sales associate at Modell’s makes a little over $8 an hour.
Undercover Boss is the latest in a long line of individual-reward narratives, from the Christian concept of Heaven to American Idol, that have helped prop up capitalism. As such, the show acts as a safety valve for the frustrations of an indebted, underpaid, exhausted work force, one that acknowledges suffering and offers a fantasy of relief — as long as you don’t dissent.
In Season 6, Jessica, a server at Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill (a Texas chain of “breastaurants”) unknowingly trains CEO Doug Guller to work behind the bar. Things get off to a rocky start when she admits she isn’t wearing her regulation bikini — knowing Guller is being filmed for a reality show (just not which), she decides she would rather not be scantily clad on television. This upsets Guller, who cannot abide the sin against his brand. He is, after all, the man who trademarked “breastaurant.” Jessica, a former account executive, confides in him that she hopes to find something better. When Guller comes out as CEO, he fires her.
Angry at being deceived, Jessica protests, “Is everyone happy with the job they have? It doesn’t make me a horrible person just because I’m not satisfied with where I’m at.”
Guller, not without a heart, rewards a sunnier, more pliant server with the one thing she said would help her improve at her job: breast implants.
The pretext of this reality show, the need for the boss to go undercover, reveals an important truth, though not the one the producers think: In our largely non-unionized workforce, employees have no means to air grievances to the heads of their companies; no power to improve their collective wages or working conditions.
The undercover act only goes so far — CEOs may go to the ground floor, but they, and the Undercover Boss producers, have no desire to expose what goes on in the basement. Most of the companies are retail-based; rarely do we get a look deeper down the supply chain. While the CEO of Fatburger is willing to see what life is like on the grill, how about life picking the tomatoes that garnish his patties? While Modell is floored by Angel’s struggle, does he explore the source of the sneakers she slings on the sales floor? To do so would be to find working conditions too squalid for network television. Unwittingly, the show reflects the narrow lens through which American capitalism considers labor.
Undercover Boss is a mirage. It purports to show a CEO helping workers overcome limitations but instead shows how readily these limitations are accepted. Even the slightest increase in wages, or a glimpse of a bit of a nest egg, can make a worker light up.
In one tear-jerker conclusion to a Season 3 episode, Johanna, an exemplary employee of Checkers, is promoted and given $20,000 to buy a new car. (She couldn’t replace her clunker on her crew member salary.) As if suffering from Stockholm syndrome, she declares, “I cannot believe that my CEO recognized me as a good employee, and he is rewarding me for it! Twenty thousand dollars and a management position, with a higher pay? That’s what I want, that’s what I need. Checkers, I’m home! I’m home, Checkers!”
CEO Rick Silva also promised to create a bonus program for employees, although it’s unclear how much it would supplement the $8 wages made by crew members. Checkers estimated that Silva’s appearance on Undercover Boss was worth $20 million in free advertising.
Here, Undercover Boss reveals itself as precisely what it believes it is not: a show built on the profound inequality of the American enterprise, one that glorifies how adept America’s CEOs are at papering over the cracks in the system.