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Better Off Ted has Office politics, but also a few sparks of its own

Jay Harrington and Portia de Rossi meet head-on in Better Off Ted.

Premiering: Wednesday, March 18th, at 7:30 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett, Isabella Acres
Created and produced by: Victor Fresco

ABC's answer to The Office is probably worse off for having gotten there a distant second.

The inevitable comparisons can't help but make Better Off Ted a somewhat lesser workplace commodity. But its gleeful subversiveness and talk-to-the-camera shorthand are still in relative short supply across the broadcast prime-time lineup. Besides, Ted is from one of the inventive minds behind both My Name Is Earl and Andy Richter Controls the Universe. So let's give it a sporting chance.

The Ted in the title is Veridian Dynamics' suit-and-tied head of research and development. Played niftily by Jay Harrington (Desperate Housewives), he regularly riffs on what life at an amoral, global corporation is all about.

"Is it wrong to invent a deadly pumpkin or an irritating chair that makes people work harder?" Ted asks rhetorically in Wednesday's premiere episode (7:30 p.m. central following a new Scrubs). "The thing is work's not about right and wrong. It's about success or failure."

He's not really the bad guy, though. Or at least that's the way the show wants you to see it. Ted's basically a toady, although a handsome one, for boss lady Veronica (Portia de Rossi).

She's an iron maiden devoted to making Veridian employees click their heels; he executes her game plans with only token resistance. But go-along Ted is also a single dad whose curly-haired daughter, Rose (Isabella Acres), looks like Shirley Temple and sometimes makes pop wonder whether he shouldn't be working for the Good Ship Lollipop instead of the Bismarck.

Comical underlings Phil and Lem (Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett) are also in the mix. They're first seen sitting on johns and grasping for hard-to-reach toilet paper. One of Veridian's cost-effective measures is making necessities a little harder to come by. That way you'll use less of them.

Ted also has a budding office romance going with product tester Linda (Andrea Anders), who's a bit rebellious when it comes to following Veridian's various dictates. But Ted would violate the company's one-office-affair-per-person rule if he seriously hooked up with her.

In next week's episode, though, they kiss each other through plexiglass in a sequence reminiscent of ABC's canceled Pushing Daisies. This also is the Ted where dad brings little Rose to work and let's her sit in with him at a brainstorming session. "Right now we're talking about a deadly new weapons system -- but in a kid-friendly way," he tells viewers.

Better Off Ted begs the question of whether you'd be better off dead than working for Veridian, even in our real-life economic recession/depression.

But most TV sitcom workplaces seem to be soul-suckers these days. And this latest effort has some wryly amusing moments, including a botched but concerted attempt to cryogenically freeze Phil for a year's time in Wednesday's reasonably engaging opener.

"It's not a punishment. It's an honor," says the poor sap. Frozen smiles ensue. But the show hopes to get a little bit more out of you.