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TV Series Review

Undercover Boss certainly didn't start its run undercover. Its inaugural episode followed Super Bowl XLIV, and with 38.6 million viewers, it became the most watched reality series premiere ever. Patterned after a British reality show of the same name, Undercover Boss has a sneaky premise: A high-ranking executive assumes an alias and acts as an entry-level employee in his own company. To explain those ever-present cameras, the film crew tells employees that they're making a documentary about people who change careers after a layoff.

Each boss spends a week traveling to different sites and doing various types of "grunt" work. Typically, it's a humbling experience. As executive producer Stephen Lambert told The Wall Street Journal, "It's inherently humorous to see the big chief of a corporation struggling to do the frontline job."

Bosses are paired with unsuspecting employees for "training," in which the boss has a chance to gauge the trainers' efficiency and staff morale. It's also a good way for executives to see how their companies can improve—both financially and in caring for employee needs.

At the end of his week in "hiding," each boss summons the employees he's encountered to headquarters, where he shares his true identity. Then he tells them what he's learned, as well as what might've touched him about their character and personal situations. Some workers receive gifts such as scholarships, promotions or vacations. Other times, the boss reprimands employees and tells them why their behavior was unacceptable. So far in the show's run, however, the need for discipline has been the exception, as most of the folks we see are good, hard-working employees, and the bosses recognize them as such.

The final step in the process happens when the executive-turned-laborer-turned-executive shares his findings/lessons with his peers at corporate HQ. We also get follow-up information on each employee featured in a given episode.

Businesses "spied on" include the trash collection company Waste Management, the Churchill Downs racetrack, 7-Eleven and the Hooters restaurant chain. Obviously, then, the family friendliness of this show can vary wildly depending on the featured company. In the case of Hooters, for example, we see waitresses wearing the restaurant's signature hot pants and tight T-shirts, and we hear some mild profanity. A misogynistic general manager doesn't help much either.

Like all reality shows, this one may or may not portray reality accurately. For one thing, Undercover Boss must depict businesses in a mostly positive fashion. "Otherwise," says Lambert, "no one would agree to do it." Still, the show tries to celebrate both corporate philanthropy and regular working Joes and Janes. And it's always heartening to see CEOs feel gratitude for the common laborer.

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Meredith Whitmore

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