It came to pass in those days of Bowlus Superius XLIV, two years into the Great Famine, that there went out a decree from Roger Goodellus that all of America should watch saints flay colts with pigskin, and all watched, everyone in his own city. After, all made pilgrimage to a trash heap in Syracuse where—lo!—starlight illuminated a man vacuuming an outhouse. “Unto you is born this day in the city of Syracuse a savior,” an angel sang, “which is Larry O’Donnell, CEO of Waste Management, become flesh to dwell amongst you!”
The American premiere of the CBS reality show Undercover Boss after the 2010 Super Bowl was our recession-time “Joy to the World,” and with the show’s sixth season premiering just last week, it’s still going strong. In a way, the show resembles an older genre of literature within social gospel writing at the turn of the nineteenth century, novels that imagined what would happen if Jesus returned to Earth in disguise to evaluate his church. What we can gather from the differences between today’s Undercover Boss and yesterday’s undercover Jesus, though, is that our saviors have devolved considerably.
“The economy is going through tough times,” a desperate voice explains over the show’s bomb-ticking intro music, and “many hard working Americans blame wealthy CEOs, out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their businesses better.” The show’s premise is simple: a CEO dons a disguise (often a fake beard and long hair) and, heroically, works “undercover” with the employees on the lowest rungs of his or her company’s ladder. The result: record viewership.
A modern-day savior story, Undercover Boss celebrates a theology of incarnation. In its very first episode, the show features the company Waste Management, which underscores the scatological depths to which the company’s divine figure would descend. The episode promises that Larry O’Donnell would clean his own toilets, and his back would ache! “I had no idea this job was going to be so physically demanding and so mentally exhausting,” O’Donnell moans in one scene.
But don’t mistake the show’s premise for prole schadenfreude. There are bits of glee, as when we watch Walter the trash collector scream at O’Donnell as he scampers impotently after runaway trash on a windy hillside; but ultimately, we celebrate the boss as a sacrificial figure, one who suffers with us and knows our pain. So even during the show’s trademark spotlights on workers’ plights, viewers eagerly await the moment of transfiguration when the beard comes off and O’Donnell gives two or three employees fat bonus checks or pays their kids’ college bills. The workers cry, but we’re more interested in seeing O’Donnell cry. “He does have tear ducts, just like us!” we sniffle, and we cry along with him.
Moments of actual truth do poke through the shiny Christmas paper, likely in spite of the producers’ intentions. “How do you do your physical work?” O’Donnell asks when he discovers that Walter the trash collector is on dialysis. “I Iet my spirit tell my body what’s gonna happen,” Walter responds, because “if I let the body tell me what I’m gonna do, I’m probably not gonna do very much.” O’Donnell’s spirit-made-incarnate lasts a week, while Walter goes back to work.
Despite the show’s earnest voiceover, the boss does not, in fact, go undercover to truly revolutionize the lives of all his workers—that would put him out of business, after all—but to trim fat and improve his bottom line. “I’m sending out targets and cost cutting goals,” O’Donnell explains, and “I wanna see if the targets are realistic on the ground.” Under divine market providence, this scheme has its own salvation. “If I’m able to pull this off,” a worried O’Donnell tells the camera, “it could make us more efficient, which could mean saving jobs. And that’s what I’m looking for.” Walter’s salvation depends on it. (But not his kidneys.)
The show’s historical analog is what we could call the “Undercover Jesus” genre of books that were popular about a century ago, written by a number of social gospel pastors. From the inspiration of Jacob Riis’s seminal How the Other Half Lives (1890) came William T. Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago!, Milford Howard’s If Christ Came to Congress, and Edward Everett Hale’s If Jesus Came to Boston, all published in 1894. The general premise was much the same: a disguised Jesus checks in on “employee” performance. Spoiler alert: it’s not good.
Though fictional, the books are unsparing in their detailed depiction of social suffering, and their walking tours of fin de siecle corruption feel eerily similar to our own time. They highlight non-existent social safety nets, collusion between Congress and corporations, deadly sexism and racism, and even a proto-Wal-Mart in Chicago’s Marshall Field, which swallowed small business owners into the pit of middle management. The church is damned for its complacency.
The most famous of such books is In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? (1896) by Kansas Congregationalist pastor Charles Sheldon; in fact, it’s one of the best-selling books of all time. In its first ten pages, a tramp Christ figure appears in Reverend Maxwell’s Kansas church and does what Christ does: he speaks a disturbing word to those who will listen, he suffers, and he dies. The rest of the story takes place without him; it’s left up to his auditors to take his challenge to heart.
Christ’s absence, or elusiveness, in all of these works is remarkable, and a stark contrast to Undercover Boss’s obsessive fixation on the eponymous boss. In these books, Christ is a haunting yet prophetic presence that allows readers the imaginative flexibility to analyze their broader social web. While Undercover Boss is centripetal, spinning societal woes inwards towards a salvific CEO, In His Steps is centrifugal, a dead center of suffering that spins outward into societal change.
Today, needless to say, the closest we get to equally popular covert-Jesus stories is Undercover Boss. And with Christmas on its way, be sure to tune in for the show’s next episode, set to air on the 28th, starring Doug Guller of Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill—a chain of what he calls “breastaurants.” As Guller weeps with empathy for his scantily-clad staff, remember the true reason for the season, and rejoice, for unto us another child is born.