Why ‘Corporate’s Comedic Nihilism Works Better Than ‘Mr. Robot’s Serious Take

     February 2, 2018

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There’s a romance to the idea of tearing down or breaking out of oppressive corporate structures, and battling the doldrums of cubicle work by leading a revolution of change. Plenty of stories play into that hopeful aspect, even those that do focus on the drudgery of office life (like, say, the U.S. version of The Office, which was notably sweeter than the U.K. original). But Comedy Central’s Corporate, from Matt Ingebretson, Jake Weisman, and Pat Bishop, is not that show. It fully embraces not only the hopelessness of corporate environments, but doubles-down on apathy and a bleak acceptance of one’s fate. In that, it finds a deadpan freedom peppered with a surrealistic streak that gazes into the gaping jaws of workplace depression, while managing to come out the other side with a weak but perceptible smile.

Admittedly it can be a little tough to initially love Corporate; the very first episodes go all-in on suicidal themes, which can feel unfairly glib. Making a litany of “I’m so bored I want to kill myself” jokes is easy, unearned, and not particularly smart humor. But a sequence that shows a banana being grown and making its way (via low-wage workers and various kinds of global transportation) to the office of the company that owns every part of that process, only to be left to rot and ultimately thrown away by an employee who sees that it has a single brown spot on it (“ew!”) is very good stuff.

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Image via Comedy Central

As it goes on, Corporate does more of the good stuff and less of the suicide humor, as its protagonists Matt and Jake half-heartedly wage a battle for their souls. For the most part, they accept that the world is corrupt and they have no real role to play in changing it, and therefore focus on making daily life bearable however they can. It’s not romantic, but it’s real. The latest episode, “Trademarq,” is an extended riff on a Banksy-like artist who the men admire, and who is hired by the very corporation he initially roasted in his art (the fictional Hampton DeVille). His job is to make logos that will sell mugs and t-shirts to the protestors he supposedly inspired, as their picketing essentially turns into Cochella. It is devastatingly cynical, but also completely transparent in its acknowledgement that our heroes are usually false idols, and the beat of global consumerism moves on with or without you.

There are moments though, especially in “Trademarq,” that feel particularly analogous to USA’s Mr. Robot. The tones are wildly different, as are the core stories. But when it comes to a theme of corporate greed (be it Evil Corp or Hampton DeVille) and wanting to fight against the seemingly all-encompassing power of a global company, the two shows have similar ideas. Yet while Mr. Robot has become increasingly self-serious as it compounds the number of gruesome deaths it trades in, Corporate takes a light approach, summing things up cleverly with implied consequences rather than overt displays of carnage. (Minus one dream sequence that almost feels like a spoof of Robot‘s “Runtime Error”). Yes, Corporate is a comedy (ostensibly; it’s a half-hour show at least) whereas Mr. Robot is very clearly a drama. But when it comes to honing in on a satirical and smart take on the evils of conglomerates — like Evil Corp for Robot –  Corporate makes its point quickly, with a relentlessly droll bite.

In “The Powerpoint of Death,” Hampton DeVille pitches the CIA to become its #1 retailer of weapons and assorted combat gear for a U.S.-backed coup in South America (the banana growers, it turns out). After an episode’s worth of outrageous pitches and sparring with a rival company, Hampton DeVille’s CEO (an excellent-as-always Lance Reddick) reveals that while they may not have won this bid: “Great news! There’s going to be several wars.”

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Image via Comedy Central

No shadow organizations or White Rose or conspiracies here. Just greed, and the casual way that the cost of life means nothing. It ends up being far more chilling than the kind of drawn-out, intricate conspiracy plots of a show like Robot, especially since things end up more or less in the same place. The stakes may also seem much lower than the Dark Army coming for our leads, or reversing a global hack. But there is Lance Reddick sporting an evil grin while saying “mango smoothie,” which leads into his observation about hypocritical protestors who claim to boycott his company but are still using the products of its subsidiaries. The unspoken part of that is that it’s nigh-impossible to avoid Hampton DeVille’s products because they own everything. That truth is too real.

It also immediately deflates any possible delusions of grandeur for Corporate’s de facto heroes. It comes back to Matt and Jake and Aparna Nancherla’s Grace, acknowledging the futility of fighting against the machine (in direct opposition to Anne Dudek and Adam Lustick’s plucky and deranged senior executives who love the machine). They hate Trademarq as an artist for “selling out,” but admit they admire and are jealous of his fame and fortune. Corporate gets to the very core of both hating and aspiring to the things we know aren’t good, and yet, those people seem to be having so much fun. In their telling, those conflicts are handled openly and with a lot of honesty, whereas on Robot, Elliot’s internal monologue about the vapid lives of the world’s sheeple comes off as pretentious prattle. Matt and Jake understand that sometimes we’re all the sheeple, day-dreaming about our homemade craft brews that no one will ever drink, because we’re only human, and that’s ok.

Mr. Robot’s initial 5/9 hack and the corporate-sponsored terrorism that followed could have (and should have) been an extremely potent narrative about how the people on the ground level are affected by the decisions these global elites make. One of that show’s best scenes was when Angela confronted an E Corp exec about the casual meeting over shrimp cocktail when the decision was made to, essentially, let her mother die rather than make the ethical choice. But in later seasons, the way Robot has escalated its story to focus on the machinations of the world’s shadowy cabals never allowed it to be that grounded again. Things are vibrating at such a high dramatic frequency that there is no room to exhale. Someone needs to look around and acknowledge “this is so supremely fucked it’s actually funny.” Corporate, despite any other flaws, understands that’s exactly what we need.

Corporate airs Wednesday nights on Comedy Central.

Television