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In Praise of Corporate’s Refreshingly Pessimistic Comedy

Photo: Comedy Central

The first season of Comedy Central’s Corporate was something of a minor miracle. Following the lives of two depressed, cynical junior executives (Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman, the show’s co-creators) working at an openly evil multinational corporation, Corporate spent every week examining the bleak reality of 21st-century life through the byzantine, Kafkaesque lens of office politics. Ingebretson, Weisman, and director Pat Bishop skewered millennial culture by showcasing its hollow, meaningless core.

Some of their diagnoses are obvious, if not inherently dispiriting: corporations control our lives, capitalism is a prison, the internet is a social detriment. Others are slightly more damning, e.g. prestige TV dramas are all empty-headed bullshit designed to keep the masses lazy and distracted; people’s personalities are now stolen from half-read think pieces; there’s no point in aspiring to uniqueness because it’ll eventually be co-opted by profit-hungry executives; looking forward to the weekend indicates that one’s daily life exists in a purgatorial state. Episodes were packed with terse judgments like, “There’s no way not to waste your life. The best you can do is find something you love and work so hard and so long at it that it eventually becomes something you mostly complain about.” In short, it was a beacon for anyone under 35 who felt that their pessimism was misguided or paranoid.

Tonight Corporate returns for a second season, and it has made a few subtle changes. The dynamic of the main duo has slightly shifted: Matt’s nascent positivity has developed into foolhardy optimism, adopted in a desperate attempt to enjoy life, and Jake’s self-aware nihilism, though still serving as a counterbalance to Matt’s character, masks insecurities heretofore unexplored. The show’s targets have expanded beyond the cubicle to encompass privacy rights, the gender politics of wearing makeup, and social-media feeds in the wake of regularly scheduled national tragedies. Its overall bite has softened (possibly as an attempt to court new viewers, or possibly just a general evolution of perspective), and the humor has become more absurdist and slightly less tethered to real life. Despite these changes, its refreshingly pessimistic worldview remains intact. Corporate remains an essential show for anyone who looks outside and cringes at our shared social fabric. Here are five reasons to tune in.

It Understands the Compromises of Adulthood

Corporate frequently explores the myriad social and professional compromises that organically occur with adulthood, like abandoning the idea of soaking up cultural opportunities. (“Living life to the fullest is a con,” says Jake. “That’s like having a second job you waste all your money from your first job on.”) In one episode, Matt’s horrible college buddy (Chris Fleming) invites him to a concert whose headliner will only start playing at 1 a.m. His co-workers confidently inform him that he won’t make it out of his apartment to attend, especially if he has “the epiphany,” i.e., the realization that you can do nothing instead of doing something. Matt protests, but sure enough, he recognizes that he’d rather eat ice cream in bed and masturbate than go see a terrible band he doesn’t know so he can feel like he’s enjoying life. According to Corporate, growing up means accepting that you simply don’t have the energy to try to have fun that’s more effort than it’s worth.

It Uses Office Politics As a Metaphor for Socialization

Though this might read as a diss, it’s not: Corporate often operates like the very best version of Dilbert — but instead of exploiting corporate tribulations for hacky punch lines, it uses office politics as a transparent metaphor for socialization in the modern era. In the series premiere, Matt crushes on new employee Jessica (Sasheer Zamata), but doesn’t realize that it’s only because she sits a few feet away from him and that he had a similar crush on a previous employee, whose name he keeps forgetting, for the same reasons. “Proximity crushes,” as Jake coins, are easier to maintain because you necessarily see the person every day and it’s easy to mistake that for genuine feelings. Then again, “love” is largely a scam given that it’s statistically unlikely that a person will ever meet their true soul mate: “The best thing you can do is arbitrarily choose a partner you share a few interests with and hope their dormant personality flaws can be medicated.”

Similarly, in another episode, Matt’s email etiquette comes under fire from his superiors (Anne Dudek and Adam Lustick) when his exclamation-point key on his keyboard stops working. His standard responses take on a barbed, sarcastic delivery without the placating influence of crucial punctuation marks, which almost leads to his firing. Anyone who has ever had to modulate their speech over text or email to curb misguided projections from the receiving party will inevitably relate. Meanwhile, Jake fights for the dismissal of a lackluster employee who can’t be fired because of administrative roadblocks and because he brings a cute dog to the office. Anyone who has ever loathed an incompetent co-worker coasting off of unofficial tenure will also relate.

It’s As Perilously Online As You Are

It’s always dangerous when TV writers reveal through their show that they’re as furiously online as their audience, but luckily, Corporate tips its hand in appropriately contemptuous fashion. A standout episode this season involves the employees of Hampton DeVille reeling from the latest national tragedy by making it all about themselves. While CEO Christian DeVille (Lance Reddick) uses his news organization, BNN, to turn the tragedy into a ratings bonanza through outright lies and celebrity guest stars, his underlings all turn to social media and try to “outcare” each other. Matt discovers his earnest Facebook post has been stolen by young millennial employee Paige (Anna Akana); Grace (Aparna Nancherla) bemoans that her birthday has been upstaged by the news; and Jake’s insistence that everyone’s outpouring of goodwill masks selfish motives falls on deaf ears. It’s a damning portrayal of society’s inability to deal with large-scale trauma in the face of sheer helplessness, and how sociopolitical self-consciousness can easily be weaponized — both ideas reinforced by spending any amount of time on Twitter during such events.

Season Two Brings in Some New Blood

Corporate’s first season was mostly claustrophobic in terms of location and casting; it rarely left the office and mostly featured its core characters. But in grand second-season tradition, the show is beginning to open the door to some new recurring characters and fun guest stars. Tech and social-media guru Baron (Baron Vaughn) returns for a couple of episodes this season to make his snarky presence known. Toni Trucks (Karen James), a BNN news anchor willing to sell out journalistic integrity at the drop of a hat, recurs as a toxic personality and love interest for Christian. Kyra Sedgwick guest stars as a psychopathic, alcoholic billionaire colloquially called the Cowboy because she dresses in Western garb and “only works with straight shooters.” Ingebretson and Weisman still keep the action contained, but expand the world to allow in a little more oxygen … if only to suck it out at a moment’s notice.

Its Pragmatic Nihilism Remains Firmly Intact

Thankfully, Corporate’s pragmatically nihilist worldview remains unaffected despite some inter-season tonal changes. Ingebretson and Weisman’s satire remains pitched at the most powerful institutions that want to commodify fear and resentment in order to sell it back to the public for a quick buck. Their views on millennial social dynamics point to an illusory feeling of intimacy that masks itself as genuine connection. Most critically, however, is the firm belief that a general indifference to these trends, despite being aware of them, will be our undoing.

Corporate’s casual, matter-of-fact delivery of its cultural verdicts never scans as needy pleas for applause or pats on the back, but rather sober analysis of a culture coming apart at the seams. There’s a real sense of existential terror coursing through the series, but that feeling arrives appropriately dulled because it exists in a world that rarely rewards such emotion. The series has too many “light bulb” moments — i.e., monologues or punch lines that evoke such innate hopelessness — to count, but my favorite from this season, courtesy of Jake to Matt, goes like this:

“Your life is on autopilot and years are just passing by without you even realizing it. When you were a little boy, there was this great mystery about who you’d become someday. That mystery is now solved and the twist is you work at a job you hate, you don’t floss and you never will, and worst of all, you don’t even think critically about media.”

That’s Corporate in a nutshell.

In Praise of Corporate’s Refreshingly Pessimistic Comedy