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Comedy Central’s Corporate finds dark humor in selling your soul to the company store

This sneakily audacious new sitcom about workplace hell is funny, we promise.

Corporate life is a gray drone in this new sitcom.
Comedy Central
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The bananas, cut down from a tree in some unnamed tropical region, land in the back of a truck. “Faster!” shouts a man in Spanish. “You won’t get paid if you don’t meet your quota!”

The bananas travel from truck to boat, where they’re shipped to the US, where they land in the break room of the headquarters for the fictional corporation Hampton DeVille. They go from green to yellow to increasingly brown, until one brave soul plucks one of them off their bunch and peels it open.

“Oh, that has brown spots on it!” his friend says. He throws the banana in the trash.

This is the opening sequence for “The Powerpoint of Death,” the second episode of Comedy Central’s new dark comedy Corporate, but what’s even more audacious is the way the episode circles back to it, to explore the ways these giant, global behemoths keep moving money around the world, in the form of bananas or gadgets or weaponry, and force their employees, often, to deal with the consequences.

I laughed a lot watching Corporate, but it also kinda made me want to quit everything and move to the bottom of the ocean to live among the fish. I hope you’ll see that as a recommendation.

Corporate is smartly conceived on just about every level

The first thing you might notice about Corporate is how different it looks from most TV comedies. Instead of brightly lit, airy frames, often with bright pops of color, Corporate looks as if director and co-creator Pat Bishop (who directed all 10 of its episodes) carefully set up every frame, then drenched it in buckets of rain.

There’s a gray, unsettled quality to the visuals, which only increases the more Bishop frames shots so the actors are often placed slightly off-center, or in the lower half of the screen, the better to disempower them. The visual argument is clear: Working for a corporation — or maybe just working, period — ultimately robs you of your autonomy and makes you a part of something that doesn’t have your best interests in mind.

This means there are quite a few jokes about suicide in Corporate (of which I’ve only seen four episodes but have had to restrain myself from watching more), but they’re tossed off with such blissful, wistful optimism that it becomes clear the show’s characters can only find amusement in the blackest of black humor. That’s a hallmark of the show’s writing, which is grimly purposeful in how it makes sure every joke serves the show’s larger stories and themes about the existential queasiness of working for a corporation like Hampton DeVille. (Writer Amelie Gillette, who works on this show, is a former co-worker of mine from the A.V. Club.)

Corporate has an excellent cast.
Comedy Central

Our guides to the world are Matt and Jake (played by co-creators Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman), two junior executives in training who aren’t so much trying to retain their moral compasses as they are trying to keep from being consumed completely by the corporate culture around them. They’re surrounded by people whose only aim is to advance up the corporate ladder, to the degree that they’ve turned themselves into mindless servants of its overall structure, aspiring to be like the breezily sociopathic CEO Christian (Lance Reddick, best known for his work on The Wire and Fringe but very, very funny here).

But the cast as a whole is terrific, from one-scene bit players to Anne Dudek and Adam Lustick as Kate and John, two toadying junior executives who serve as warning signs for where Jake and Matt might end up, to comedian Aparna Nancherla as a beleaguered human resources rep who’s the closest thing the show has to a character who’s an actual human being. The series carries in it echoes of movies like Brazil or even Fight Club as it examines how poorly humans are able to maintain their sense of individuality, or even right and wrong, when tossed into a structure designed to make those core tenets of humanity strictly optional.

It’s a cliché in TV criticism to say that the real protagonist is the setting, but Corporate flips that idea on its ear: Here, the setting is the antagonist, and every day you can stay alive within it is another day when you might lose yourself completely. I realize that maybe doesn’t sound very funny, but trust me, at a certain point, you laugh because your numbing corporate job has sapped you of the ability to cry.

Corporate debuts Wednesday, January 17, at 10 pm Eastern on Comedy Central, though you can watch the first four episodes of the show right now on Comedy Central’s website.

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