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Comedy Central’s Corporate brilliantly satirizes living in an era of constant tragedy

The comedy, in its second season, gleefully mocks human self-interest, 24-hour news channels, and performative grief.

The staff of Hampton DeVille is shocked by an awful, unspecified tragedy. Then they immediately begin performing mourning rituals as obviously as possible.
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.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for March 3 through 9 is “The Tragedy,” the eighth episode of the second season of Comedy Central’s Corporate.

Few TV shows are as savagely on-point about human beings’ inability to escape their own relentless need for affirmation as Comedy Central’s Corporate, a series about people who work at a faceless corporation they know to be mostly evil — but nevertheless want to be told, constantly, how good they are.

In its first season, the series was funny but bleak, and I didn’t blame anyone who found it too dark for their tastes. Season two has somehow been both less bleak and even bleaker simultaneously. Superficially, the characters are slightly more chipper, and the show has spent less time reminding you how bad Hampton DeVille (the corporation at the series’ center) is, because presumably you already know. It’s also spent more time with the characters at home, where they don’t need to think about work all of the time.

But season two has also revealed just how bland and boring so many of the characters’ lives are. In one episode, when they try to expense $47 worth of margaritas, the whole thing turns into something out of Hitchcock, with a nosy accountant trying to get to the bottom of an utterly mundane adventure. Another episode concludes with a musical montage about the joys of giving up, of accepting that you are eventually going to reach a point in your life where what seems most fun at night is crawling into bed instead of going out to see a concert or something.

But perhaps no episode captures this divide between the show’s inherent bleakness and its insistence that, no, it’s having a great time than “The Tragedy,” a spot-on satire of an era when bad news lurks around every corner.

“The Tragedy” walks an incredibly difficult line between specificity and non-specificity and nails it

Matt donates so much blood the only solution is to stuff his mouth with cake to get his blood sugar up. (Nobody claimed anyone on this show was a genius.)
Comedy Central

The trick of “The Tragedy” is that Corporate can’t be seen as making light of any actual tragedies. So the episode takes place at the Hampton DeVille offices on the day of a completely unspecified tragedy that happened somewhere in the US. We never learn what it was, or even come to know much beyond the fact that people died and were injured. It was bad — but it didn’t happen anywhere near our crew.

So they, typically, make everything all about themselves and lose sight of the real tragedy in the face of their own back-patting. Many of the characters make earnest posts on social media about how important it is to love and help each other (while others make snotty posts cynically calling out their coworkers), and the Hampton DeVille owned news network BNN adds a little victim counter in the corner of the screen that makes a little “ding” every time it goes up by one.

“The Tragedy” neatly encapsulates the way that life stumbles onward, even when you’re struck by grief out of nowhere. The characters don’t want to be at work, but there’s no good reason for any of them to go home. So they sit through meetings about the company’s new fleeces, and they feel grumpy about how nobody wants to celebrate their birthday, and they compete to be the most compassionate. And all along, none of them can escape their own self-interest.

It’s that last sentence that would normally give me pause. The idea that we’re all motivated by the need to feel good about ourselves doesn’t negate the good we can do in pursuit of feeling altruistic, and believing that it does is often the domain of smug assholes who resemble Mister Gotcha, a character in a comic from Matt Bors, who has never met a good deed he couldn’t criticize because of its perceived less-than-wholesome motivations.

But “The Tragedy” understands that being Mister Gotcha involves just as much self-interest and inflated pomposity as posting something on social media that says “It’s time to fight fire with peace fire.” When Jake (series co-creator Jake Weisman) smirks about how little any of Corporate’s other characters actually care about whatever happened, he’s not wrong, but the episode doesn’t shy away from just how horrible he seems when he laughs in the faces of those who are genuinely sad and fumbling for something that might make them feel better.

Don’t get me wrong — this episode absolutely savages those who attempt to “win” at mourning, especially when it comes to the character of Paige (a dryly wonderful Anna Akana), a self-absorbed 24-year-old who sees the tragedy as an opportunity to enhance her brand as a “curator.” When she steals the post from Matt (co-creator Matt Ingebretson) about fighting fire with peace fire, it launches a competition between the two of them over who seems the most sad, one that culminates with Matt donating so much blood that he passes out, leading his coworkers to try to revive him by shoving birthday cake down his throat. (To boost his blood sugar, of course!)

Corporate is so often at its best when it indulges in these petty workplace rivalries, in the ways that coworkers get caught up in the stupidest possible conflicts while losing sight of the larger picture. And at Hampton DeVille, the larger picture is almost always monstrous.

“The Tragedy’s” darkest satire is reserved for the opportunistic cable news networks

Andy Richter plays himself, as a man ready and willing to pretend to have narrowly escaped tragedy.
Comedy Central

The B-plot in “The Tragedy” involves attempts by Hampton DeVille’s sociopathic CEO Christian DeVille (Lance Reddick, in a role that will hopefully lead to more comedic work for the Wire alum) to take BNN from third place in the ratings to first. The tragedy, then, becomes something he can exploit for his own self-interest, which is to say the company’s corporate coffers.

He’s matched in gleeful amorality by none other than special guest star Andy Richter, who arrives on the scene after Christian and the other BNN folks realize that when TV shows are struggling in the ratings, they’ll often bring in a celebrity guest. Richter, who’s also nowhere near “The Tragedy” affected by the tragedy (though nobody knows this), has a movie to promote, so the BNN team hatches a scheme to hype up his presumed death as a result of the tragedy, then have him appear later, alive and smeared in blood, to talk about how lucky he is to be alive and then say a few words in support of his new movie.

The whole thing is so brazenly cynical that you might expect BNN to be exposed, but no. The Richter gambit pays off. First, it allows the network to add one more victim to its tragedy tally (a needless onscreen doohickey that’s accompanied by both a countdown and count-up clock, even though neither is counting to or from anything). And then, when he shows up alive and well, ratings go through the roof. Christian and BNN anchor Karen James (Toni Trucks) kiss after a season-long flirtation, because it’s only natural for the two most amoral people in Corporate’s universe to have a romance built entirely atop their lack of caring about anybody else.

This whole plot is, I think, key to why Corporate ultimately avoids feeling too cynical to live. It is, on some level, a series about how whenever profit margins are introduced into any business, protecting and boosting those profit margins will take priority over the people they’re supposed to benefit in the concerns of the managers who oversee those people. If all Hampton DeVille cares about is how much money it can make, and if it can convince its beleaguered employees that their well-being is directly tied to that of Hampton DeVille, then the employees’ feelings, their desires, their personal lives just become functions of a larger corporate state.

But that doesn’t mean their feelings, desires, and personal lives no longer exist. Jake and Matt might take different approaches to feeling better about themselves after the tragedy, but they’re both still trying to find some state of equilibrium. The same is true of poor Grace (Aparna Nancherla), who wishes her birthday didn’t have to overlap with a dark day for the nation. It’s only people like Christian, who look at something horrible like the tragedy and see opportunity, who keep dragging the system closer and closer to their own sociopathy. But if you live and work in the system, what are you gonna do?

Corporate understands that we’re all motivated by self-interest and that when capitalism convinces people that their personal self-interest is the same as its own self-interest, disastrous things can happen. But it’s also a show that ends most episodes with tiny moments of people coming together, to sing about giving up or shove birthday cake in each other’s mouths in misguided life-saving attempts. We understand intuitively that a better life is built together, not separately, but all the while, so many forces are conspiring to convince us otherwise.

Corporate airs Tuesdays on Comedy Central. On Tuesday, March 12, the network will air the final two episodes of season two as a one-hour finale, beginning at 10 pm Eastern. The first two seasons are available on the network’s website, or for digital purchase.

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