'Corporate': TV Review

More 'Barton Fink' than 'Office Space.'

Comedy Central's new workplace comedy is visually and topically dark, and has potential amid its gloominess.

Deeply cynical, veering between quite funny and one-note-gloomy, Comedy Central's Corporate is the perfect new series for people who like to unwind after a day of workplace drudgery by seeing how things could always be worse (before turning to CNN and seeing that things actually already are worse).

Corporate was created by Pat Bishop, Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman and plays like a darker take on the ABC cult classic Better Off Ted, with the loopy surrealism replaced by loopy nihilism.

Our ostensible heroes are Matt (Ingebretson) and Jake (Weisman), junior executives-in-training at Hampton DeVille, a multinational corporate whose motto is "We Make Everything." And they do! Bishop, the co-creator not playing a cubicle drone sharing his name, directed all 10 season-one episodes, of which four have been made available to critics.

Matt and Jake are the bottom of the totem pole at Hampton DeVille, which means they have last crack at breakroom pastries and they get treated as tools by butt-kissing mid-level executives John and Kate (Adam Lustick and Anne Dudek), who serve at the pleasure of profit-obsessed CEO Christian DeVille (Lance Reddick). Their day-to-day chores range from firing a social media guy after an insensitive tweet goes viral, filing data on the surprising number of Hampton DeVille and reporting fellow employees for various violations. Although he's a bit of a sad-sack, Matt is more convinced that hard work will lead to advancement. Jake is more amoral and cutthroat, thinking nothing of turning a small cache of painkillers into a lucrative barter business within the office.

They contemplate their diminishing individual identities in a soulless corporate environment and think about their deaths. As Matt puts it, "I don't have a 401K, so as of now my retirement plan is to overdose on drugs." At a company where the average life expectancy is 57, that seems reasonable. They also spent time unintentionally tormenting Grace in Human Resources (Aparna Nancherla, working quirky magic with very little), which I guess makes her the closest either of them has to a friend, since the first four episodes remain mostly within the claustrophobic walls of Hampton DeVille.

It's in its aesthetic that Corporate distinguishes itself from obvious topical predecessors like Office Space, with its look of drab neglect, or Better Off Ted, with its surprising brightness and carefully designed sterility. Bishop builds an office environment of nightmarish banality. Every conference room or enclosed space looks like somebody forgot to pay the electricity bill and then crammed the camera into the most uncomfortable corner. The frame is filled with grays and dirty browns and florescent-washed-out flesh tones. The look is something akin to Brazil or Barton Fink, at its best, or to countless student films about workplace alienation a lot of the other times.

Of the two leads, Ingebretson seems like the more versatile performer, offering shades of moroseness or resignation and occasionally nearing happiness, however briefly. Weisman's string of inappropriate mantras become repetitive fast, though his timing is sharp. Many of Matt and Jake's rhythms are mopey and glum, and the performances get a bump when Bishop breaks form for extended homages like a sugar-rush scene in the pilot nodding to Trainspotting.

And since Jack and Matt are often drained of life, the supporting performances bring a lot of needed energy. Lustick and Dudek both put a lunatic streak beneath their characters' officiousness and Reddick, always so great and cool authority, is letting loose as a crazed titan of industry.

I didn't have big reactions to any of the Corporate episodes I watched, but I found lots of small things to enjoy, including Grace's presentation on the average Hampton DeVille employee, a wonderfully droll guest appearance from Aimee Mann and a game of one-on-one basketball with Lustick at his goofiest. Corporate isn't exactly escapist and with real-world headlines of workplace harassment and assault, it's a lot of talk and only a little substance. Still, there's plenty of potential to build on here.

Cast: Matt Ingebretson, Jake Weisman, Anne Dudek, Adam Lustick, Lance Reddick, Aparna Nancherla
Creators: Pat Bishop, Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Comedy Central)