The excising of any hint of class solidarity among workers is completed in the reveal sequence at the end of each episode. This is the reveal from “Popeyes,” from the third season of the series (Undercover Boss. CBS. March 2, 2012).

A company COO and employee embrace during the reveal section of an episode from the series’ first season (“1-800-Flowers.” Undercover Boss. CBS. April 11, 2010).

Testimony or confession?

In each episode of Undercover Boss, the spoken word is used cinematically in a number of different ways. First, oral interactions take place during the undercover section of the show, especially between the workers and an undercover boss posing as a worker. These interactions include sharing intimate details of a worker’s or a boss’s life, with the most intimate interactions often taking place during employee work breaks or when the boss and one worker stand isolated from others. From a viewer’s point of view, these exchanges always occur with the viewer’s knowledge that the second worker in the exchange is not a worker at all, but a boss. In an interesting way, these exchanges, with workers revealing information about their health or the health of family members, financial difficulties, failure to meet life goals, and so on, distinguishes Undercover Boss from an otherwise similar reality TV series Dirty Jobs, aired on the Discovery Channel. As with Undercover Boss, Dirty Jobs presents viewers with a glimpse inside many contemporary workplaces. But in this series, the playful onscreen banter of host Mike Rowe ensures even the most undesirable workplace is seen by viewers as a dramatic, extreme, or humorous spectacle, rather than as a site for melodramatic, personal disclosure of the kind seen in Undercover Boss.

Second, in staged interviews intercut at points within each episode, the undercover bosses speak directly to the camera to describe what they have discovered so far, or how they feel about the experience of being undercover. Third, the workers, post-reveal, speak directly to camera, telling how they feel about the show’s outcome or about their surprise at appearing in it. And fourth, there are moments of voice-of-god narration, usually at the beginning of a show, where aspects of the episode are introduced.

In Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Television (2000), Jon Dovey delivers a framework for examining the verbal communication and speech acts presented in the series. Dovey proposes that there are a number of categories of speech that are common to reality TV programs, including testimony, confession, and subcategories of confession, such as self-disclosure as an rehabilitative act of “reclaiming and rebuilding selfhood” akin to the experience of the psychoanalytic couch (Dovey 2000:111). For our purposes, understanding the difference between testimony and confession is key to investigating the workers’ speech in Undercover Boss and understanding how the meaning of this speech is framed for the series’ viewers. Dovey argues,

“To witness and to testify are acts which have a history first of all within legal process as a way of establishing truth through first person corroboration, either as eye-witness, victim, perpetrator or expert” (2000:112).

The political acts of witnessing or testifying have a long history linked to religious and political dissent. Testifying has served as

“a way of asserting your individual rights in the face of the dominant power of the established church as well as asserting group identity as part of a politically oppositional practice” (2000:113).

The testimony of individuals who seek to assert their rights has been a key feature of documentary filmmaking since the introduction of portable, synchronized sound recording equipment in the 1960s, with examples of this practice present in much earlier documentaries. Classic labor-themed committed documentaries such as Julia Reichert, James Klein, and Miles Mogulescu’s Union Maids (1976) and Judith Helfand, Susanne Rostock, and George C. Stoney’s The Uprising of ’34 (1995), as well as more recent productions such as Almudena Carracedo’s Made in L.A. (2007) or Amie Williams’ We Are Wisconsin (2012), foreground the oral testimony of workers who express their dissent and press for social change. The above-mentioned documentary films were conceived in a manner intended to empower those who testify, positioning them as active agents in the writing of their own history. For example, the testimony delivered by the three women featured in Union Maids describes the role women played as labor organizers in Chicago in the 1930s and establishes that these women have the right to testify on their own behalf, to author their own stories, and to have their interpretation of their lives recorded as history. Films that use testimony in this way seek to uphold the right of marginalized constituencies to speak, be heard, and be recorded. Underlying this media-making approach is a commitment to constructing social realities through participatory processes, so that all people, irrespective of social status, race, gender, ability, or other discrimination, are active participants in the construction of social truths and have full entrance to a democratic, civil society.

In contrast, Undercover Boss delivers to its viewers a qualitatively different kind of workers' speech. In the series, the speech presented is not the testimony of individuals demanding a voice in civil society. Instead, it is composed of a series of confessions that are presented to viewers as each illustrative of one individual worker’s experience. Dovey states, there is a longstanding perception that the documentary and other established fact-based television genres “are constitutive of the civic society,” where they have served as a “central feature of the (pre-Internet) ‘electronic public sphere’” (2000:14). But, he argues, in recent years reality based shows have brought to the fore “the individual subjective experience as guarantor of knowledge” (Dovey 2000:21). In contrast to the presentation of testimony in fact-based programming where it serves as evidentiary support for an argument, in reality TV the relation between the individual and larger social conditions is banished from sight. Within these new television formats, Dovey argues,

“the individual experience occupies the foreground and any ‘argument’ is often impossible to discern” (2000:21).

From this has emerged a “theater of intimacy” (Dovey 2000:25) where individual truths are ascendant and personal tragedies, traumas, and the drama of individual lives have replaced the presentation of more general truth claims or an examination of wider social or structural realities or discriminations. Corroborating this argument, in their work on reality TV Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen suggest that this genre of television programming commonly foregrounds features of self-help and pop psychology, in the process curtailing the exploration of larger social narratives.  Within this confession-centered environment, they argue, the first person is raised to the status of sole truth, and

“notions of community, polity and public space are distant background to the revels of a subjectivity that is its own reward and kingdom” (Brenton & Cohen 2003:31).

Within the rubric of reality TV, the term “participatory”—which in the past served to indicate the democratization of political processes so that marginalized sections of society could represent themselves politically and culturally—is used to describe programming that often involves nothing more than “ordinary people parading the dreary details of their difficult lives” (Dovey 2000:104).

CBS's companion website for the series features an interactive online quiz where site users can try to match images of bosses in their day-to-day clothes with images of the same individuals dressed for their undercover assignment.

Illustrating this evolution, in Undercover Boss the viewer hears a series of confessions by workers about their lives, challenges, personal failings, unhappiness, and so on, all delivered in the passive speech of the confessional and bereft of any demand for the general reform of these conditions. Drawing on Foucault’s theory of the operation of confession in the disciplining of sexuality, Dovey argues that the confession is implicitly a submissive act where the speaker appeals to a “naming” authority (2000:105). Within this equation, an individual engaged in confession waits for a higher power or institutional entity, one outside of her or himself, to determine whether an intervention or change of some kind is appropriate—and, if so, what kind of intervention or change will be instituted. In Undercover Boss, the higher power is the boss, who rewards worthy workers on an individual case-by-case basis during each show’s reveal. By ensuring that the viewer experiences the speech they hear as a series of confessions by workers rather than workers’ testimony, the series manages to show life on the underside of the American dream without making any appeal for the emergence or mobilization of a political consciousness.

Thus, the confessions delivered by workers in the show are rooted in a television self-help culture and not practices of advocacy or labor organizing. The bosses featured in the show are presented as empathetic listeners—as de facto personal counselors to their workers. They are the ones who, once the hardship faced by individual workers has been revealed to them, dole out prescriptive solutions in the form of advice or charitable gifts and promotions, all the while restoring the health and wellbeing of their company through the surveillance of the psychological state of their employees.

Is there a performance of class solidarity
in the series?

There is a twist that underlies the confession-centered narratives that the series presents to viewers, one that is hidden from the audience’s view by each episode’s formal construction.The speech delivered to viewers is confessional in nature as described above, since from the outset of each episode the viewer is always privy to the knowledge that the workers seen onscreen are talking with an undercover boss, and not with another regular worker. But the workers we see onscreen did not know they were speaking with a boss when they were videotaped; they believed they were talking with a new co-worker. Here we must ask if the openness we see between the workers and the disguised-boss-as-fellow-worker suggests an expression of class solidarity as workers share mutually useful information about their workplace and the challenges they face there, while also expressing empathy and looking out for each other?

For instance, in the episode “Fatburger” (Undercover Boss, CBS, April 5, 2013) undercover CEO Andy Wiederhorn is depicted talking in a parking lot at the rear of a restaurant with assistant manager Angelica, who tells him how a fast food franchise should be run and how it should treat its workers, including making sure that the staff are paid on time. In this instance, for viewers privileged with the knowledge that Angelica is telling the boss of the fast food chain that employs her how to run a fast food business, her comments appear somewhat humorous and ironic. However, the impulse behind this worker's information-sharing, as with other workers who behave in a similar fashion throughout the various episodes of the series, may actually be illustrative of an embryonic form of class solidarity as she seeks to align her new colleague’s understanding of conditions at a shared workplace with her own dissenting view. From a viewer’s perspective these interactions are likely not recognized as acts of solidarity, since the viewer knows that one of the workers onscreen is not a worker at all. The excising of this potential hint of class solidarity from the audience’s viewing experience is made complete in the reveal sequence at the end of each show, when the individual worker is plucked from their daily surroundings and peers and brought to their employer’s head office for the episode’s reveal. Here it is made clear to viewers that each worker’s involvement in the series will bring rewards only for them as individuals, and these rewards are divorced from any collective experience of advocacy or a movement towards labor solidarity.

Finally, when discussing the confessions delivered by the workers over the course of each episode, it cannot go unnoticed that each worker’s confessional performance has been capitalized upon during its conversion into television content. The confessions delivered by the workers are the bread and butter of each episode’s narrative trajectory, and therefore key to the series’ commercial success and the profits it generates for its producers and the broadcasters who air it.[4] [open notes in new window] Andrejevic argues,

“The reality TV trend offers one way of thinking through broad-reaching societal developments that are reorganizing the division between labor and leisure, consumption and production, shopping and watching TV.” … [These shows]  anticipate a world in which we will create value for advertisers and marketers by allowing ourselves to be watched as we go about our daily routines, in which the promise of interactive participation serves as a ruse of the rationalization of consumption” (Andrejevic 2004:8).

In Undercover Boss, the workers we see onscreen perform two kinds of labor. First, they fulfill their everyday jobs as they are depicted by the television series. Second, they engage in the unpaid labor of appearing in a reality TV series. In the latter role the workers engage in what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri term “immaterial labor”—work that results in the production of no material or durable good, instead generating “an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (2000:290). The workers seen in Undercover Boss do this for no pay—beyond the minimal personal benefits they might gain should their employer choose to grant any— but their onscreen performance is harnessed for the profit and benefit of the series’ makers and broadcasters.


As with all forms of media production, the effect that Undercover Boss has on its viewers is varied. Stressing the influence of television in general on the construction of social reality, scholar John Hartley argues that television both shows and shapes contemporary life, playing

“a prominent role in producing and distributing what counts as true for many… from legitimizing actions in war, business, and the ‘administration of life’ to steering conduct at the personal level” (2008:1).

In a similar vein, writing specifically about reality TV, Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette argue,

“the current wave of reality TV circulates ideologies, myths, and templates for living that might be called educational in nature” (2004:3).

These authors are not proposing that television viewers are passive sponges in the face of the television programs they are exposed to. Murray and Ouellette argue that viewers of reality TV may recognize that these shows deliberately highlight “dramatic uncertainty, voyeurism, and popular pleasure,” and viewers therefore are not likely to confuse reality TV with news broadcasts, documentaries, and other public service style program formats (2004:2-3). Thus we must take seriously the possibility that the viewers of reality TV possess, to use Hartley’s term, an “informal expertise” regarding the genres’ messaging, thereby inoculating them against becoming haplessly propagandized by program makers (2008:2). When studying a media product such as Undercover Boss, we must be open to the possibility that close studies of audience responses to the series may generate varied and unpredictable findings, including ones not explored here.

Conversely, we cannot ignore that television remains the most prominent single entertainment medium in U.S. society. It plays a role in transmitting the ideological frames by which we orient our lives. For this reason, we must be concerned that Undercover Boss offers such a partisan view of labor in contemporary United States. Under the guise that it has something to reveal to us about the experience of U.S. workers, the series instead naturalizes as “reality” that the wellbeing of workers happens solely at the behest of their employers. The portrait of the working world presented by the series is one that is bereft of organized labor, government safety or labor regulation, or the presence of meaningful solidarity among those who labor together under conditions that too often leave them underpaid, working longer hours than at any time in recent decades, under-insured, and insecure about their future. We should be concerned too that while the series draws on serious issues related to the experiences of U.S. labor, it deflects attention from these issues by highlighting only the drama of seeing if a boss can pass as a worker; personally revealing confessions of hardship on the part by workers; and happy endings where redemption is delivered to individual workers in a narrative wrapping-up “reveal.”

In his classic study, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams argues that television has massively increased the public’s exposure to drama (1974). He argues,

“it seems probable that in societies like Britain and the United States more drama is watched in a week or weekend, by the majority of viewers, than would have been watched in a year or in some cases a lifetime in any previous historical period” (1974:59).

In Undercover Boss, the focus on drama and a stream of individual characters, whether bosses or workers, hides an exploration of the larger social processes that underlie what we see onscreen. Indeed, with reality TV increasingly prominent within the topography of nonfiction media, we may find its principle attractions— charismatic characters, personal stories, and dramatic narratives possessing clear-cut dramatic closure—increasingly expected from other nonfiction genres such as television news and the documentary film. At the end of the day, the entertainment-driven reality-based fiction delivered by Undercover Boss is a neoliberal fantasy where viewers root for or identify with or look down on the individuals seen onscreen—honest hardworking individual workers, unfair or corrupt middle-managers, and benevolent, concerned bosses—while never being drawn into an examination of the real economic and social issues that are at the heart of the show. In perfect synergy with neoliberal anti-labor ideology, the peace between workers and bosses that each episode delivers in its conclusion is a capitulation of the belief that labor has rights, including a right to press for an improvement of the terms and conditions by which workers are employed. For the stream of hardworking U.S. workers presented by the show, isolated instances of charity come in place of a movement towards economic justice.

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