Monday, May 21, 2007

BOSS SWAP: The Best Hour of Television I've Ever Seen

It's funny how the memory plays tricks on us sometimes. There are plenty of films that I know I've seen (even liked), but I don't really remember them all that well. Some of them I saw a long time ago and some I saw recently and I couldn't tell you what was in them. But the stuff we all want to remember we do so because it says something to us. I have childhood memories that will never be repeated that are still crystal clear in my mind and perhaps always will be, while there are things that happened to me last week that I have to be reminded of. Why is this? I have no idea. Am I getting older, getting harder to maintain my memory? Hell if I know. But when something is truly memorable, especially when something is incredibly entertaining, it stays with you for a long, long time. I'll let you armchair psychologist figure out the hows and why of all this while I engage all your readers with the tale of the finest hour of television I've ever had the pleasure to witness, a little UK TV show that will probably never air here in the States called BOSS SWAP. I only saw it once, but I'll never forget it.

A little back story here: In June 2004, I flew out to London on a business trip that was ultimately quite pointless but it got me to London for a week, so who really cares? I'd never been before and had always wanted to go and while I didn't get around very much or visit the countryside, I was damn happy to be there. This being my first overseas trip, I got a fairly nasty case of jet lag my first day there and ended up not sleeping for nearly two days straight. As a result of this I konked out big time my first night there and my body spent a lot of time playing catch-up for the next few days afterwards. My second night there found it impossible for me to get much sleep, so I turned on the telly (that's British for "TV") to see what I could see. I remember the cute and amusing Kate Beckinsale/Stuart Townsend flick SHOOTING FISH being on and as I continued to flip channels I happened upon a British reality show with a premise that hooked me like a big, fat marlin: Two bosses switch jobs for two weeks to see if one can run the other's business better than the other. Having worked in one capacity or another since I was a kid (with certain periods of time off through no fault of my own), workplace politics and mannerisms fascinate me and BOSS SWAP provided me with two primo characters who no screenwriter, no matter how talented, could have come up with. There was Mike, manager of the Carshock auto dealership in Newcastle, about 2 hours outside of London, an easygoing and likable bloke who has settled in pretty well and is seemingly happy with what he does. On the other end is Bruce, a London real estate dealer who is the walking epitome of a 21st Century yuppie, or for you Brits out there, a cockney wideboy. Bruce is all about selling and making that deal and the commission that goes with it and he's not nearly as likable as Mike, but there's no question that he's driven and committed in what he does. I knew as they set these two up that this episode of BOSS SWAP was going to be interesting and as it progressed I was thrilled by what I was seeing. This wasn't one of those Fox-ish reality show nightmares, but it showed a side of life that I feel is rarely shown on TV anywhere, that being the two different sides of the working man in the 21st Century.

It's worth noting that Mike is older than Bruce by about a good 10 years or so and by having a few years on him is at equal parts advantage and disadvantage. Mike comes from a generation where having a job like this meant that you were providing something for your family, your kid's education and your eventual retirement, while for Bruce (a newlywed whose wife works with him) it's all about what he can do for Bruce; getting the nice place, the great car, the cool clothes, etc. Mike also takes a more laid-back approach, choosing to spend his first week observing the staff and making evaluations through interviews before he makes any changes, while Bruce is almost all about making the profits as fast as possible. Bruce actually has a lot of good ideas (for example, he has the cars arranged in a more eye-catching manner), but he also is aggressive to the point of annoyance and it's no wonder the staff doesn't take to him. He constantly criticizes them for showing up hung-over (this is England, you know) and his efforts at team building and motivational speaking fall flat because he's not saying any of it from the heart. It's all about the numbers for him and the people don't seem to matter as much. Meanwhile, Mike's approach likewise falls on deaf ears as Bruce's employees are looking for guidance and for ways to move in for the kill and they're not getting it. And when Mike makes his assessment of the company, he makes a very unpopular decision - he fires Bruce's wife, seeing her position as redundant. With this, the situation boils over and Mike and Bruce meet up and decide to cut the experiment short. It should go without saying that all the employees are pleased.

As a TV show, BOSS SWAP didn't exactly break any new ground and wasn't all that different than most other reality shows. There were also those classic reality show train wreck moments (most of them involving Bruce, although when Mike fires his wife it's pretty hilarious) that made it very entertaining, and the episode had a perfect 3-act structure to it. But what made it so extraordinary, at least in my mind, was how it showcased these two different sides of the working class in our society, which is not something you see much of any of over here. Here you have two guys who, in truth, are not too far removed from each other, but there is still a distinct lack of understanding in how the other operates. More importantly, these guys don't understand the people that they're supposed to manage, either. Bruce is too pushy, and even though he may be somewhat justified, the staff is only going to resent him for it. Meanwhile, Mike is a little too nice to a staff that has been trained that to be kind is to be weak and he could learn to be a little tougher and maybe see some better results. It reminds me of a real jerk I used to work aside (not with; it's complicated) who would show the Alec Baldwin scene in GLENGARY GLEN ROSS as a motivator to his staff. It showed that the guy just didn't get it and that's what sums up this episode of BOSS SWAP: These guys don't get what the other ones does. Not that their approaches are wrong, but that if they mix the two together they might just get it right, a kind of "You-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter-you-got-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate-wow-this-is-great!" mix. I've worked for Bruces and have hated them and I've worked for Mikes and liked them a lot more but would sometimes wish I could get a little bit more of a real boss. The best bosses are equal parts Mike and Bruce, those who want to succeed but also care about the people they work with. Jobs mean a lot to people and if you're lucky enough to be in the position to be the boss you've got to do so with respect to all involved. Yes, it's a bitch, but if you can hack it at that then you can earn their respect and that's something worth coming to work for everyday.

PS - Here's the link to a post-BOSS SWAP chat with Mike and Bruce and some interesting updates on Bruce and Mike and their business practices.

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