Don’t be fooled by the faint glow of the employees at Hampton DeVille. Though there might be a glimmer around the faces of the characters on the new Comedy Central series “Corporate,” that’s not the beaming of eternal optimism; it’s the fluorescent glimmer of souls slowly leaving the bodies of their hosts. And against all odds and human resources guidelines, it’s instantly one of the most fascinating comedic experiments on TV.
“Corporate” follows the exploits of Matt (Matt Ingebretson) and Jake (Jake Weisman), two Junior-Executives-in-Training. They’re anything but aspiring climbers of the corporate ladder, yet they keep getting pulled into some of the absurd hijinks at Hampton DeVille, from lower-level firings to ambitious craft beer integrated marketing schemes.
It’s remarkable that a show that ostensibly thrives on the monotony of office life has such energy and momentum below its surface. For every droll conversation about the importance of bcc’ing co-workers on work emails, there’s a bonkers sugar-rush montage of Matt and Jake crashing all the building’s cake parties. Everything gravitates back to the cubicle, but that doesn’t stop some strange misadventures from taking these two across forests and basketball courts and the edges of reality.
As they both embrace their roles as willing corporate pawns, Matt and Jake have set themselves up for a series-long psychological tug-of-war. “Corporate” doesn’t portray them as simple good-employee/bad-employee foils, even if their approach and scruples sometimes wane. Though they share an office that keeps them linked at most times, the early going of “Corporate” has fun with seeing how and when their two paths diverge. The Amazon-level reach of Hampton DeVille (their corporate slogan is literally “We make everything”) gives them a chance for each successive task to prey upon their weaknesses, whether its spirit-crushing data entry or marketing a foreign armed conflict.
The true masterstroke of “Corporate” might be casting Lance Reddick as Christian DeVille, the would-be Bezos (would-Bezos?) at the top of this megalith’s leadership structure. Exuding enough charisma to make sense that he’s a “visionary” in this world, enough ruthlessness to instill real fear in his henchman, and just enough vulnerability to let some insecurity shine through, Christian is a perfect love-to-hate creation. (Each episode has at least one line delivery so delicious, you can almost see Reddick beaming underneath his steely Christian exterior.)
Aparna Nancherla is another welcome addition to the “Corporate” mix as Grace, Matt and Jake’s primary HR liaison. She’s got positivity to offset the pair’s dreariness, but there are a handful of telling moments that show even she isn’t immune to the corruptible nature of their work environment. Baron Vaughn is also stellar in his supporting role as Baron, the company’s social media wizard. In a series that’s not afraid live in the surreal, he might just be the biggest “Corporate” wild card.
The half-hour comedy isn’t just a sendup of office culture using low-hanging, recycled gags. Rather than make a bunch of garbled corporate jargon the only joke, Ingebretson, Weisman, and writer/director Pat Bishop zero in on the ways that this kind of management style obsesses more over appearances and font styles than the actual meaningful implementation of strategies. “Corporate” doesn’t just point out the existence of industry echo chambers, it delights in watching the ways its jokes bounce around inside them. And when the show’s gaze goes outside the walls of Hampton DeVille’s villainous-looking skyscraper HQ, it makes fun of consumers only in proportion to how willing they are to perpetuate their worst tendencies.
There’s also an intriguing balance between the day-to-day small scale atrocities in this company’s culture and the massive geopolitical damage being wrought elsewhere. As tempting as it would be for “Corporate” to focus much of its attention on just Christian or Grace or any of the other employees, “Corporate” spreads its story wide enough to ensure that one character doesn’t dominate. Even though they’re all cogs in the machine to an extent, there’s just enough distinction between each of their anxieties and misgivings that it makes for a richer tapestry of dread.
When those anxieties do manifest themselves, it results in some genuinely unexpected, dystopian cracks in the sanitized office veneer. One episode finds Matt in a Lynchian hallucination of the Hampton DeVille of decades past, while another sees fellow employees Kate (Anne Dudek) and John (Adam Lustick) as self-imagined victims of a zombified populace. Even Christian’s boardroom is a beige, modernized echo of the “Dr. Strangelove” War Room. There’s a lack of visual and structural formula in this opening batch of episodes that hints how “Corporate” might grow even more as Season 1 goes on.
Despite Matt and Jake’s best efforts (or in some cases, because of them), the conglomerate they work for steamrolls ever on. Weapons sales, product launches, and brand campaigns continue, even in the face of terrible mismanagement and ethical dubiousness. To have that strong of a nihilist streak in a comedy and still have characters worth investing in and returning to is no small feat. Even if Hampton DeVille is too big to fail, “Corporate” has found the sweet spot of caring just enough to make it laughable.
“Corporate” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central. The first four episodes of Season 1 are currently available to stream on the Comedy Central app.