Less Than Perfect

It might seem easy to lump Less Than Perfect into that subgenre of TV comedies known as the single-girl-in-the-city sitcoms. These date back to Meet Millie and Two Girls Named Smith in the 1950s, reached their apex with The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s, and made it, more or less, to the ’90s, with Suddenly Susan and Caroline in the City.

Though Less Than Perfect features a young woman living in a big city and pursuing a career, it is less about her single status or her personal life than it is a minor morality tale, a conservative commentary on the value of hard work over class structures, the triumph of substance over style.

Small town gal Claudia (“Claude”) Casey (Sara Rue) has moved to New York to obtain her slice of the Big Apple. Sweet and unpretentious, she demonstrates an admirable work ethic and honesty as a “float” employee, sent like a temp from floor to floor, department to department, wherever, whenever she’s needed. When the star anchor of the evening news needs a fill-in secretary, Claude gets the nod and thanks to her personal zeal, the position eventually becomes permanent.

The comic crux is the culture clash between Claude and her new co-workers as she attempts to maneuver in the upper ranks of “The Organization.” Class distinctions here are strictly enforced, such that there is a world of difference between those “upstairs” and those who toil “downstairs.” The “upstairs” cast features Zachary Levi as ambitious yuppie scum Kipp Stedman and Andrea Parker as Lydia, the tough, humorless office barracuda, a wicked send-up of her previous role as a cold-hearted agent on The Pretender.

Claude’s guilelessness and colorful clothes form a sort of counter-balance — or an all-out affront — to her co-workers’ blind ambitions, shiny palm pilots, and DKNY basic black wardrobe. The upstairs players especially disdain her “commoner’s” (non-Ivy League) background. To them, she’s the equivalent of the Clampetts moving into Beverly Hills. (How did she become assistant to the anchorman when she doesn’t even have the right shoes?)

Claude’s former officemates (played by Sherri Shepherd and Andy Dick) are still stuck in their airless basement office, where they wonder if her personality will change along with the size of her cubicle. At the same time, they cheer on her personal success, as it gives them hope for their own. She attempts to keep a foot in each world and still be “true to herself.” Rue, who has an “Everywoman” appeal, plays Claude’s dilemma with appropriate sincerity: she’s the good girl doing her best to keep the peace and keep her job.

The show’s biggest surprise may be Eric Roberts as Claude’s boss, Will Butler, a shallow, self-absorbed, womanizing anchorman. He doesn’t figure much in the class warfare — he’s too busy checking his hair in the mirror. Still, for all the character’s egotism, the actor conveys an underlying decency (after all, Will is the one who liberated Claude from the typing pool), as well as a previously unseen, well-tuned comic timing.

The series around him follows a less surprising course. Claude has hung onto her job and thrived despite her unorthodox methods. She’s more interested in baking fresh muffins than charting a hostile takeover. Time after time, the snobs with whom she shares the eighth floor speculate as to why their rampant sucking up isn’t moving them up the corporate ladder. They are even more humiliated when Claude and her lower-ranking friends are welcomed into the VIP room of an exclusive nightclub while they are left standing out in the cold. When the upstairs folks embarrass themselves or trip over their own self-styled coolness, cynicism, and “in” group vibe, it’s a small victory for anyone who has ever felt left out, anyone who was ever shunned by the cool table in the high school cafeteria.

But even if it’s rewarding to see these stereotypes squirm, Less Than Perfect is more interested in bringing characters together, whether with fresh muffins or by other means. And so, the two groups occasionally band together. In one episode, Lydia comforts Claude when she encounters boyfriend problems. In another, the group worked as a team to secure Will’s job. Class distinctions fall by the wayside when the chips are down.

Less Than Perfect‘s comedy emerges from its social commentary and its characters, all warm, even the “villains.” This aspect is especially welcome, given the warmth-deprived Life With Bonnie, which precedes Perfect in ABC’s Tuesday night lineup. Unlike Bonnie and most other shows on TV right now (sitcom and non), Perfect is reassuring.