Sunday, March 30, 2014

Well This is Awkward - Dealing with The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret

[Spoilers Ahead: You Have Been Warned]

Brent Wilts (Will Arnett) is having sex with a pregnant woman, Todd Margaret (David Cross) is trying to explain a blood-covered box that reads "Alice Rape Kit" to a police officer, and someone's supposedly dead father has just turned up at the door.  Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg for the awkwardness that permeates The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, a show that aired for only two seasons on IFC.  As a result of this awkwardness, Todd Margaret forces us to explore the way that we as audience members handle cringe-worthy characters, and allows us to meditate upon our own failures in our interactions with others.

Pictured: A man who has no clue what he's doing
The show follows the bumbling titular character as he attempts to handle his new promotion to Global National's London sales team for a toxic Korean energy drink called Thunder Muscle.  (The translation of its label reads "Bad sanitation. Caution to proceed with beverage.") Unfortunately, Todd's promotion is based upon a misunderstanding.  When hot-shot manager Brent Wilts overhears Todd degrading someone over the phone, he assumes that he has found the perfect tough-as-nails salesman he's been looking for.  In actuality, Todd was merely reciting from a self-help CD entitled "Stop Being Such a Pussy!"  After being called into Wilts's office and asked if he has any experience with England, Todd lies and says that he frequently spent summers with his father in Leeds (after spotting The Who's Live at Leeds album on a desk).  

So begins Todd's increasingly poor decisions, in which his inability to tell the truth or admit defeat causes us to cringe our way through every episode.  The audience's relationship to Todd Margaret is a prime example of empathetic embarrassment, defined as "when a person feels embarrassment for another who is experiencing embarrassment; however, the empathetic person's public identity is not threatened in any way" (Sharkey 383).  Yet what do we as empathetic individuals really gain from Todd's experiences?  If we feel the embarrassment even though we have no stake in this fictional series, what must we do in order to cope?

One of my personal favorite moments of the show

"Where Todd and Brent Misjudge the Mood of a Solemn Day"

The episode that best encapsulates the crux of the entire series is centered around Remembrance Day (think Memorial Day, but for the UK).  Brent Wilts has arrived in London to check on Todd's progress with the Thunder Muscle sales, of which Todd has made none.  In an effort to placate his boss, Todd informs him that he can advertise to the entire country at once, for free.  He neglects to mention that this requires disturbing the Remembrance Day ceremony, which is being broadcast on every channel on every station in the UK.

Pictured: Cultural sensitivity 
Upon their arrival to the veteran parade, Wilts forces Todd to cross the barrier and attempt to sell to the men marching in the parade.  When this fails, Wilts implores Todd to get everyone's attention, while he commandeers a camera.  So Todd desperately begins to deliver his sales pitch upon the memorial of a fallen soldier during a moment of silence.  After the plot fails, Todd hangs his head in shame and accidentally empties the can of Thunder Muscle, which from the camera's point of view is easily mistaken as his urine.   

For me, this was the moment that I almost turned off the series for good.  I simply couldn't handle how painful it was to watch this man make a complete ass of himself for the sake of keeping up appearances.  It's marketed as a comedy show, yet I was no longer laughing.  I originally felt that the purpose of the show was that outlined by Dr. Marco Iobini: "I think that the tendency of looking into the funny aspects of this stuff is a way of dealing with it. Seeing you get into an embarrassing situation, I may feel the pain of it as if it were me, and one way of coping with that experience of pain is by laughing at it" (qtd. in Hutchison).

So if we are no longer laughing, what are we getting from this show?  I feel that Todd serves as an extreme extension of our own weaknesses as audience members in order to allow us to better ourselves.  Todd Margaret works in the vein of productive discomfort, in which our empathetic embarrassment forces us to recognize why we feel so bad for the main character.

While he has his flaws, he is still a protagonist that we feel for and identify with in spite of his imperfections.  By recognizing the pressures Todd must feel to perform adequately in a new environment, the show casts him in a sympathetic light at first.  But as Todd's decisions become more and more heinous, such as the one mentioned above, an observer may move from quiet embarrassment to anger.  "Todd you idiot, just tell the truth!"

Take the Remembrance Day example again.  Todd's problems begin to manifest themselves because he is unwilling to come clean to Wilts about his failure, and his public embarrassment is a result of his inability to stand up for himself.  As we begin to turn towards disliking Todd, the audience is forced to reflect on why this naive and innocent man has earned their disdain.  Within this instance it could be a number of things; Todd's lack of decorum and insensitivity, his purveyance of the ugly American stereotype, his dishonesty, and that he would not stand up to Wilts's demands even though he knew what he was doing was wrong.  So while Todd may be a good person at heart, his flaws are those that any viewer could also have, simply taken to the extreme so that we are forced to recognize them.  He serves as the foil so that we may learn from the dangers that increasingly poor decisions might lead us to. 

"Thunder Muscle - Get Up and Go!"

Todd Margaret and its particular brand of cringe comedy is certainly not for everyone.  As someone who adores the show, even I must look away in anticipation of some of its more awkward moments.  Yet I believe that Todd's misadventures are more than just a comedic exercise in torturing the audience.  It is a mirror that asks us to confront the most painful interactions of our lives, and the somewhat unfortunate things we do to bring them onto ourselves.  As such, Todd Margaret is a modern day fable that allows us to reflect upon our own issues, in the hopes that we might correct them.


P.S.  In case you were wondering, [massive spoiler] Todd never learns his lesson and ends up launching a nuke at the behest of Kim Jong-il.  But that was from the series finale and it was totally crap.  So I like to pretend it didn't count.

Works Cited:

Sharkey, William F., Hee Sun Park, and Rachel K. Kim. "Intentional Self-Embarassment." Communication Studies 55.2 (2004): 379-399. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Hutchison, Courtney. "Vicarious Embarrassment: Awkward Moments Trigger Pain Centers in the Brain." ABC News. ABC.  15 Apr. 2011.  Web.  30 Mar. 2014.

"Where Todd and Brent Misjudge the Mood of a Solemn Day."  The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.  IFC.  29 Oct. 2010. Television.


Goodman, Tim.  "TV Review: 'The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd' is a Gem."  The Hollywood Reporter. 4 Jan. 2012.  Web.  30 Mar. 2014.

Wampler, Scott.  "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret at the Alamo Drafthouse; Plus a Great David Cross Video Q&A." Collider.  n.d.  Web.  30 Mar. 2014.

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