As late fall settles onto Minnesota like an unpleasantly weighted blanket, the natural inclination is to watch some TV. Rebecca and I realized that, while we’d watched the first season of The Office (US) when it aired, we’d drifted pretty quickly. With binge weather upon us, and the clock ticking for the show to leave Netflix, we decided to go in hard on it, and powered through several episodes a night.
And: The Office is fun! The characters are relatable and human. The writing is sharp, and knows where to poke at the oddities of spending your days in badly-lit spaces with other people who don’t want to be there. The observations can be apt: one of the show’s central (maybe accidental) theses is that often the worst people to work with are the ones who can’t just let a job be a job but instead have to turn it into either their family or a crusade that gives their lives meaning (this is Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute, respectively). The show can also be a fascinating timeline of cultural change, as with the way the show handles Oscar being gay moves from turn-of-the-century kid gloves to a more current “so what?” attitude. And the show gave us Creed Bratton, maybe the most consistently surreal sitcom character since Andy Kaufman was on Taxi.
But as fun as it was to binge on The Office, I couldn’t help but notice that however sharp the writing was, it pulled punches. And if you stepped back and looked at the show, its point of view was weirdly constrained. There’s some value, I think, to taking a closer look at that.
A PLANT WHOSE ROOTS ARE BOUND UP IN CAPITALISM
Here’s the core of the trouble The Office struggled with: the show was built around cataloging and lampooning the indignities and absurdities of American corporate culture. That culture is rotten and inhuman and eminently worth lampooning, and millions of people were clearly in the market for it. But. But. Those millions of people had to get up on Friday morning and go into their own office, and nothing short of full-scale economic revolution was going to change that. And even if the show’s writing staff were ready to use the show to advocate for overthrowing corporate capitalism, that would have been a tough sell to NBC. So to keep from bumming out, pissing off, or just generally alienating its audience and its funders, the show had to dull its own blade, and mix the satire of corporate culture with a conflicting message that but really, this was all OK. Michael’s a boor and a clown,* but he’s also secretly really good at sales, and even if he’s incompetent at the tactical level episode-to-episode, the show’s narrative eventually required his bosses to befuddledly exclaim “I don’t know how he’s doing it, but somehow Scranton’s the only branch that’s making money!” In other words, he has foibles that we can mock, but in the end, he’s secretly a success because the worldview of the show needs him to be.
*Michael also, famously, becomes a bit softer-edged and more empathetic as the show progresses. It’s definitely possible to read this as the show blunting its criticism of jerky managers, but it’s just as likely that there was a more generalized push to make the lead character of a successful sitcom, played by a very likeable actor, somewhat less abrasive.
Michael, of course, isn’t the only case where the show tries to have it both ways with its critiques. It does nearly the exact same thing with Dwight; he’s an abrasive and weird ass-kisser, but, like Michael, is also quietly good at his job. Characters mention several times that Dwight’s the best salesman in the office, acknowledged even by Jim.
And about Jim: no other character sits more squarely on the fault line of The Office’s ambivalent relationship with the culture he’s satirizing. Jim hates his job and the corporate culture, and puts considerable energy into elaborate, clever pranks. But for the bulk of the series, he never seriously looks for another job, or talks about wanting anything else. Part of this is extratextual: Jim can’t want something else because the show can’t lose a major character. But there’s also a philosophical side. If Jim hates his job but expresses that through pranks, it’s fun to watch; if we actually saw Jim feel substantial anguish over having to go to his stupid, shitty job, whatever realism the show gained would be more than canceled out by the immense bummer it would become (and never mind what would have happened if a running plotline had been Jim trying to get out and not being able to; would have been realistic but bleak as hell).
Also, in a familiar pattern, Jim follows Dwight and Michael in being quietly good at his job. Promotions or near-misses with promotions are regular plot points with him. In the arc where Michael is temporarily replaced as manager by the no-nonsense Charles Miner, one of the running gags is that unfortunate coincidences and misunderstandings repeatedly make Charles unable to see how good Jim is at his job.
The fact that the three male leads (we’ll be getting to Pam’s different and unfortunate case in a moment) are all also acknowledged to be good at their office jobs is important. The Office was willing to operate as a sort of comedy of manners about the silly interpersonal things that happens in corporate culture. But the show was also scared shitless of offering any deeper critique about whether these jobs should exist, or if the people doing them were wasting their lives. The show’s evident need for Jim and Dwight and Michael to be good at their jobs at bottom reifies the idea that those jobs are worth being good at.
While the spot in the Dunder Mifflin hierarchy above Michael was usually held by a clown, it’ also worth noting that the top executive that the show let us see, CFO David Wallace, was always presented as a competent, reasonable guy working in a competent, reasonable organization. The CFO never came across as clownish or as anything other than the sort of stolidly respectable operator that real-world CFOs always try to appear as. The show is willing to make an individual office look silly, but at the corporate level Dunder Mifflin is treated as an entirely reasonable enterprise (and even the show’s occasional nods in the direction that the firm was slowly dying , being killed off by Staples of Office Max, were always presented as root-for-the-underdog situations where we were guided into rooting for Dunder Mifflin to succeed).
LIVES OUTSIDE WORK
Let’s swerve back to Pam. The Office was an astonishingly well-cast show, to the point that it chronically had a deeper bench of talented performers than it could accommodate onscreen. One of the biggest cases in point here is Jenna Fischer, who was funny and nuanced in scripts that often gave her nothing much more to do than serve as Jim’s support system (either comedy or emotional). Pam is unique among major Office characters in consistently being shown as having interests outside of work. She likes to make art, and haltingly, hesitantly indulges in that here and there. The only other major outside interest I can think of is the occasional mention, always milked for surprise laughs, that Michael likes and is really good at hockey; but that’s only mentioned a couple of times, and is never a plot driver. Dwight has an extensive life outside of Dunder Mifflin, but it’s all very much an extension of the persona he presents to the office.
At first, Pam’s artistic bent seems like a positive thing to be included in the show. But over the long haul, the show’s treatment of it (and, honestly, of her as a character) is depressing. She disappears for a while to go to New York and take design classes, an interesting choice that shows character growth. But she bails on the classes and decides it’s not for her, coming back to Scranton to be with Jim. This throwing aside of personal interests in pursuit of the traditional passive-girlfriend/wife position the show always tries to jam her into is a bummer, but in the moment it seemed to be mitigated by hints that it was just the corporate-job/graphic design part that she was rejecting, and that she still had an artistic drive outside of work. But this character trait steadily withers away to a vestigial thing that shows up only slightly more often than Michael’s hockey hobby as her character beats steadily move into a series of traditional-wife-and-mom milestones and finding her more appropriate niche within Dunder Mifflin (Pam becoming office administrator is her own version of Michael/Dwight/Jim having to be secretly good at their jobs because the show ultimately accepts that the larger framework is legitimate and good).
Maddeningly, in the overall arc of the show, Jim gets out of the office… to run a sports marketing firm. In other words, a different kind of office work. Let’s just note for a second that the *only* outside life we ever see for Jim is an enthusiasm for Philadelphia sports teams, which is the blandest possible outside interest that can be given for a young American male character. On one hand, maybe that’s the point! There’s probably an argument to be made that Jim’s supposed to be as anodyne and flavorless as possible, to allow the maximum number of people to identify with him. But on the other, it’s frustrating as hell that as the show winds down, it bends itself to allow the extremely bland character to get the blandest possible exit while the character with the much more interesting non-work life slowly sets that aside to become more and more conventional.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL ADD UP TO?
Believe me, I’m well aware that at this point I’ve spent thousands of words overthinking a plate of beans with regard to a sitcom that ended a decade ago. But I think there’s value in doing that, especially since The Office was a cultural force in its day and is enjoying an extended afterlife as a meme generator and online reference point. To figure out The Office is to figure out one of the bigger bones in the skeleton supporting our current popular culture moment.
It’s obvious that in the past 30 years there’s been a lot of appetite for humor based on corporate culture; beyond The Office (and all of its different international flavors; part of me wants to do a deep compare and contrast between the US and UK versions of The Office, but an extreme lack of desire to think about Ricky Gervais is going to hold that back), Dilbert and Office Space also each cast their own long cultural shadows and stand on top of an even larger pile of lesser works. But the fact that these corporate satires have to be created and then live and breathe within the environment of late-stage capitalism means that they’re always going to wind up being stunted and containing weird compromises. Of the three, Office Space comes the closest to straight-up saying that the whole system is rotten and needs to be burned down; but it cloaks this in an uncomfortable pedestalizing of “simpler” types of jobs (and maybe that all comes out alright, but unpacking it would probably be its own essay). Dilbert… Well, Dilbert might have once seemed to subvert corporate culture, and might still seem to at the individual strip level, but in aggregate the strip’s politics combine with the creator’s public statements to morph into a weird, unsettling, counterintuitive statement that somehow all of this corporate bullshit is actually awesome.
The Office winds up somewhere in the middle. It can make fun of individuals within the corporate system, but can’t attack the system itself. Instead, it was essentially a comedy of manners that takes place at work. And on one level this is fine; the show is funny and satisfying to watch, and that’s the main thing we’re looking for out of network sitcoms. It’s probably asking too much to ask a mainstream tv show to serve up a serious critique of the culture in which it exists (although Office production alum Michael Schur sometimes seems to be attempting something like this with The Good Place). But on another level, the whole thing’s a little disheartening; the popularity of all of this corporate satire hints that people know something’s wrong with this setup and want to see it mocked, but the fact that this gets channeled into things that are ultimately fairly toothless and anodyne probably represents a missed opportunity. Rapacious capitalism is dehumanizing us every day and putting all life on the planet at peril; even if the reasons are understandable, it’s a goddamned shame that a lot of the public emotion about the system winds up getting hung up on “that’s what she said” jokes. No matter how funny they are.