On Television, Part Three: The Office


After a year in San Francisco, we moved to Oakland, and had inherited Lucas’ grandmother’s tv. We used it only for watching DVD’s because it didn’t receive a signal, and we didn’t want to have to pay for cable. But then, one day, miraculously, cable appeared. We suddenly had cable television and we hadn’t ordered it and didn’t have to pay for it. I was still in graduate school, and still liked having an escape. I didn’t exactly get hooked, I just couldn’t afford to because I always had schoolwork to do, but I developed a watching pattern. As soon as I had finished my work, I would turn on the tv and watch until it was time for bed. This is the year that The Office (American) came out. I just happened to catch the pilot. I was immediately intrigued. I had seen the British version, and had admired it, but I had found it too squirmy and painful to watch. It had a sort of relentless quality, which is what so many love about it. But the American Office felt different. It was uncomfortable, but there was something else to relieve this discomfort—heart. And it was funny. Our cable went on for about six months, and I happily enjoyed watching my prime time slot. And then one day, as mysteriously as it had appeared in our lives, the cable disappeared. And that was the end of watching the office. For a while. It was not until I was pregnant and living in Mexico that I got to watch it again. The Office got me through the last long days of pregnancy and the first painful months of motherhood.

It is hard and strange to write about a show that I have spent so much time watching. (I have watched most of the episodes from season 1-7 dozens of times.) So what is it about The Office? What makes it my favorite sitcom of all time? Mostly it’s the characters—what makes them so lovable or at least watchable? As with the other shows mentioned in this ongoing piece, they are deeply flawed, and unlikable if you knew them in real life. How can it be that this group of people, each with their own brand of unfavorable human trait, working in an ugly office of cubicles under florescent lighting, for a failing paper supply company in a two bit town, be so appealing? I would say it is the same thing that makes all sitcoms appealing. It is precisely that familiarity, that we recognize our shadow selves in them. We have all worked at ugly offices doing jobs that were not particularly enlivening with people who could be terribly annoying or mean, or shallow, or petty, and occasionally charming.

Of the many jobs that I have held in my life, I had one particular job that was not at all glamorous, but, because it was the longest held job of my life (almost 3 years), I have a special fondness for it in my heart. From August 2001 to March 2004, I was the publications coordinator at the headquarters of a children’s social services agency in the Wall Street area of Manhattan. I have referred to this job here before (Eleven Years, Focus, Job List). I developed a real fondness for the people I worked with—each was a unique character, and each had a distinct role in the office. A sitcom could have definitely been made about this office, as one could about any office, if you studied it carefully enough. The experience of being part of something, a borrowed family that is given to you at random, that you have shared experiences with day after day after day--that is the material for sitcoms. Going to this job was a great comfort to me, because it provided a stable place while the rest of my life was in perpetual flux. The three years I was there spanned over different relationships and career choices: I started the job when I still pursuing acting because it was flexible and part time, and then I went into my rock band phase and then, finally there was my applying to grad school phase. I got to experience asking for a raise, and getting it, adding skills (I learned Quark and became the in house graphic designer), new employees, I took on volunteer work (there was a volunteer tutoring program within the office). I grew as the agency grew. At the office, our private lives commingle with our work lives. And as the years pass, we find ourselves interconnected with the people we work with. After all, if we work full time in an office, we spend more time with the people we work with than the people we live with.

Now, this brings me back to The Office. I believe the self conscious, narcissistic, petty, insecure, pathetic, invasive, power hungry, and yet somehow, lovable Michael Scott, who I believe is the greatest television character of all time, would agree with me. As the boss (for the first seven seasons), his raison d'être is to make the office like a home, and the people in it like a family. He will stop at nothing to make this so. He wants to not only know the personal lives of all of his employees, he wants to be the central figure in them--as best friend, father, son, nephew. He abuses his power as Manager not so that he can be above everyone, but so that he can use it as leverage to get closer to everyone. Everyone, that is, except for his nemeses Toby, from Human Resources. Toby’s job is to bring rationality, rules and boundaries to Michael’s exploits, so naturally Michael hates him with a fervor and disgust that I have not witnessed in any other sitcom. Most of his employees, with the exception of Dwight and Andy (who have their own competitive power struggle) resist his efforts for intimacy, but as the seasons go on, there is a loosening of their resistance. Some of the characters, especially Jim and Pam, develop a real caring for Michael. The moments when Jim or Pam make gestures of real kindness to Michael, is if he were their embarrassing yet beloved kid brother, are very subtle and deeply moving.

During my time studying and performing improvisation, there were several rules and guidelines that we played by. One of them was the idea of heightening. It is important to take a joke or an idea to the most extreme place you can, while at the same time, staying true to your character. The reason The Office is so funny is because it does just that. The situations and events that occur on the show are absolutely absurd if you were to write them down: Michael sleeps with Pam’s, his receptionist’s, mother at her wedding; the office members have a funeral for a dead bird in the parking lot; Michael hosts a café disco in the empty office space that was the office space he used when he quit Dunder Mifflin and started up his own paper company. However unreal those scenarios may seem, they are always believable because they all emerge out of the needs of the character.

When I was an actor in NY, I took a class called Mask, where I learned about the first improvisers and comedians—Commedia dell'arte all'improvviso of 16th Century Italy. They were traveling troupes of performers who wore masks, and performed improvised comedy based on sketches. These troupes also featured the first actresses (before then, female characters were played by men). In my mask class we learned that all comic characters from situation comedies emerge from this first group of stock characters. One of the central themes of these stock characters was the two lovers and the elders who got in their way, and the servants (fools) who helped them reconnect. The basic scenario of lovers torn apart, is at the heart of many modern sitcoms. Of course this was one of the central themes of The Office for the first three seasons between Jim and Pam. It is often said a sitcom is ruined once the two main love interests (who love each other from afar) get together. But The Office has gotten around this pitfall by having an exceptional ensemble cast to choose additional love stories from after the union of Jim and Pam.  Angela and Dwight, Ryan and Kelly, Erin and Andy, and then Michael and Holly.

Another important element of acting that I learned from studying and performing improvisation is playing with status. Status, which is either high or low, is an interesting way to convey a character’s relationship to another character. There are certain physical ways to express status. For example, high status people don’t look other people in the eye, but look slightly above, they take up a lot of space and tend to move and talk more slowly. Conversely, low status characters tend to take up little space, look people in the eye, or down, move and talk quickly, and keep their hands close to their body. Status play is a key dynamic of character interaction in The Office. Within the office each character is clearly high or low status, though for many, his or her status changes depending on who he or she is interacting with. For example, Dwight is high status with his cousin Mose, and with at times with some of his co-workers, but with Michael, he is low status. His competitive and contentious relationship with Jim is a constant game of status, with Jim always winning. But then it is so fun to watch when the smug and cool Jim has his status lowered when Charles Minor, the new boss (for a few episodes) does not see his charm or appreciate his low work ethic. And Michael, he has status purely because he is the boss, but his high status is so precarious, so thin, that he is continually finding ways to distract people from seeing how little status he really has. The moment he has the opportunity for a status boost, he gives his low opinion of himself away be becoming overly excited about it.

The other aspect of The Office that makes it so special and satisfying to watch is the wide story arc of the characters. Of course, over eight years (it has just started its ninth and final season) the characters have to develop. And yet, with most long running sitcoms the characters don’t change all that much. Sure the characters’ hairstyles are updated to match the current styles (thank god for Jerry Seinfeld), and their relationships with each other change and grow, but each character usually ends up basically the same as where they started. This is not so in The Office, not at least with its main characters. As the years pass, Michael becomes more sweet and less desperate, Jim becomes less self satisfied, Dwight’s character doesn’t change overall, but, as mentioned earlier, his character can be quite changeable depending on what is happening and who he is relating to. Pam’s story arc is the most compelling and palpable. Pam starts out as a very timid, mousy receptionist with badly permed hair who doesn’t stand up for herself. As the show progresses, not only does her hairstyle become slick and her makeup become thick, but she starts to develop a voice for herself. She blossoms creatively, she speaks up for herself, she sticks up for Michael, to the point of quitting her job so that she can join his new paper company. She goes from receptionist, to sales person, and finally (in an ingenious plan of manipulating her coworkers) to self-appointed Office Manager. It is such fun to watch Pam shed her meek self and become who she really is, which is partly because she allows herself to love who she really loves.

I know that I can go on a lot longer, but I will stop here to say that really at the bottom of it all, The Office is full of heart. Not only is it the funniest, most realistic, most absurd sitcom of all time, with incredibly talented actors playing fleshed out characters, it is also the most loving. Even though the episodes are rife with animosity, horrific offensiveness and embarrassment, there are equal amounts of love and heartbreak. In the end (at least at the end of Michel’s reign) Michael gets what he had wanted all along: a family. And as I write this, I realize that essentially that is what all these television shows are about: family.

Addendum: I so far have watched and own most of Seasons 1-7. There are two seasons left to see, the one from last year and the one currently showing on primetime. Even though Michael Scott is not in them, I will definitely be watching the next two seasons. It will be a sad day when it is all over. But not really so much, because I will be continuingmy own personal syndication, by watching the episodes over and over on my computer.