The Office on Repeat
The only television series that I’ve watched and re-watched is The Office (USA, 2005-2013). I know. There are many other T.V. shows out there. But, I don’t watch them. Instead, when I open up Netflix, the only recently watched show is The Office–and I click on it time and time again. The characters–my characters–populate the Scranton office that is also my computer screen, and the pixelated actors blur into life. I am trying to explain to you why. Why do I return to this show, its repeating narrative, this Television series of the past?
Because it has become a place of comfort. Because I feel like I know the characters. Because it is both ironic and filled with love. Oh yea, and it’s damn funny.
The show centers around a regional branch of Dunder Mifflin, a small paper company that is constantly fighting for survival in the world of big box retailers. The head of this branch and the character synonymous with the show is Michael Scott (Steve Carell). In many ways, he is the ultimate exaggeration of the worst boss you can imagine. He’s self centered, socially unaware, obnoxious, and rude. He can’t stop telling “that’s-what-she-said jokes” or forwarding raunchy emails. He insults and objectifies his employees. He calls Phyllis (Phyllis Smith), one of the saleswomen, a grandma even though she repeatedly reminds him that they are the same age. In one episode, he tells Darryl (Craig Robinson), the black warehouse foreman, that he can’t be Santa Claus at the office Christmas party because well, it’s implied. He’s not an effective leader, failing to fire an employee in the first episode when the employee tells him “No, fire somebody else.” In a way, Michael Scott is just the typical menace, the typical “bad boss”. When I watch Michael, I think of all the bad “bosses” in my own life–my hockey coach, that one professor, my boss at my country club summer job, and, sometimes, my parents.
“That show’s just too dry,” says my best friend about The Office. I disagree completely. Yes, the show is ironic. Yes, Michael and other characters say and do plenty of ridiculous and shameful things. But I think the show is anything but dry. The array of characters, Michael included, are filled with an optimistic humanity, with love.
In one episode, when Michael doesn’t get invited on a corporate retreat, he heads into the woods on his own. Then, in the vein of Bear Grills, he cuts the sleeves off his suit in the sunny afternoon sun, only to try to tie them back on when the sun sets. He burns his foot on a George Foreman and hobbles around the office, loudly complaining of everybody’s lack of sympathy. He can’t keep a secret, spilling the beans about Jim’s (John Krasinksi) crush on Pam (Jenna Fischer) and about his own affair with his corporate boss. He’s a naïve, hot mess. Still, I can’t help but smile at his eagerness for people to like him. I can’t help but feel badly for his lack of a spouse and the children that he always wanted. When he finally finds “the one,” I am so happy for him.
At one point Michael says: "I think the main difference between me and Donald Trump is that I get no pleasure out of saying the words ‘you're fired!’ He just makes people sad, and an office can't function that way. No way. I think if I had a catchphrase, it would be ‘you're hired,’ and you can work here as long as you want." Somehow, I wish that Michael Scott was the President right now. That’s the joy of The Office. At the same time as it makes fun of life–the tyrants of everybody’s office– it is also imbued with an undeniable sense of goodness.
And I haven’t even gotten to the the other characters. Yet, before I talk about these other characters, I must consider another aspect of the series that allows me this level of connection–the cinematography, directed primarily by Randall Einhorn. The camera crew films The Office with a single-camera set-up so there aren’t any drastic cuts that sharply break from reality. In fact, the camera work emulates that of a documentary with its shaky close-ups and lack of any laugh track like in other sitcoms. The camera crew even seems to interview the characters who then speak directly to me, the audience. At times, the characters even glance at the camera, acknowledging the voyeur with their trademark looks: Angela (Angela Kinsey) rolling her eyes, Jim grinning guiltily, and Pam looking uncertainly at us. In this way, the series verges on a family film. With this type of cinematography, the cement rectangle of a building in industrial PA becomes a world within itself, a home for both the characters and the viewer.
Although Michael is the main character (until he leaves the show after season 7), the series wouldn’t function without the other characters. First, the brotherly and antagonistic relationship between Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) and Jim. Dwight, the dorky one, always wears a brown suit with a mustard colored shirt. He owns a Beet Farm, earns a black belt in karate, loves bears and Battlestar Galactica, and is perhaps the most loyal character of any story that I have ever witnessed. He’s loyal to Dunder Mifflin, to Michael, and (despite mercy-killing her cat) to his love-interest Angela. On the other hand, Jim is tall, athletic, handsome, and dorky in a more understated way. Jim’s position at Dunder Mifflin seems like a dead end, and he whittles his days away flirting with Pam, the receptionist (I’ll get to her later), and pranking Dwight. Now, Jim’s pranks are some of the funniest moments of the show. He famously puts Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O, imitates him, moves his desk to the bathroom, sends him letters from his future self and–gosh I could never list them all. These antics annoy the heck out of Dwight, who constantly complains about him to Michael. To me, the best part of these pranks are that they aren’t malicious. Sure, they’re damn annoying (Dwight is pretty annoying in his own right as well), but they are never truly malevolent. In a way, the pranks become a form of affection. Thus, when Jim becomes the best man at Dwight’s wedding, it’s not really a surprise.
Then there are the others, where to start… There’s Kelly (Mindy Kaling), the talkative customer sales rep, and her on-again-off-again relationship with Ryan (B.J. Novak), who starts as “the temp” before moving up the ranks of the company to VP and back to Temp again. There’s Oscar (Oscar Nuñez), a gay Mexican man who is also the office’s know-it-all. There’s Darryl, the cool warehouse foreman who intimidates Michael and eventually moves upstairs into the office. There’s Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), the Cornell grad who can’t make a sale but won’t stop talking about his acapella days at his Alma mater. Then, of course, Stanley (Leslie David Baker), the overweight black man who plays crosswords instead of working. Phyllys, the overweight and undeniably grandma-like women who knits and, still, boasts of her sex life with her husband. Creed (Creed Bratton), the oddity, even for this group of characters, whose personality neither the characters nor I can understand. Erin, the replacement receptionist who is sweet but extremely ditsy. There’s Kevin (Brian Baumgartner), the accountant who can count pies but, unfortunately, not numbers. Meredith (Kate Flannery), the drunk single mother. Angela, Dwight’s lover, is the hypocritical, uptight blonde. Jan (Melora Hardin) is the overly aggressive professional woman. Finally, there’s Toby (Paul Lieberstein), the HR rep who nobody, not even me, likes. And there are others–exaggerations of stereotypes as well. Sometimes my friends and I joke around by deciding which characters we resemble most. Yet, the characters are able to move beyond mere stereotypes by injecting their very tropes with moments of immense, pure, relatable humanity.
Michael, the bad-boss, goes to Pam’s first art exhibit when nobody else does. Phyllys and Stanley cover for Jim when he takes a part-time job in Philadelphia. Meredith takes Pam out for a beer when Pam is having a rough time. Oscar and Angela become roommates even after he has an affair with her husband. Jim saves Dwight, his arch nemesis, from being fired unfairly. These types of moments pervade the show. These caricatures are also people who offer each other compassion in the face of the relatable struggles of life. The juxtaposition of this humanity against the exaggerated portrayal of stereotypes draws irony to the the concept of stereotypes itself.
And then there’s Pam, the shy, imperfect, red-headed receptionist. I didn’t forget her; I was saving her for last. She, not the dramatic and goofy other characters, lies at the heart of my connection with the series.
She’s pretty, but not hot, and the other male characters objectify her like I do. In the beginning of the show, she is engaged to the wrong guy, and flirts constantly with Jim. Eventually, she chooses Jim, but gets pregnant before the wedding. She questions her relationship despite the match seeming so perfect that most viewers are envious. She is flawed, but that’s why I adore her. I want her kind words, her innocent laugh, and yes, I am jealous of her relationship.
I go through her romance story again and again, like lines sloping and curving on an infinite plane. She shares Jim’s earbuds in the parking lot after work. In the heat of a drunken binge at Chiles she kisses Jim. Why can’t she see that she loves him? She eats pizza with Jim on the roof of the building. It is a slow-moving tide, but it takes me into it every time. They get married by the captain of a Niagra Falls Tour boat. Then she doubts him again. Pam’s–our–pain, worry, love, and fear. Lapping. Sometimes I wish I was Jim, happy, successful, and so sure of his relationship with Pam. Does this mean that I too am in love with her?
Once, one of my macho hockey-playing friends said, “God, Pam gets so annoying. Every time I watch the show it gets worse. If I were Jim, I’d break up with her.” I wanted to defend her like she was my little sister or lover, to scream no and say: Pam is imperfect, like life, and that is why she is so good. But, we were teenage boys, and I kept quiet.
In an interview, Jenna Fischer said that she loved Jim. I, like every other fan clicked the link in the hope that fantasy was reality, but she was talking about acting. She explained that a part of herself was in the show, and therefore a part of her would always love Jim. I, somehow, feel a similar way except that I’m only a viewer. As a writer, to create something that inspires this type of connection is an incredible goal. I want to leave something on the page that both gives somebody else company and makes me less alone. I want to make art out of life.
“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things,” says Pam in the very last episode of the series when she talks about the show’s metafictional representation. “Isn’t that kinda the point?”
And I start watching The Office all over again. –Sage Marshall
Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations.
The Office (USA, 2005-2013)
Developed by Greg Daniels
Produced by Deedle-Dee Productions and Reveille Productions