Monday, March 24, 2008

The Office

I have been watching The Office through Netflix and am now halfway through season two. I want to grab one episode as emblematic of what the show does, and then raise a question.

In a first season episode, boss Michael Scott makes everyone go through his version of a diversity seminar – painfully-funny scenes where casual racism is tossed around alternate with just regular funny scenes where we are, for example, making fun of Dwight for doing idiotic things. The Dwight scenes are generally not painful, because we feel he deserves it, as we do not think the rest of the office deserves being encouraged to spout racist things at their co-workers because Michael has the bad idea this is somehow helping people work through their “issues.” The day of the diversity seminar is also the day Jim expects to land a big account as he does every year on this day -- and pick up a huge commission. The seminar prevents him from doing so and he looses the account to Dwight, but in the seminar Pam gets sleepy and puts her head on Jim’s shoulder for a moment. He looks moved, and in the ending beat of the episode says that today was not a bad day.

The Office is what Brad calls “not really a Geoff Klock show” but I find these scenes moving enough to want to see more. I avoided the Office after seeing the first season of the British version and a few episodes of the new one until my sister insisted I see the Whedon directed episode since I am such a Whedon fan. It featured a terribly moving scene in which Michael and Pam comfort each other at her art show, and from then on I was hooked. But I keep returning to something I am not sure how I feel about and wanted to get your opinions on.

Does the show carry a kind of admirable philosophy of life in which your dreary, stupid, awful day-to-day existence can be redeemed by the smallest of perfect moments – as 19 minutes of uncomfortable scenes can be redeemed by one tiny, beautiful connection between Pam and Jim? Or is the show kind of frighteningly conservative, convincing us to be satisfied with our dreary, stupid, day-to-day existence by telling us that these tiny moments are enough, when maybe we should demand more, not from our television shows – on the show it is enough, at least for me -- but from our lives?

(I got this idea from a Slavoj Zizek comment on MASH. Zizek discusses Hawkeye’s use of subversive humour; Zizek argues it is not as subversive as it seems – instead of subverting the military system he hates so much, it actually allows him to do his job more effectively, which at the end of the day is all the army really cares about. It actually is not that smart a comment, since it is a question MASH asks itself, especially when Hawkeye receives a letter from a kid and describes his saving the lives of soldiers as “weapons repair”).

8 comments:

scott91777 said...

As I get older, I'm more inclined to agree with the 'little things are enough' philosophy. Our TV shows often demand that we expect too much. I think the Pam & Jim relationship is a prime example of this:

On one level, I should be turned off by this, in the sense that it's kind of like the typical "will they/won't they trap" that every sit-com falls into (i.e. Sam & Diane, Rachel & Ross etc.)but, with Pam & Jim, it is done in a much more compelling way and I didn't realize it until just now.

Rather than the melodrama of the afformentioned sit-com scenarios, Pam & Jims relationship is one where it is the LITTLE things that matter. The small perfect moments. I think that, for far too long, sit-coms have been feeding us a line that our relationships should be filled with sexual tension and love/hate fall outs. With Pam & Jim it is done so much more subtlety. Someone who wants to have what Rachel & Ross have will never be satisfied because that kind of relationship simply doesn't happen in the real world. And while I'm not saying that Pam & Jim are exactly the most realistic couple ever depicted, there relationship is certainly a more attainable one for us mere mortals.

Michael Scott, on the other hand, is a prime example of someone who has watched too many TV shows and movies and thinks that what life actually SHOULD be like. He craves those big moments and most of his buffoonery is the result of them trying to create them in his own life.

Scott91777 said...

Just to clarify:

Above I said "Pam & Jim's relationship is a prime example of this" ('this' being TV shows making us expect too much) What I meant to say is that is was a reaction against 'this'

Is there a way to edit our own comments here?

hcduvall said...

Re: Zizek's commentary. Huh...I would think the fact they're doctors makes that critique further obtuse regarding the show...what would be a less inefficient hospital that wouldn't also be immoral? Plus, MASH didn't have a laugh track (or sometimes doesn't? I know it was never meant to) which as a sitcom puts it on a different tone than it's cousins. Sounds needlessly contrarian to me.

Speaking of tone...re: the Office. While it isn't one of my shows the same way anything I can't get clearly with rabbit ears isn't my show, I'll say that I don't know how much the show has little moments of magic as a guiding trajectory, as much as it simply doesn't force the characters to exposit their feeling aloud, and the actors are allowed to, you know, act without a loud proclamation. Maybe that's the same thing.

I like Scott's take on Michael Scott though, so maybe there is a plan...regardless I don't think there's enough to say the show is making any calls about accepting routine and in exchange for little moments as much as good moments and lasting moments come from relationships, and other people, and not the big account.

Prof Fury said...

Well, I think this is a question The Office is explicitly engaged with, too, as much as MASH was. I don't know how far along you are, Geoff, and so I don't want to spoil anything, but this the very conflict that the "Casino Night" episode turns on (its aftermath, too), and it's a tension the pre-hiatus episodes of the current season were beginning to tease out.

I suppose I'd quibble with Scott's comment only slightly by saying that the problem with seeing Jim and Pam's relationship in the first season or so as a more realistic depiction of a relationship in which "the little things matter" is this: In a real romantic relationship, those "little things" function as metonyms for a much deeper, more complicated, perhaps inarticulable intimacy. (E.g., you and your wife are cooking dinner, and your wife puts exactly the CD you wanted to hear, even though you didn't know you were in the mood to hear it, into the over-the-counter CD player, and you feel like your heart is going to pop. Just for instance.) While for Jim and Pam in the Diversity Day episode, all they have is little moments that aren't sustained or enriched by a real relationship underlying it. If The Office were saying that those sweet-but-disconnected -- stunted, in a way -- moments are enough, it would be deeply problematic.

I love that characterization of Michael Scott, though, Scott. My favorite example is from the episode where they all have to go make sales calls in the field, and he's in the parking lot shouting "It's like the Amazing Race! Go! Go! Go!" And people are asking, oh, are there prizes? Do we need to rush back? And he clearly hasn't thought his example out past the excitement of IT'S THE AMAZING RACE GO GO GO.

neilshyminsky said...

Geoff wrote: "Or is the show kind of frighteningly conservative, convincing us to be satisfied with our dreary, stupid, day-to-day existence by telling us that these tiny moments are enough, when maybe we should demand more"

I suppose that the Office can get off the hook because there's a teleology to it - we know that this tiny moment will invariably lead to larger moments and a relationship.

In general, though, it does seem rather conservative - and, in fact, I think these kind of conciliatory moments at the end of otherwise depressing episodes are pretty common among TV shows. I don't really have time to reflect on it, but I'd suspect that you could construct a decent list of programs that teach the same lesson of living for those brief, happy moments among your otherwise depressing existence. (Though they are convincing enough, of course, that, like Jim, you don't necessarily realize your existence is otherwise depressing.)

Matthew J. Brady said...

Interesting discussion. I think I would go with the positive interpretation, but maybe I'm an optimist that way. Or a romantic, or whatever. The show is great with that though, letting the actors deliver the smaller moments without hitting you over the head with drama. And that's a great interpretation of Michael Scott; he expects life to be like TV. I love that moment in the Casino Night show when he thought he was going to be caught in the classic "two dates at once, and don't let them find out about each other" plot, but the charade ended at the earliest possible moment. I also think the writing is excellent. the characters are all pretty deep, not reduced to one aspect. Michael isn't just a moron who expects life to be like TV; he also believes himself to be a great boss, gets caught up in crazy schemes, inserts himself into his employees' personal lives, etc. Dwight isn't just a nerdy doofus; he's also a hard worker, he has a family farm backstory, he wants to be accepted while still "hating" Jim. And while it would be easy to make Michael and Dwight the villains, they get their own little triumphs and emotional moments in the midst of their nutty antics. For such a cynical show about depressing workday life, it's got a great emotional core, and that's why I love it so much.

I should also say, the first season was pretty enjoyable (other than the first episode, which originally put me off the show), but it followed the British version of the show a bit too closely. It didn't get really good until they were able to break free and move in their own direction; that allowed them to really develop a lot of the secondary characters and come up with plots that fit these characters better. They've since gone on to make it probably the best sitcom on TV.

j.liang said...

Or is the show kind of frighteningly conservative, convincing us to be satisfied with our dreary, stupid, day-to-day existence by telling us that these tiny moments are enough...?

Jim and Pam don't just grit their teeth and make their way through the "dreary, stupid, awful day-to-day existence" of Dunder Mifflin. They are active observers and particpants. Jim is always commenting on what's happening via his knowing looks to the camera. Pam keeps Jim updated on what Michael is doing. They challenge each other to make up fake diseases when the health plan is up for review.

If the analogy holds, then I suppose we're meant to engage with and enjoy the nineteen minutes of uncomfortable scenes as well, although I'm not entirely certain what that means. :)

Voice Of The Eagle said...

"Does the show carry a kind of admirable philosophy of life in which your dreary, stupid, awful day-to-day existence can be redeemed by the smallest of perfect moments – as 19 minutes of uncomfortable scenes can be redeemed by one tiny, beautiful connection between Pam and Jim?"

It's my experience that is how life is, so yeah.

Love, love, love.