Thursday, December 22, 2011

Life As An Office

The Horrors--"Still Life" (mp3)

One of the many ways that I have ended up wasting hours of "down time" during the first days of this Christmas break has been watching episodes of The Office.

It's so easy. On Netflix, as played through the Wii, as soon as one 22-minute episode is finished, we simply click on the next one and keep going and keep going and keep going. It's like crack, or, as Ryan on the show says, "I love how people who have never done crack compare everything to crack." So maybe it isn't like crack. Maybe it's more like inertia--it's far easier to watch one more episode than it is to get up and do anything else, so there's always that one more. Until we got to the end, and then we had to face our loss.

I'm not even kidding. I started out, all those years ago, as an Office snob. Big surprise. Yeah, I was one of those who experienced The Office first through the original British version created by Ricky Gervais. For years, I refused even glance at the American version. "The British version is superior, " I would pronounce, without proof. Then Netflix happened and soon I was "cracking" my way through one episode after another of the first season on my computer (the TV hookup was a year away at that time).

Some 150 episodes later, it's very easy for me to pronounce the American version as by far the superior reasons, for the very reasons that undermine the original:

1. The characters are endearing.
2. The characters are endearing.
3. The characters are endearing.

While the British version was like cringing at an accidental stumbling upon a bad wreck that you don't want to see but that you can't turn away from, the American version, perhaps simply because it has been around so long, turns these walking disasters into people that I can't help but care about. If that violates the original comic conception, so what?

What happens instead is that as longtime viewers connect with the characters, the characters become more and more real. Based on the last couple of days, I would say that this quality really shines when one watches many episodes or seasons back to back. Sure, some of the characters are static and somewhat one dimensional, but the main characters develop all kinds of nuances over the course of hours.

There's one episode in particular that haunts me with its illumination of reality. In it, Michael and co. are being repeatedly bested by a rival salesman (Timothy Olyphant), so they attempt first to outsell him, second to spy on him, and, finally, to hire him for their company, Dunder-Mifflin.

What intrigues me so much is what happens when Michael Scott hires him. The people who work at the office, including the salesmen who are losing sales to him, are outraged. To attempt to win them over, Michael asks this question: "How do you want your life to be? Better? Worse? Or the same?"

Naturally, he assumes that they will say "better." Naturally, he is wrong. Almost in unison, when asked if they want their lives to be better, worse, or the same, they respond, "The same."

The same. That one answer, that one episode, whacks me like Maxwell's silver hammer. "Oh, my God," I think, "these aren't just caricatures, these aren't just characters being played for comedy. These are real people. These are me and the people I work with and the mass of men." And that is powerfully painful. The ways that ambition is either overarching or underwhelming, the inability of all of us to get beyond ourselves, the petty rivalries and slights and infighting--all are too real.

(And do any of us really want to see a "rival salesman" or any other outsider have to come in and rescue us?)

Saddled with a narcississtic boss, a dysfunctional workplace, a dead-end job and a local living and working world where things happen for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with fairness or logic or hard work, people would rather that things stay as they are than risk a change that appears it would make things better. With very few exceptions, that is my office, your office, and The Office.

The powerful impact of The Office is, at best, bittersweet. While I would not hesistate to give the show the label "comic genius" and while I can just as easily not count the number of times that the show has made me laugh until there were tears in my eyes, the show has also forced me to recognize that the lives it depicts, the ways that it reflects my life are hard to acknowledge as true. There are some mirrors that I don't necessarily want to look into.


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troutking said...

I'm going to continue to ignore the very important point you make and simply comment on the show. The only thing superior about the British show is that they stopped before it declined. The Office should have ended after season 5. That said, I love the first five seasons and you are exactly right. Ricky Gervais probably IS an ass and Steve Carell probably IS a nice guy and their characters reflect that. Michael Scott is one of the alltime great sitcom characters.

BeckEye said...

I agree with the above comment regarding the American Office. (I still haven't seen more than 1-2 episodes of the British version, so I have no real opinion on it.) It really has gone downhill in the last few years, and now that Steve Carell is gone, I find it nearly unwatchable. Plus, I'm usually so spent after watching Community and Parks and Rec that I can't take any more humor.