Saturday, May 18, 2013

800 Words: The Office - Made in America

Of all the NBC Thursday night shows of its generation, The Office was the best. None of these shows were truly and consistently ‘great’, but every one of them was a stellar attempt to make something better than an assembly line sitcom. And of all of them, perhaps The Office was easily the best. 30 Rock got justified plaudits for artistic consistency and integrity which The Office often lacked, but it was able to be so consistent because Tina Fey’s sensibility was always PG and tied to the ridiculousness of sketch comedy. Community was allegedly more intelligent; perhaps it was but for all Community’s high-concept humor, the show was never as funny as its most vocal supporters allege - and sometimes just clever in a way that’s humorlessly pretentious. Parks and Recreation is a wonderful show, but its aims are both smaller and larger than The Office. Parks and Rec often strains to show the entirety of the American political landscape within the confines of a small midwestern town’s government bureaucracy. It’s amazing how often Parks and Rec succeeds at doing precisely that, but it’s still not as amazing as The Office.

(My all-time favorite clip.)

Pam got it exactly right in the show’s last line when she observed that the most beautiful things are often the most ordinary. What makes The Office work, in country after country apparently, is that it’s concept is so universal - the workplace and the weird people who populate it - that it can be fleshed out with people so numbingly specific to the country in which it airs that each country could easily be people with whom they work, or live next to, or a relative. And every time The Office strains credulity with the over-the-topness of its antics, we have to wonder, are so many people we know less ridiculous?

(Dwight’s speech. Terrible sound, but probably the show’s emblematic scene...)

Let’s leave aside all the obvious flaws for a moment and the places where The Office went severely wrong, because it’s so strange to think about how rare a show like The Office is. Here is a TV show which had thirty main characters over nine years and well over a hundred secondary characters which longtime watchers could identify by name, and virtually all of them played excellently by their actors. The Office is a world so detailed that it couldn’t be anywhere else, and yet it was exactly like everywhere we’ve ever known. And like everywhere we know, it shows a business culture on an inexorable path to self-destruction. The world of The Office was a perfect indictment of contemporary America, made just in time for the greatest recession of our lives.

(Michael v. Toby)

The Office was a comedy, but it was a comedy in the minorest key imaginable. In many ways, the show was still darker than the British version upon which it was founded. The British Office was pure misanthropy. It saw its characters as irredeemably flawed and banal, completely deserving of their mediocrity. It had a very British conceit that these workers should ‘know their place’, and therefore asked for all their humiliations by aspiring to be more than they were. The American Office, inconsistent and sloppy as the British version was reliable, is a far more ambitious comedy. It began on the premise that all things are possible in America, and then asks why life is not better than it is. If the American Dream exists, then why has nobody lived it?

Rolling Stone referred to The Office as the emblematic show of our time. I wouldn’t quite go that far (especially now that Arrested Development returns next week), but I would say that The Office, during its many best moments, was more than that. It was the most American goddamn thing on TV.

And it wasn’t just America, it was pure Pennsylvania too. Every one of the NBC comedies had a character that existed in a life past the 2-D cardboardness of pure sitcomery (even good sitcoms). In 30Rock, it was Jack Donaghy. In Parks and Recreation, it’s Ron Swanson. In The Office, it was, obviously, Dwight Schrute.

Dwight Schrute is the scariest man on television. Dwight is not a villain, but he was a perfect explanation of how Americans become villains. Dwight Schrute is the American ‘system’ gone awry, with self-reliance gone into caricature, corporate hierarchies becoming a fetish, intelligence finding its worst applications, and family upbringing making you completely unprepared for the modern world’s complexities. He is perhaps the most specifically drawn character of his time, and when we enter the world of Dwight Schrute, we enter a world in which the rules of reality bend almost 90 degrees. If you want to understand the Tea Party, look no further than Dwight.

But you could expound in the same way about Stanley, or Oscar, or Phyllis, or Jan, or Creed, or Meredith, or David Wallace, or Bob Vance, or Mose (!!!), or the fantastic stupidity of Kevin (you don’t really need Kevin, but come on...), or even Jim and Pam - perhaps the sole believably functional marriage in TV history, and a genuine inspiration for couples looking to make it work everywhere in American cities and towns where the people around them are just as ridiculous as those at Dunder Mifflin.

But ultimately, even in his absence, it was Michael Scott’s show. The Office was a show about incompetence, and there was no one in the world more incompetent than Michael Scott. If Dwight is how Americans become villains, then Michael is the reason that villains like Dwight will take over America. Dwight is now Dunder Mifflin's boss, and while the show softened him at the end, how long are we really expected to believe this 'nice Dwight' will last before he begins a reign of lightening terror that ends in a zero hour orgy of blood?

For all his terrible qualities, and perhaps because of them, it is impossible to dislike Michael. But it’s Michael Scott’s very gullibility that both makes him a terrible boss, and inevitably the man who becomes the boss. Like so many Americans in today’s world, he believes that the very best which life has to offer is his for the taking, and can never understand just how wrong he is. It was the perfect role for Steve Carell, who has got to be Hollywood’s most gifted improviser, and he set the tone for dozens of actors to stretch their capabilities in one of the great ‘actors’ shows’ there has ever been. When you hear about the other people considered for Michael’s role - Paul Giamatti, Martin Short, Bob Odenkirk, Hank Azaria - it becomes interesting to think about how different the show might become. Only Odenkirk could have brought even a sliver of the same bumbling genius to the role - Giamatti would have been too serious (and a waste of a truly great actor), Martin Short too hammy, Hank Azaria too placid. It’s a shame that Steve Carell now wastes his abilities on focus-tested paydays, because there’s a frenzy of underused talent in that actor which only The Office used properly.

The Office first appeared in 2005 - which will perhaps be remembered as television’s ‘Golden Age’, an age when The Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development, South Park, Deadwood, and Curb Your Enthusiasm were operating at peak form. When Arrested Development comes back next week, we’ll see whether that ‘Golden Age’ can revive its magic ten years later. Arrested Development was a show from the early Bush years, when savage fears of a world we didn’t understand required savage satire (more on that in the weeks to come hopefully). The Office premiered in 2005, and became America’s best-known show around 2007. It was a show from the period when we Americans had to accept that the world was changing, and that America was completely ill-equipped to deal with the world as it was now constituted. There is nothing that becomes contemporary America like ineptitude, and no piece of art which showed better just how inept we are.

1 comment:

  1. I am making a list of those who believe that Parks and Rec is inferior to The'll be a dark day for those on it. Dick Nixon demands more Burt Macklin.