Revisiting The Office

I haven’t been watching a lot of TV or movies this summer, but I did find myself revisiting The Office (the American version). I rewatched the first season while John Krasinski was doing his “Some Good News” online show and had an Office reunion, but then got sidetracked and didn’t look at it again once I finished that season. But then recently I overheard a conversation in the grocery store in which a teenage girl was talking to a woman I believe was her aunt about her obsession with The Office. Then I saw an article about how popular it was for lockdown viewing. The episodes are short, so it’s perfect for when you just want to watch a little of something without sitting there for a whole movie. I got out my DVDs and got into season 2.

Something that struck me was how sweet it was at its core. It’s about a terrible workplace with a clueless boss and annoying coworkers, but there’s still so much kindness there, mostly because of Jim. He certainly can be a jerk at times, and some of his pranks on Dwight can be a bit mean, but he’s also the heart of the office, the one who can pull everyone together and make them feel good. He notices when others are sad or upset and does things to make them feel better. He intervenes before the office awards ceremony to keep the clueless boss from giving out prizes that poke at people’s sore points, and his Office Olympics manage to find a strength for everyone.

And even the annoying coworkers and clueless boss aren’t necessarily bad people. They generally aren’t acting out of malice. Michael is selfish and acts out of self-interest, but he’s not intentionally cruel. He really does love his employees and wants them to love him.

All of this is a big difference from the British version, which may be funnier in ways, but it got pretty mean and nasty. Their boss is truly toxic, not simply clueless and immature.

The other thing I’ve noticed while rewatching and looking at it from a writer’s perspective is that they do such a good job of showing vs. telling, and how you can use subtext to show something that’s different from what we’re being told. In the early seasons, it seems like they’re showing us that Jim is the true leader in the office while Michael is mismanaging his people. There’s an episode about Michael trying to make the workplace “fun” with jokes and antics that actually make everyone uncomfortable. He’s afraid work won’t be fun anymore if he can’t forward jokes full of sexual innuendo. That’s followed by the “Office Olympics” episode about Jim making a boring day at the office while the boss is out fun for everyone in a way that makes everyone feel good while they still end up getting their work done. Or there’s the episode about a fire alarm in which we see Michael rushing out of the building first and then getting obsessed with showing his business and leadership acumen to the temp who’s in business school juxtaposed with Jim pulling everyone together with games while they’re stuck outside. It’s clear that Jim has more leadership skills than the actual boss does, and the terrible corporate structure doesn’t seem able to find and nurture his talents. If this were a realistic workplace, that office would probably have been a revolving door, with a lot of turnover, and upper management would never have figured out that Michael was the problem. They’d have prioritized keeping him, I suppose because he really was decent at sales, without realizing how much he cost them.

Meanwhile, the romantic storyline at this point in the series is an excellent use of subtext. It’s clear to us (and to the makers of the fictional documentary being filmed about the office) that Jim and Pam are in love, but in the first couple of seasons, that’s entirely subtext. Neither of them says anything overtly about it. They claim they’re just friends. Pam is engaged to someone else. But in their interview segments they praise each other. We see that she lights up around Jim but seems to wilt around her fiance. We see him react to her interactions with her fiance by asking out someone else (a pre-famous Amy Adams). Then we see from their interests how right Jim and Pam seem to be for each other and how wrong they are for their respective significant others. All without a single word about their feelings for each other — at least, not an honest word. It’s all told with little clues, facial expressions, and body language. I want to take notes, or attempt to write these scenes as though I were writing them in a novel to see how I’d describe what they show us and see if I can maintain the same subtext in prose.

Sometimes the show gets a little stressful to watch because I had a boss very much like Michael. He even had the same first name and a very similar hairstyle. He was less childish, so he didn’t have the aura of innocence underlying Michael’s selfishness, but he definitely was the kind of boss who wanted to make work “fun” by his definition of fun, which was a frat party. If you didn’t want to get drunk and didn’t want to spend your leisure time partying with your coworkers, you weren’t going to fit in very well and weren’t going to move up within the company. He was also very big on “loyalty,” but that was a one-way street. I’ve been away from that job for more than twenty years, so it’s a little easier to take with more distance than it was when the show first aired.

Fortunately, I’ve never worked with a real Dwight.

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