It Was Always A Lousy Job
Why The Office Never Worked for Me, Part 1
Over the last several years — especially during the pandemic — there has been a near deification of NBC’s The Office. The series was beloved when it was on the air, but after it left its reached heights that I don’t think even the creators would’ve expected. The series has become one of the most streamed shows, there are several major podcasts and rewatches going on and it continues to rerun everywhere. (During the height of the pandemic, Comedy Central has devoted anywhere from two to three of its nights and much of its daytime slots to The Office marathons, which may sadly say more for the state of the network than anything else.)
Now I understand than in a period where everybody is working from home, the nostalgia for a show that glorified the dullness of your work life would be understandable. But I can’t for the life of me understand why so many people would embrace this series more than any other workplace comedy. When it was on the air, I put a tremendous about of effort into trying to see what so many people saw in it. And after watching the first five seasons (the creative peak according to fans) I still can’t find anything entertaining or amusing about it. So I figured, given the current worship of this series which is only likely to become even greater now that it is the foundation of NBC’s new streaming app Peacock, now would be a good time to look back.
Any discussion of The Office must begin with its origin in Britain under the auspices of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais. I can’t in good conscience do so, however, because I never watched it and have no plans too. This is mainly due to my utter loathing of everything Ricky Gervais does. With the lone exception of his HBO series Extras, I have never found a single thing about him funny. His smarmy, bad music hall insult comic shtick has never appealed to me at all. I have no understanding why the Golden Globes keeps asking him to host, considering he is charmless, smug and utterly without wit. The idea that anything remotely funny could come out his mind has always amazed me, which may be part of the reason NBC took so long to decide to make an American version.
From everything I’m told, Greg Daniels and his troop went out of there way to make things ‘ten percent nicer’ at Dunder Mifflin. Nicer, however, didn’t translate into funny. I recall laughing maybe three times during the entire 100 episodes I ended up watching of the series. That’s truly remarkable, considering that in almost every show, movie or special they have done, I have loved almost every actor in the cast. I was a fan of Rainn Wilson’s awkwardness when he played an intern on Six Feet Under. I now consider John Krasinki one of the most brilliant talents in acting, writing or personality. Jenna Fischer has always been a charming comic to me. And I’ve loved Ed Helms, BJ Novak, Angela Kinsey, Elle Kemper and especially Mindy Kaling in just about everything they have done. So what the hell was wrong with The Office that just made me go ‘Eh’ so much?
A lot of the problem has to do with Michael Scott. And to be clear, I mean Michael Scott, not Steve Carell. I love Steve Carell. His work on The Daily Show was a masterpiece. (Go to YouTube, type in ‘Daily Show Even Stephen and revel in the glory.) I’ve found his work in so many movies brilliant, from The 40 Year Old Virgin and Get Smart to dramas like Foxcatcher and The Big Short. I even loved his acceptance speech when we won his only Golden Globe for The Office.
No, the biggest problem with Michael Scott is the fundamental flaw in the show. He’s a terrible boss. I’ll start with the obvious problem of his political incorrectness (though as you’ll see that’s actually the least of his flaws). It’s hard to look at so much of what the series did, even before the era of cancel culture, and find it funny. Michael was a racist and a sexist, a very gentle one, but nevertheless one. How many of the episodes that aired have issues where he has problems with Stanley, an older black man? It was hard to see them then and not feel there was something flawed it; it’s more apparent now. When the women in the office started a women’s group; he started a man’s group. So many of the episode deal with his issues with Toby, the head of human resources who he considers his nemesis, because he won’t let Michael speak the way he wants to. I think it’s a tribute to Carell’s basic affability that so many people were willing to overlook his obvious bigotry.
But that’s not the real reason he’s a terrible boss. He’s more concerned with everybody thinking he’s a great boss than actually being a great boss. There was so much focus on the “party planning committee” (which was run entirely by women, but let that pass) that one wondered how they ever got work done. There was more focus on having a fun work environment than actually having work done. I don’t think there was a single episode that I watched where we saw the staff at Dunder Mifflin doing their jobs. This would barely be tolerated at a successful company, which I may remind you Dunder Mifflin was not.
Another dirty secret: the company was producing paper in a world that is increasingly going digital. In the first five seasons, two branches of Dunder Mifflin closed and in the sixth, the company itself was sold. Michael didn’t seem to understand that the company needed to stay afloat, and if he did, it was only in how it affected his position. There was an episode called ‘Shareholder’s Meeting’ where the bosses inexplicably called Michael and Dwight in to calm the panic. As I recall, they poured napalm on the fire.
Which leads us to what is ultimately the tragedy of Michael Scott: he was loyal to a company that never valued him. In the third season, he began a relationship with Jan (Melora Hardin) his superior who he couldn’t stop bragging about having sex with even though she told him how critical it was not to let her bosses know. Jan than had a nervous breakdown in the third season finale and was fired. Michael then defended Jan in a lawsuit in which his girlfriend revealed the biggest secret of all: Dunder Mifflin was never going to promote him. Rather than turn on his company, he turned on Jan. (Says even more about him, but let that go.) The following season, Michael was removed from his position and came as close to rebelling when he formed the Michael Scott Paper Company. Pam and Ryan went with him, Pam because she wanted to try and move up, Ryan because his star had fallen in the course of the past season. The rebellion lasted barely an episode but Michael managed to win when he outmaneuvered the bosses (with an assist from Jim).
This might make entertaining material for a dramatic series, but all of this was ostensibly played for laughs. And these were the smart jokes; the lion’s share of the rest was Michael trying to be clever, when they just showed us how big an idiot he was. I’ve never been sure why you’d want this to be a workplace comedy; it might have been funny in flush times, but the lion’s share of The Office was being shown in the middle of a recession. Carell managed to keep much of the material from being cruel, but he just couldn’t make it funny. That’s rather impressive, when you consider what a masterful comedian and actor Carell is. I don’t know if the writers ever decided what Michael’s role was supposed to be — protagonist? Antagonist? Comic foil? Clown?
The only thing they could agree on was that he was the center, and when he left in 2011, the series completely collapsed. That being said, I’m not sure they could’ve gotten around some of the other flaws, which I’ll discuss in the next part.