On the John: The Office, explained

On the John

The new age of reality television, and a grade school fantasy: The Office, explained

Originally completed July 28, 2010

Jim Halpert, seen here shooting you a glance.

Five and a half years after it debuted on NBC, I have started watching The Office.

For those still unfamiliar, The Office is a television program that documents the lives of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company Scranton, PA branch employees. The show is an adaptation of the British program of same name. Both shows are presented in “documentary format,” meaning the reality within The Office is that the characters are being followed by a crew of filmmakers. Thus, the characters speak to the camera in “confessionals,” “notice” the camera during embarrassing moments, respond to events around them by glancing at the camera as a “witness,” evade the camera crew for privacy, and, at least once, employ the crew as spies (Pam, requesting the crew find proof that Dwight and Angela are dating).

This approach to the material creates a fascinating effect for the viewer, one unmatched by any visual narrative I can recall, (with the obvious exception of the British Office, (as we call it over here) and all other Office off-shoots). On Seinfeld, the audience member is just that: a member of the studio audience. There was a “part of the family” feeling to Cheers, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne, but those were still staged, laugh-track shows. On Arrested Development, the audience member is the straight man in the Bluth household, a documentarian who insists on being ignored in order to gain maximum objectivity.

The Wire took the audience member to a new position, that as God the Watchmaker. Here, the viewer is an all-seeing all-knowing all-sympathizing creator of a universe who cannot (or at least, does not) interfere with the action to which she/he is witness/creator. (The lone exception to this rule comes in the fifth episode of Season 5, in which the panicked, overly sympathetic God/audience provides Omar the divinity needed to elude his own death by allowing him to leap out of a fifth-story window. God justifies this absurdity by arguing that Omar would have at least broken his legs.)

The employees of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch can’t quite believe they work for Michael Scott.

Which brings us to The Office. The viewer is given the perspective of the documentary crew, but could such a crew really exist as it does here? The moves made by this “crew” are physically impossible – quite regularly the show cuts from one angle to the opposite angle without revealing the cameraman who should have been present at the previous angle. Cameras in small spaces (like the backseat of Dwight’s Trans Am) seem unlikely, as do multiple cameras in one area (like the jumps between the desks of Karen, Jim, and Andy) that would cause tension and chaos on set.

Furthermore, a camera crew so friendly with its subjects would surely be heard at some point adjusting lights or stepping over wires or speaking to the employees of Dunder Mifflin. I have only just begun Season 3, so perhaps there is more crew evidence later, but I doubt it.

What is going on here? Is a documentary really being made? I say no. Rather, The Office, (particularly the American version) has created a new model for audience engagement and protagonist sympathy by literally casting the viewer as a character on the show. That’s right: you are a character on The Office. The “documentary format” is a ruse. There is no crew on set. The entire show is seen through the eyes of you, the viewer, with the help of a single camcorder and some body mics. You have no lines of dialogue and are allowed only minimal participation in the events occurring around you; in exchange, you have been granted total access to these people’s lives AND the ability to bend time, space, and physics in order to be eternally present everywhere. This is the next level of reality television in which the viewer replaces the camera.

But that’s not all. Because even that scenario does not explain the largest challenge to the The Office’s suspect “reality,” that being the nature of Michael’s unending job security.

It took only twelve episodes for a similarly insensitive, inappropriate, counter-productive and borderline racist/sexist/homophobic boss David Brent to be fired from his job as Regional Manager of Werner Hogg Paper Company. Meanwhile, at the time of this writing, Michael Scott has not only managed to keep his job for 35 episodes, but is now incorporating another Dunder Mifflin branch into his own, thus expanding his powers.

Creed Bratton knows a bit too much for a nine-year-old.

To be fair, Michael did briefly lose his job in this most recent episode (Season 3’s “Branch Closing”) when corporate chose to fold the Scranton branch. By episode’s end, of course, he had lucked back into the job when the other guy left to work for Staples. (Fittingly, Michael ends the night under the impression that his and Dwight’s efforts “saved the branch” much in the way Louis Tully took credit for breaking the mood-slime encasing at the museum in Ghostbusters II.) They fired him once. And maybe they do so again. But the episode list says that he kept his job another 91 episodes.

How can this be? It’s simple, really. Michael Scott has kept his job because The Office is not actually a show about a group of employees in a paper company, but is in fact the imagined grown-up world of an accelerated 3rd grade classroom assigned by their forward-thinking teacher the task of organizing themselves into an office hierarchy for a two-week unit on teamwork. This gifted group of 3rd graders enjoyed the unit so much that they maintained their organizational structure for the remainder of the school year, and for several years following. (The “show” also documents the accelerated students’ uneasy relationship with their fellow 3rd graders, represented here as “warehouse workers.”)

So, Michael as boss… yes. Michael was assigned the role of boss when the teacher pulled his name from the hat at random. Knowing Michael to be an immature, inappropriate, ingratiating boy, his selection disappointed the other students. Even his teacher – personified on the “show” by Jan Levinson-Gould – could not help but roll her eyes as she read his name. However, the students are an unusually empathetic and mature group of nine-year-olds, (with the exceptions of Kevin, Kelly, and Meredith, the immature nine-year-olds, and Creed, the so-mature-that-he-is-bizarre-and-knows-things-that-no-nine-year-old-should-know nine-year-old), and since they understand that Michael is lonely and insecure, they allow him his role as “boss” since the title has no true authority, not with their teacher Mrs. Levinson-Gould always around.

Mrs. Levinson-Gould, it should be said, also has a soft spot in her heart for Michael (their romantic relationship serves as a dramatic metaphor for this soft spot, as well as a masturbatory exaggeration in the mind of the young Michael), and with the blessing of the classroom’s standout students and natural leaders Jim, Pam, Stanley, Phyllis, Oscar, and Toby – with whom she has conferred many times – she too has allowed Michael to retain his post.

The third graders of Mrs. Levinson-Gould’s accelerated class have been kind enough to allow Michael to retain his title as “boss.”

(Incidentally, the only students entirely uninterested in this ongoing charade are Angela, who would just as soon be left alone to her studies, and Ryan, who was transferred to the accelerated class against his will and would have preferred to stay with his jocky, fratty friends in the normal class.)

The children and the teacher also know that leaving Michael in charge nullifies the possibility of a disliked, un-hip boy named Dwight taking over as boss. Nothing could be worse than this rule-crazy “fascist nerd” ruling their fantasy world – he would surely ruin it with his suffocating “no-fun” policies – but since Dwight holds what show creator Greg Daniels refers to as an “adolescent love of hierarchies” along with a unique respect and adoration for his friend Michael, his dictatorial annoyances remain in check so long as Michael is boss.

(And thar ya go.)

Copyright 2010, jm silverstein

For Jack M Silverstein’s coverage of The Wire, click here

And, because you deserve it…


3 Replies to “On the John: The Office, explained”

  1. Nice. I think you take your interpretive scheme a little too far, as it can’t account for a number of facts about the characters, but generally I quite liked it, and it certainly accounts for the childishness of its main character.

    My only real beef is with your statement that “This approach to the material creates a fascinating effect for the viewer, one unmatched by any visual narrative I can recall”. I assume you mean in television, right? If you are just talking about television, I think that’s probably right. However, if you include movies (and movies certainly seem to qualify as “visual narratives”), then you are pretty obviously wrong—the mockumentary has actually been around for a surprisingly long amount of time. There’s all of Christopher Guest’s movies, obviously, but going even further back, you have Zelig and Take the Money and Run, which is arguably the first mockumentary. (For an example of one that is not comedic, and really does something interesting things with the genre, you should check out Man Bites Dog.) Granted, The Office does some unique things with it, but nothing to justify your characterization of it as “unmatched” by anything else.

  2. You’re right on in pointing out those other mockumentaries… I have not forgotten about those… but The Office pushes the format to an extreme that is unmatched by Guest, Reiner, Allen, or anything else that I have seen, because of…

    1. …the high number of hypothetical cameramen
    2. …the total absence of voices from the crew/interviewer
    3. …the length of the “filming process,” as spoofed at the Onion: http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-office-ends-as-documentary-crew-gets-all-the-f,6988/

    So, I definitely have not seen “this approach to the material” in other television programs (the other Offices notwithstanding), and I also have not seen it done to this extreme in film.

    But heck, there’s no need to compare these styles. Sure, The Office pushes to an “extreme,” but I don’t think you should get extra points for that, necessarily. Make your own minds up! Leave me out of it! I’m collecting for charity…

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