When The Office premiered in March 2005 the national unemployment rate was 5.4%. GDP had grown for 14 consecutive quarters. The Dow was at 10,200 and climbing steadily (Staples had a price of about $22 a share). And yet, though the economy was relatively strong, job satisfaction had dropped to about 48% for workers between 35 and 54.
During a time of job security and job-grumbling, then, The Office struck a chord by following the everlasting, ever-comic theme: work sucks. The opening credits set the tone, featuring closeups of a copy-machine, a paper-shredder, a water-cooler — all aggressively uninspiring. And in the pilot, Michael Scott is a jerk who impersonates Hitler. Like his predecessor David Brent, he fake-fires Pam as a misplaced joke. His awful behavior is, at first, the centerpiece of the show, because, as we know, bosses suck and work sucks.
Pam obviously hates her job and, in hearing that there might be lay-offs, suggests, “I don’t think it would be the worst thing if they let me go. I don’t think it’s many little girls’ dream to be a receptionist. I like to do illustrations.” Her interest in art school is an on-going story-line that, as we’ll see, illustrates my point about The Office as it relates to the American economy. We also meet Jim, hang-dog and cynically cute, who describes his sales job and says, “I’m boring myself just talking about this.” In response to Dwight’s annoying antics, he claims, “This is why the whole downsizing thing just doesn’t bother me.”
Jim and Pam are the straight men in the show and we’re supposed to relate to them, fall in love with them. They’re better than these jobs and so are we. Getting out is their immediate goal and they want to advance toward their non-paper-selling dreams. The only redeeming thing for them is that they like each other and so the half-redeeming message for us is: work sucks but sometimes the people at work are nice (and even “Scranton Hot”).
As the seasons progress, the plots begin to revolve around the silliness of the characters instead of the inhumanity of the workplace. Personality conflicts take center stage and Michael is far less mean (even likable sometimes). In the second season’s episode, “Performance Review,” all the characters even want to show their dedication to their jobs, albeit for monetary reasons. “It’s all about the bonus,” says Stanley. But work still sucks.
In episode 3.7, “Branch Closing,” which aired in 2007, we see the height of The Office’s anti-job sentiment. Michael finds out yet again that the branch might close and he announces that to the workers.
“What about us, Michael, do we still have jobs?” asks Angela.
“I don’t know. Probably not. This is the worst.”
The scene could be serious, but Michael gives an exaggerated grimace and we’re meant to laugh at his anguish. Maybe losing a job is funny. Michael cries. But Pam declares, “It’s a blessing in disguise. Actually, not even in disguise. In my fantasy, I always thought I would slap someone, make a big speech, and storm out forever, but this is good, too.” Stanley admits: “I couldn’t be happier. I’m gonna take the severance and retire. My wife and I are going to travel. I really couldn’t be happier.” Ryan adds: “This kinda worked out perfectly for me.” At the end of the episode, Michael and Dwight, thinking their jobs are lost, earnestly recall the good times at work, but this idea is laughable to us because they’re not characters we’ve been taught to trust. They’re the dupes who like work; we’re the savvy ones who know better.
By the end of season 3, there’s a bit of a shift. Characters still want out of their jobs, but they’re willing to move up through the company instead of away from it. Michael, Jim, Ryan, and Karen interview for a corporate post in New York. Work sucks, but not so much if it pays better. After he doesn’t get the job, Michael, in a rare moment of job-dissatisfaction, describes the Scranton office in this way: “I’m back. And I’m never going to leave. I’m going nowhere. This place is like the hospital where I was born, my house, my old-age home, and my graveyard for my bones.” Then again, he’d also just asked of his boss, David Wallace, “I still have my job in Scranton, though, right? Good. That’s all I ever wanted.” Michael, at least, sees that Dunder Miflin is a light yoke, so the episode and the season are both job-slandering and job-affirming. Work drains, but we’re glad to be drained.
On September 15th, 2008, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for bankruptcy (in the extra-sitcom real world), and that set into motion the recent economic unpleasantness. Season five of The Office was just beginning. Unemployment, of course, doubled. The price of a share of Staples went in the shredder. And TV characters who’d previously hoped to be laid off didn’t draw the same kind of belly laughter from us anymore. Satire had to give a little to silliness. The Office had to add a dash of Three’s Company (the #1 show during the stagflation era of the late-seventies). Downturn breeds goofiness and, in the case of The Office, “Work Sucks” had to be replaced as a governing idea.
Usually sitcoms turn silly when they’ve run out of freshness, when the characters have already been married off and had babies, when guest stars multiply and Fonzi gets a stunt-double. The Office avoided this phenomenon by marrying off Jim and Pam rather humbly and by avoiding “very special episodes” or dramatic cliff-hangers. What it couldn’t avoid was a Bear Market. From Season 5 on, we just couldn’t hate work anymore, at least not collectively. And it was imprudent to sit around jawing about the hassles of the job when so many people would have loved the same hassles.
The show is a kind of economic bellweather, and as it naturally matured into a character-driven family comedy, it also reflected the happy-with-what-we-have mood of its audience. Witness: two weeks after the great financial vertigo, one of the show’s best episodes aired. Michael goes on a business trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada with Andy and Oscar. Meanwhile, Pam finally gets away to art school, lives her dream. In the early days of the show, the business trip would have been pathetic, a desolate corporate situation contrasted with the Pam’s big-city creative adventure. There might have been a message about the quiet desperation of employment (and, for good measure, the quiet desperation of Western Canada). Instead, Winnipeg turns out to be surprisingly fun and Pam fails art school. In an touching moment of romance and downward mobility, she tells Jim, “I’m coming back the wrong way. It’s not because of you. I don’t like Graphic design. That’s it. I miss Scranton. It’s not because of you.” She smiles. Sure, Pam has a tall, hunky fella to fall back on, but the fact remains that, after five seasons, her career hasn’t advanced and she’s hit a wall. But characters trapped in their jobs end up loving their traps.
The only person who does move on — Ryan — comes to terrible ruin. He hates his station more than the rest of them and, after he gets a huge promotion, he’s narratively punished for it. A kind of corporate Icarus, he gets arrested for fraud and ends up back in Scranton — as has Jim (after Stamford), as has Pam (after Manhattan), as has Oscar (after his “gaycation”), as has Toby (after Costa Rica), as has Dwight (after Staples), as has Holly (after Nashua). They all come back. And they’re all glad to be back, glad to be on their feet. Except for Ryan. The office space — a tentative home for everyone else — is an absurdist hell for the guy who still thinks he’s too good for the safety of it.
Outside of fake-Scranton, American job satisfaction has risen, strangely enough, to 65% and Pam has undergone the same transformation. Once cynical, now grateful, she tries to move up in the paper business, joining Michael’s fledgling “Micheal Scott Paper Company.” When the company falters, she, Michael, and Ryan have a meeting with David Wallace, who tries to buy them out. They’re offered $60,000. Ryan, a symbol of corporate excess, wants the quick money. But Michael, in a particularly America-in-2009 moment, pauses.
Michael: “We need jobs.”
Ryan: “I’d rather have $60,000.”
Pam: “Michael’s right, jobs are safer.”
When they get their positions back, we can hear Pam shriek in celebration. It’s a far cry from when she had hoped to be laid off. In The Office’s essential scene, “Work is silly and sucks” had evolved into “Work is silly and necessary (and you meet attractive people there and marry them).”
Now that Michael has moved to Colorado at the end of Season 7, we’ve realized again how much we love what we once hated — the boss, the job, the security that seemed so skin-crawly. That it’s Pam who chases him to the airport demonstrates the real transformation of the show and, maybe, our own attitudes. Instead of wanting to be laid-off and get away from her crappy boss, she doesn’t want to let him, or her job, go.
And so Phase One of The Office was: work is terrible. Phase two was: work isn’t so bad after all. And Phase Three will be: Darrell’s the boss (maybe?). The American Dream, diminished as it may be, lives. You can get somewhere by staying in the same place, roll credits. Meanwhile, we’ll know that the economy is in true recovery when sitcom characters like Pam are miserable again, when we hate work again, when we can laugh that it sucks.
David Wanczyk isn’t complaining about work.