Friday, April 13, 2007

The Strange and Nihilistic World of "The Office"

I've taken this week to try and dissect some interesting cultural media. I'll close this week's series with a look at NBC's "The Office," a show that follows the workings of a fictional Scranton, PA paper company called Dunder-Mifflin. The show is a comedic study of office life as set in this one little company involving a diverse group of characters, including the show's main character, the boss, Michael Scott (brilliantly played by Steve Carrell). Significant and ongoing plotlines include a romance between coworkers Jim and Pam, tension between office workers and factory workers, and various inter-office feuds and relationships.

If it all sounds a bit, well, anticlimactic, it is. It's supposed to be. "The Office" is a comedy and garners many laughs in its half-hour segments, but it is fascinating to realize that the general worldview of the show approaches nihilism. There is no great purpose to life, and office life is certainly unsatisfying, and so the show's characters seem to make meaning as they see fit. "The Office" is a purely Hollywood creation, showing a strange and unrealistic portrait of American life in which almost noone is religious, almost noone has children, and almost noone is married. The show's characters have little connection to anything beyond themselves and little purpose from which to derive meaning in their lives. Day after day, they come to the office and try to avoid work even as they haltingly connect with one another. I'm sure this sounds sad and depressing and, when you step away from the show's humor (which is substantial and satisfying), it is. In this show's world, work is drudgery, God is absent, and one is left to live life alone, with nothing but a few Word docs to show for it.

This is not to say I don't enjoy the show, or that the show doesn't have light touches in which it discloses the humanity of its characters and briefly brings them together in gestures of kindness and meaning. It does. And the romances are very well done, generally speaking, as they typically use the traditional (and far more effective) device of promise as opposed to fulfillment. Finally, the show is extremely well written and acted, with few people following the contemporary trend and overacting. "The Office" does succeed in capturing much of the awkwardness and confusion of life, as opposed to the slickness and surety found on so many shows. No, the world of "The Office" is philosophically realistic, if not socially realistic. The life of a lost person is filled with loneliness, awkwardness, and confusion. There is humor and charm to be found in life for such people, of course, but when one steps away from the moment, one realizes that the laughter soon fades and the joy soon dissipates. The office has replaced the church or the traditional family as the place of meaning and goodness. This, then, is "The Office": a hilarious, partially truthful, and ultimately nihilistic look at a group of people for whom meaning is located, strangely, in the very place they despise: the office.


Anonymous jay c said...

I haven't seen the show, but coworkers are always telling me how much it resembles our workplace. Your description sounds pretty accurate. Out of 8 people in my office, 3 are married, 3 have school-aged children, 2 have older children, 2 go to church, and everyone's lives are a mess. The rest of the cubicle infested company is pretty much the same, with some departments being much worse, depending on the type of work being done. There is bizarre management practice and soap-opera drama going on everywhere you look.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Jed said...

The office is an English import. For what it's worth, the British version is better. British humour fits the conception of the office well.

1:52 PM  

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