Pay attention, because the logic of "The Office" is breaking down. And NBC's beyond brilliant, hit workplace comedy will become a victim of its own popular success because of it.
But before we get to the logical breakdown, it'd be useful to look at the profoundly, slyly radical messages and themes of the show. The very Leftist economic message is even more interesting because it comes from a very visceral place, in the writers' and producers' experiences at the bottom of the white collar, service industry.
There are three levels of industry. There's primary industry — agriculture, mining, drilling, etc. Then there's the secondary industry, which is taking the raw materials the primary industry gets together and manufactures something. Then there's the tertiary industry — generally, the service industry — which is moving those manufactured commodities around — retail, insurance, finance, government, etc. Given the freedom of capital to move across borders, we've successfully exported those first two industries to other parts of the world — often, conveniently, places that are constantly engaging in civil wars or massive slave labor — and so we're pretty much on the service industry tip as a nation. Given this fact, those people at the bottom of this industry — which is basically the entire economy — should rightfully be considered the contemporary blue collar worker. We could follow the lead of the service employees' international union and call these workers purple collar.
Everyone at Work
The popularity of "The Office" can't be attributed only to the understated-yet-hilarious writing or the pitch perfect performances. Americans can relate very well to every element of the show. The "office couple" with their own unique language, the painfully un-selfaware boss, the overconfident nerd with Andy Frain tendencies, the unendurable pain of an office "Happy Birthday" sing-along. The droning human resources guy, the girl who talks about celebrities like she knows them. Almost every service industry workplace has some variation of the characters and dynamics on the show.
For example, the show's driving force, Regional Manager Michael Scott, is one of those guys who says "That's what she said" all the time. Haven't you known like 20 guys like that? Did you ever work with car salesmen? If you did, you'd know that that guy often manifests himself as a "Sounds like a personal problem guy." (Just ask my friend Kenzo, he'll tell you all about that.)
It is a show about an office; the function of "The Office" is purposely left to be meaningless ("selling paper, in an increasingly paperless world"), and the location is as unexotic as, I'm guessing, the writers could imagine (Scranton, PA). The set-up is therefore, "Imagine any office performing any function, in virtually any (uninteresting) place in this country." Doesn't get any more universal than that. Unless it was, "Imagine a place with some people."
The other premise, of course, is that some unnamed filmmakers are gathering footage for a documentary of some kind, and we are watching some version of the footage they've gathered. This lets the characters on the show engage the viewer directly, sharing the joke by throwing us a look across the room.
With this intense relatability, you'd imagine more watered down "morals" to the stories, but by making the show so real — basing it so closely to reality — they end up with some pretty radical — I'd dare say Leftist — fables.
The necessary romantic relationships provide one source of the show's tension, but the other major source is essentially between Michael Scott and his resistance to the "corporate culture" of enforced servility, arbitrary rule and stifling conformity.
Luckily for us, the writers recognize that more often than not this can result in the asinine, like the episode ("Women's Appreciation") when Michael tries to put on his own "women's appreciation day" by taking the women of "The Office" to a shopping mall, encouraging them to "dish" and asking for clarification on whether it was Pap Smear or Shmear ("You know, like cream cheese?") Sexism in the workplace is absolutely no joke, but notice how the sexism (like the racism) is treated in superficial fashion — the majority of characters understand insensitivity and join in the eye-rolling, and it only becomes an issue when the boss (Scott) is doing it.
The power relationship is much more emotionally involving. Consider the episode ("Local Ad") where Michael tries to produce an advertisement for Dunder-Mifflin using all the talents of his branch, only to be coldly ignored, to such an extent that we don't even see his effort get rejected. The ad they produce is actually pretty good — really stupid, obviously, because the guy never realizes what he's saying — but the concept is good. If "Corporate" had supported their efforts, they could in fact have created something effective and earned the goodwill of employees who had cooperated. But power is the only commodity that matters in the corporate hierarchy, more so even than profit. First these little guys in Scranton start thinking for themselves, then what?
So you don't get the wrong idea, though, the writers go a step further — Michael in turn suppresses the creativity of his employees, imposing his (naturally moronic) ideas on them. Bosses are bosses.
It reminds me of the story of the ancient tribal king who fled his capital city with his army in the face of an encroaching enemy. Once occupied, the people of the city rose up against their conquerors and successfully drove them out. When the king returned and learned what they'd done, he set his army loose to punish the rebels: even though they had essentially won his city back for him, he was more upset that they showed uprising tendencies. It was almost irrelevant what the branch could have produced. They had to obey.
It is not coincidental that the man who imposes all this on Scott is former temp Ryan Howard, who gets his MBA and leapfrogs everybody to become his boss's boss, despite having never sold a single sheet of paper.
In this purple collar class, the salesman is the assembly line worker. The salesman is at the point of contact; he produces the wealth through his labor. A walkout of salesmen would have the same immediate impact on the firm as an immediate walkout of the guys on the assembly line. No money could be made. Every other piece of the corporate structure — even Dunder-Mifflin's clearly dysfunctional model — would collapse. No money to send to the top to be redistributed. Nothing.
I imagine the rage Michael Scott feels at seeing the kid who never made a sale become his boss is similar to that feeling so many steelworkers on Chicago's South Side felt when some kid from Kellogg School of Management who had never seen white-hot iron ore in his life suddenly appeared and started telling him what to do.
Believe me, I'm not against education. The Michael Scotts of the world do not have the skills to manage people. But still — you could see why it would really piss them off.
Power to the People
In her 1999 study of the "betrayal of the American Man," Stiffed, feminist journalist Susan Faludi tells the devastating parallel stories of the shuttering of the Long Beach Shipyard in California and the massive downsizing at McDonnell Douglas. Her focus is mainly on gender — lay-offs and downsizing as castration — but if she weren't so eager, she could've settled on class. The guys at the Long Beach Shipyard were at the bottom of the power structure, assembling ships and whatnot. The guys at McDonnell Douglas were higher on the income scale and the power structure. Nevertheless, both are subject to the same oppressive atmosphere and pernicious exercises of power. At the end of the day, though they'd been led to believe otherwise, they are both in the same boat, their masters in another. Neither holds that ultimate power, and so both are equally vulnerable to it. It isn't that they were made less "manly" by that exercise of power on them; it's that they were made less human.
In a particularly powerful demonstration of this theme — on a wildly successful television show that once had crossover commercials with Burger King — Michael Scott ends up debating the nature of business itself with his "protégé" at the time, the temp Ryan. Invited to Ryan's business school to answer questions about his company, Scott is confounded by the theoretical questions about his company's business model, about the impending doom of the paper company in a world dominated by digital media (his sage advice to the students: "Don't exaggerate the importance of computers."), and his obsolescence.
"You know what? Dunder-Mifflin is here to stay... David will always beat Goliath."
"But there's five Goliaths — Staples, Office Max—"
"Yeah, yeah. You know what else is facing five Goliaths? America. Al-Qaeda. Global Warming. Uh, sex predators... mercury poisoning... so what, do we just give up? Is that what we're learning in business school?"
"But in the big picture—"
"Dunder-Mifflin is the big picture; can't you understand that? No, you can't. Because you're too young. And Ryan has never made a sale."
Later in the episode, when Ryan thinks he is being fired, Michael reassures him: "A good manager doesn't fire people. He hires people and inspires people. You don't get it — people will never 'go out of business.'"
To Ryan Howard, Dunder-Mifflin is a series of systems and processes created to generate a maximum profit (which is kind of what it actually is). But Scott cannot even fathom this: it's about selling paper. It's about building relationships with other people and cooperating — they need paper, you convince them you've got the good stuff. It could be anything. Dunder-Mifflin is not projections and earnings forecasts; it is a material thing, it is "The Office", the building they are in (which receptionist Pam Bislee sketches, to Scott's delight), and the people who work with him every day.
The debate is intensified by the fact that Scott is not incompetent — to the contrary, the writers take pains to remind us that he is a great salesman. Even his first boss, Jan Levinson, is floored by his ability to close a huge deal selling paper to Lackawana County ("The Client"). In one episode, when Pam is supposed to be surreptitiously tracking his hourly activity to report to corporate, he does almost nothing all day. We notice passing phone conversations with someone named Coserelli; by the end of the episode, contracts for a "huge deal" arrive. Scott has just generated a huge profit for his company, despite "failing" their secret test of his efficiency. (It's too bad the writers also felt the best way to let us know the deal was important by having Pam say, "This is a huge deal." We all get lazy sometimes.)
Notice, too, that when Michael lists his top four candidates to be his replacement, he doesn't even consider Ryan — he's never made a sale! How could he be ready to be a boss? Silly Michael; he thinks the producer still has value.
It doesn't matter how much Michael can produce; he has one flaw that will always sink him in the corporate hierarchy, and that is that he refuses to see human beings as inhuman. Now, just because this comes in the form of wildly insensitive outings or massively stupid, stereotype-ridden office parties, doesn't change the humane intent.
The MBA, who sees "business" and "The Market" in these nebulous, idealized ways — as opposed to the material understanding of a salesman who, as the great man said, is riding on a smile and a shoeshine — can easily make human beings inhumane. "Business" is not about humanity, but theoretical frameworks.
Michael Scott also has the classical hero's "tragic flaw." In his case, it is that he is a completely un-selfaware, tactless dumbass. Since he's a supervisor, his jack-assedness is particularly harmful to the work environment. We can imagine that when he had no power over his fellow employees, he was nothing more than an obnoxious loudmouth, who paid for it with isolation.
I'm not implying that the writers of the show are sitting under one of those old-timey Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin progression photographs, dreaming of the day the Dunder-Mifflins of the world are owned in common by the proletariat. Quite the contrary: the texture of the show, its uncanny ability to get the shades and accents of an American office makes it more likely that writers are just translating personal and second-hand experience directly onto the page. That the heroes and villains appear to us as they do speaks to our common and, I think, innate understanding of the imbalance of power in an economy dominated by arbitrary exercising of power and lack of democracy.
The Logic of the Show
A big part of the reason why people so immediately relate to the show is the documentary style. Right off the bat, we're granting that what is happening is "real." The characters also interact with us through the camera; something quirky or ironic happens, and they look at the camera as if for validation — "Did you get that!?" They will also toss the camera wry looks, to let us know when something is not to be believed. Part of it is bringing people in to the atmosphere — some of it is laziness, too, I think. Having a character look into the camera is a jarring thing for television, even "reality" television. So when it's done playfully, people are easily engaged. The camera is its own character. It follows people around to catch them in lies, or spreads information by showing people footage. The cameraman (or somebody else off camera) also apparently asks questions, which we never hear directly, though we hear the answers ("'Am I seeing anybody right now?' No.") I'd call it a Greek Chorus if that wasn't so annoying, so instead I'll step my metaphor game up chronologically and say it's the show's Meeting with Melfi, where we can hear straight from the characters' mouths what they're feeling and thinking.
All important elements of this wonderfully class-conscious American show. And all threatened with extinction by the simple question: "When the hell are they going to finish this documentary?"
The Unseen Documentarians have now been following these people at this mid-range regional paper supply company for four years, with multiple cameras and, increasingly, access to different branches and more and more parts of their personal lives. I know we're supposed to suspend disbelief, but you can't ask people to on the one hand accept a documentary-style show where characters are looking at the camera and talking directly to you, and on the other hand not have a plausible reason for why they would be doing that.
If the characters on the Cosby Show had intermittently just started looking into the camera when something wacky happened, you'd wonder what the hell was going on, although in retrospect I'm surprised Bill Cosby was able to keep from doing that for so long.
Yet the Unseen Documentarians carry on, somehow even managing to afford to have multiple cameras in one out-of-office location, conveniently set up to cut back and forth between characters talking. Sometimes they fortunately have a guy assigned to filming one character all day just on the odd chance that he'll get a call from someone relevant. They are somehow able to be inside and outside cars. In other words, the single-camera documentary style is breaking down, and with it, our implicit deal with the writers: we'll let the characters tell us rather than show us, but only so long as you play along. As the "documentary footage" element strains credulity, viewers' connections with the characters will break down.
If "The Office" is the typical American office experience, there is a general American consensus about imbalance between the corporate citizen and its lowly human clients. Let's not get it twisted though. In one of those places where we sent our other two industries, the show would be called "The Sweatshop."