The Office: Ironic Disdain

Until Malcolm the Cynic’s comments on (the American version of) The Office, I had forgotten what I thought about that show. Spoilers follow. In fact, if you haven’t watched the show through the first five seasons, then a lot of what I say below probably won’t make sense.


 

The mockumentary conceit is a clever ploy because it gets the audience to celebrate casual disdain for everyday people by disconnecting the audience[1]. Most people rightfully attempt to suppress such feelings. Every so often, the show’s vice pays tribute to virtue with short bursts of compassion, but Jim and Pam’s ironic disdain for bourgeois life is the hipster-nihilist heart of the show.

Pam should have ended up with Roy. She doesn’t because the writers wanted Pam to stop being meek, shy, nice and to become the sort of empowered derelict enabled by the Jims of the world.

Roy will probably never be middle-class. He will never make as much money as Jim. That’s pretty much all Jim has over Roy. Otherwise: Roy is handsomer. He has friends. He isn’t a twerp. Roy doesn’t spend every day trying to make himself look good for the skanky receptionist by putting down his earnest and capable coworker. Roy actually moves wares around the warehouse in his job as a warehouseman.

Meanwhile, Jim steals his paycheck by pretending to work. He only attends so as to steal another man’s betrothed. He mocks his coworkers, and with blank stares he mugs ironic disdain for them directly into the documentary cameras; just to make sure we don’t mistakenly get the impression he is, you know, one of them. Otherwise, he spends his time scheming how he can be among the dupes without becoming one; how to suck up the privileges of middle class economics without actually becoming his horror. Hence his move to the corporate office must be offset by commuting to work on a bicycle. Think of it as trading bourgeois credits.

The Office seduces members of the audience into disdaining everyone; that respect, joy, and love are only illusions in a world composed of selfish pursuit. It is of a piece with the works of The Office’s cynical and atheist creator Ricky Gervais. We–the audience–are the Roys, Michaels, Dwights, Phyllis’, and Merediths of the world. But like Michael Scott we pretend that the Jims of the world are our friends; that like Jims we too are in on the joke. The truth is we are all the joke to Gervais.

There were some really funny scenes in The Office, and I enjoyed it for awhile. But it would be foolish to ignore the overall messaging.


 

[1]By playing both sides of the suspension of disbelief; if you follow.

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21 thoughts on “The Office: Ironic Disdain

  1. I’m not sure if I totally agree.

    I mean, you’re right about Jim. Love the character, but he’s a dick. Martin Freeman’s Tim was more sympathetic for sure. Not sure if he’s less handsome than Roy, but whatever.

    The show humanizes the characters too much though. Starting with “The Dundies” I think that the show really tries to build up affection for the characters, and it all ends on a very high note. Pam becomes more assertive, but she also becomes a mother with happy family, if I remember the finale correctly (haven’t seen it yet, but I’m the sort of guy who likes reading reviews).

    I love Jenna Fischer, too. She really sold me on the Jim/Pam stuff, much for than Krasinski did.

    I don’t know. I think the show feels too much fondness for its characters for it to get nearly as cynical as the British version. Everybody gets some nice humanizing moments in there, and it all ends on a happy note.

    Also, Roy WAS kind of a jerk, too. I mean, so was Jim, but you get the impression she wouldn’t really have been happy with him – once again Fischer’s performance. She was great.

  2. I’ve been doing a series of reviews on my blog as I go through it. The best parts of the show are Steve Carrell, who puts on a virtuoso comedic performance as Michael, and in seasons 2 through 3, perhaps 4, the Jim/Pam stuff – and I know I keep saying this, but again, I think it’s Fischer who sells it to me.

    Michael is far more sympathetic then David Brent. You get the impression Michael means well and has real fondness for his employees. Brent is just an asshole.

    There’s a great parallel to the British Office that really underscores the difference. Both series had downsizing storylines. In the British version, David gets promoted and leaves his employees to the wolves, but fails the physical (heh), and when he comes back he pretends he refused the job to save them.

    In the American version, the same thing happens, but with one important difference: It’s the boss of the other branch who quits and throws his employees out, not Michael. Jim sums up why we like Michael when he says “Say what you will about Michael Scott, but he would never do THAT.”

    And it’s true. Michael, for his part, travels down to the house of the company CEO and camps out in the foolish hope that he can somehow talk him out of downsizing Scranton. Michael is selfish and childish, but he’s no David Brent.

    I think this storyline, more than any other, underscores the fundamental difference between the two shows.

  3. Pingback: From the office of Cane Caldo: Ironic Disdain and “The Office” | Malcolm the Cynic

  4. @MtC

    It would be interesting to hear your appraisal of these characters in ten years.

    Love the character, but he’s a dick.

    Me too, but realizing that forces me to reflect on the fact that my judgment is seriously jacked up.

    I think it’s Fischer who sells it to me.

    She does; no question. Pam is casually vicious to Dwight, lazy in her personal goals, and leads on the effete sophisticated Jim every day before she goes home to get bent over by Roy every night. Still, Fischer makes you want to rescue her.

    Again, that’s the sort of thing that makes me reflect on the poor judgment of my emotions.

    I definitely credit the writers for the successful port of The Office to American sensibilities. The sexual innuendoes of the British version simply would not be believable to Americans. (Anyone who said to a stooped female coworker, “While you’re down there, love…” would be fired straightaway.)

    My hypothesis is that the differing downsizing stories reflect the differences between ideas about class; Americans have a concept of “team”, and British ideas of “privilege”. David Brent’s profiteering is probably more forgivable to Brits because it is expected that managers/capitalists/wannabe lords are greedy schemers and can’t help it. I mean: They have a party called “Labour”. In America, Marxists have to hide under assumed names. (Don’t stake your retirement on that, though. I’ve never been British.)

  5. I don’t think Pam was TOO terrible, at least not early on (she gets less likable in the later seasons). She at least has the grace to feel guilty about her flirting with Jim, and she breaks off the wedding with Roy after kissing him (Jim), which was the right thing to do.

    But yeah, that’s damning with very faint praise

    (They show afterward that Roy spiraled into depression and eventually got hit with a DUI charge. I have no idea why they played it as a joke, because it wasn’t slightly funny.)

    Dwight is abused by Jim and Pam, but hey, he is pretty annoying. I mean that’s not a GOOD excuse…

    The show, to be fair, seems to be aware of the problems with Jim and Pam’s abuse of Dwight. There’s a great moment in one of the last episodes of season 2 where Michael, Dwight, and Jim sit down and read of a list of Jim’s pranks. At one point Jim gets a talking head where he uncomfortably says, “You know, it’s not as funny when you read them out loud in a row like that.” He noticeably tones it down a lot later on.

    My hypothesis is that the differing downsizing stories reflect the differences between ideas about class; Americans have a concept of “team”, and British ideas of “privilege”. David Brent’s profiteering is probably more forgivable to Brits because it is expected that managers/capitalists/wannabe lords are greedy schemers and can’t help it. I mean: They have a party called “Labour”. In America, Marxists have to hide under assumed names. (Don’t stake your retirement on that, though. I’ve never been British.)

    This might be true, but it still makes Michael look like far less of a dick than Brent.

    I can’t believe that the American writers didn’t have the British version very much in mind. The parallels are too obvious, down to the Stamford boss doing literally the exact same thing Brent does in the British version. Jim’s line about Michael underscores it quite neatly.

    It would be interesting to hear your appraisal of these characters in ten years.

    Indeed. To clarify a bit though, I’m not necessarily saying that I think these characters are really good people, just that they’re entertaining. I suspect in ten years I’ll probably be less sympathetic.

    Michael will probably hold up the best, because he’s already portrayed pretty badly as is. That’s what makes Carrell so impressive: He makes Michael likable in spite of himself. Carrell is the best actor in the cast. It’s really an incredible performance, keeping in mind that comedy is more difficult than drama.

  6. You’re right. And they did a good job injecting elements to make Roy into a jerk, Dwight into a tool, Meredith into a slut, Stanley into a curmudgeon, Phyllis into a slob, Kevin into a stupid slob, Angela into a prude, and so forth, so that the viewer doesn’t feel too bad about despising them. I thought this was another interesting read on the show. It goes off the rails at the end, but the character analysis from a corporate-culture perspective is pretty interesting: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-or-the-office-according-to-the-office/?t=59

  7. Patrick,

    That was pretty interesting. I might quibble with some of the details (Michael is a weirdly excellent regional manager who experiences a massive amount of character development in the “Michael Scott Paper Company” storyline, so something about Michael’s odd competence and ability to negotiate well with corporate is missing from that analysis), but it was a good read.

    I’m also not sure if it’s fair to call Wallace a sociopath. With the exception of sending Michael on a crappy business trip to Winnipeg I don’t think he’s ever treated the people below him really badly as far as we’ve seen. Jan, yeah, she was crazy. Ryan too, in his own way.

  8. @Patrick

    That is an excellent series, thank you! I may write on this more.

    @MtC

    I’m also not sure if it’s fair to call Wallace a sociopath.

    The author of those essays is using the word “sociopath” in a particular way that does not match the general use of the word. The group labels (sociopath, clueless, loser) specifically pertain to how they interact with workplaces. So Wallace is a sociopath towards Dunder-Mifflin. His concern with DM is solely about how he can extract money for himself through/from DM and its workers.

    The loser knows he has a bad economic arrangement with the organization, i.e., harder or more work doesn’t get him more money. Every hour on the clock still pays $20/hr., but when he works harder or more, the organization does make more money AND more money per hour. He accepts the unfair profit-sharing for opportunity of stability.

    The clueless has a similar arrangement with the organization as the loser, but doesn’t really understand the truth of his arrangement.

    A person from any of those groups might be popular, generous, and a genius (and thus not a generic sociopath, loser, or clueless). That doesn’t change how they relate to the organization.

    But here’s my suggestion for you. (I do this all the time, with all kinds of situations including real life): Take another look at Pam without your emotions. She is a remarkably bad candidate for a wife. Really bad. Really really bad. If her looks and demeanor were her actions, she’d be the twin of the she-bitch from Army of Darkness.

    Now: Wonder what is so wrong with your emotions that you like her anyway, because you should recognize that there is something wrong there. Then, having isolated that part of you that is outside the Tao of Right, refuse to allow that part to affect your judgment.

  9. There’s a disturbing scene that I think was supposed to be played for laughs in season three, where Roy gets a talking head where he explains he spiraled into depression from the break-up until he was finally hit with a DUI charge, after which he attempted to turn his life around.

    I remember watching that and thinking, “What’s the joke there? That’s horrible.” But all the reviews seemed to think his DUI picture was supposed to be funny. It was pretty messed up.

  10. Also, I’m on part VI, and say it goes off the rails right about here:

    That the gods do not talk back when we address them, is a realization that is as old as humanity itself. But conscious acceptance of the fact has always been rare, and eagerness to believe the opposite common. William James was the first to really get why:

    Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

    …Which is going well, well, WELL beyond its limits as an explanation for how the culture of an office works. Or so it seems to me.

  11. Pretty much what Malcolm said. I also think the whole series culminates in an example of what he describes in the series. In the end, he subtracts elements of reality and offers us something easier. He subtracts a transcendent Morality and offers us instead an empty universe “ruled by Charles Darwin.” He subtracts responsible free will and offers us an “absent god.” It’s subtle, so I could be imagining it, because he could be just describing how his sociopaths really view things. But I got the feeling he transitioned into making a claim, not just describing a dynamic like he does early on. He could be trying to be a good sociopath and free people from meaningless guilt and constraints on their happiness.

  12. I think I started getting a bit ticked off when he said that the “realization” that the gods do not talk back is “as old as humanity itself”, which isn’t a description of a sociopath’s views but a personal opinion of reality presented as fact. The fact, of course, that millions deny this, and some actually become people like Priests who claim to be acting on God’s behalf or have the power of God working through them), is apparently not relevant; that God doesn’t talk back is a REALIZATION, you see.

    He also seems, to me, to start off sympathizing with the losers and pitying the clueless, but when it ends I get the impression that he just has contempt for both the losers and the clueless and looks at the sociopaths as “enlightened”.

    On a more practical level, I’m not sure how well his description of Toby worked. His whole case that Toby is a former sociopath is that he dropped out of seminary to follow a girl. How does that prove he’s a sociopath?

  13. @Patrick and MtC

    Well, the series is on Ricky Gervais’ theory of corporate life. The author’s job is to relay what he believes is Gervais’ perspective–The Office According to The Office. I do agree that at the end it’s difficult to tell whether the author shares Gervais’ perspective.

    On a more practical level, I’m not sure how well his description of Toby worked. His whole case that Toby is a former sociopath is that he dropped out of seminary to follow a girl. How does that prove he’s a sociopath?

    Because to Gervais’ eyes sex is real and God is not. Therefore–according to that worldview–foregoing a religious life for sex is a sociopathic move; where sociopathic means selfishly seeking of the truth, where truth means real, where real means material. If a world without God and without spirits existed (as Gervais believes) then this makes utter sense.

    This is obviously where I agree with you two men: According to the Gervais Principle there is no such thing as spirit; yet we know there is and therefore cannot find common ground with Gervais or The Office. That’s what I said the show is nihilistic; a term the essayist used as well. Nevertheless, to understand The Office, you must “put on” Gervais’ worldview. He too “sees through” Pam’s cuteness to the supreme viciousness of her actions. What Gervais/the writers for The Office don’t see is the spiritual world.

    Here’s the real trick, though: Most People–even Christians–share Gervais’ worldview, and operate according to a similar paradigm. They behave as if God is absent. The difference between the three groups is a difference in education (not schooling), but fundamentally their decision-making processes are according to the sociopathic paradigm as if God is absent.

    What doesn’t make sense is that–given that such is >explicitly predicted in Genesis 3 and continues through the whole Bible–Christianity isn’t given more shrift. Christ is the light out in the world casting shadows into Gervais’ cave. Why doesn’t Gervais’ find this out? Ultimately, it’s because Gervais has no idea what the Scriptures say, who Christ is, what Christianity is, and one must assume, he doesn’t care to.

  14. He’s not saying Toby is a former sociopath but that he’s a miserable sociopath. The idea is that once you rip off the masks you can’t ever put them back on. So Toby is saying basically, “Why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?” But he also mentions Toby in the empty church saying to God, “Why you got to be so MEAN to me”? which complicates the analysis. So maybe Toby will eventually rip off the final mask, which is not just “Vanity of vanities, and everything is vanity, so I can do whatever I want,” but more like Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

  15. @ Cane

    “It is of a piece with the works of The Office’s cynical and atheist creator Ricky Gervais.”

    Like most atheists, Gervais seems to think he’s an atheist because he’s smart (or maybe he’s smart because he’s an atheist), but when I hear or read his arguments in favor of atheism, they tend to be issues I wrestled with when I was about nine. Gervais, like most atheists, isn’t a skeptic. A skeptic has questions and wants answers, but requires evidence. Gervais, like most atheists, is a cynic. They don’t want answers.

    “We objected to morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” ~ Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means

  16. You must have watched a different “Office,” or your emotions really cloud your judgment.

    Your take on the characters is, let’s say, unique. I wouldn’t recognize anyone from your descriptions.

    Even though they prank him, Pam and Jim are among the very few friends that Dwight has, and that’s more obvious as the show progresses. Roy is a clueless clod/selfish jerk with Pam, but he grows up, recovers his humanity, and finds happiness and success after she breaks up with him. He starts a successful business and marries a beautiful girl who is very much into him. Pam and Jim are good parents, struggling with work/home balance the way most of us do. Etc.

    Although their weaknesses are played up for laughs, these characters, almost all of them, are decidedly not as one-dimensional as your portrayed them, and evoke sympathy and compassion, rather than such peculiarly harsh judgment as you’ve offered. I dare say it speaks of something in you.

  17. @Jeff

    You must have watched a different “Office,” or your emotions really cloud your judgment. […] I dare say it speaks of something in you.

    Take this moment to reconsider whether:

    1) Is this really the way you want to introduce yourself to me?

    2) Does this kind of introduction reflect well on your ability to interpret the actions and motivations of others; even fictional characters?

  18. I hope this isn’t going too far off topic, but one bit of weirdness that didn’t seem to ring true was that, at least theoretically, Jim was supposed to be a salesman. I’ve worked sales and you get fired pretty quickly if you don’t meet your numbers. I’ve worked floors where we lost one guy a week for months. There’s always the possibility that Michael just couldn’t summon the courage to fire Jim.

    Thinking about the ribbonfarm piece and your article, I’m actually more disturbed by the show than I was before. Look, I understand why the Office (and Dilbert before it) gained so much traction. Huge chunks of business are based on lies (ie it’s not just a job, it’s a career, especially when it is just a job) and the cumulative demoralizing effect that has.

    That being said, it’s clear the writers want us to root for Jim, and I have the weird thought that they could have still gotten 90% of the humor out of the situation by having Jim be a stand up guy. I can’t think of much that would have been sacrificed if Jim had actually been just a happy go lucky guy making the best out of a bad situation, without the petty cruelty and scheming after Pam. It would have actually added some poignancy to the show, you care more when a good person has bad things happen to them. The romantic tension could even have been better. Jim could have not done anything about his feelings for Pam out of honor; as opposed to his standard go to moves of doing nothing out of cowardice or being a sneaky jerk.

    As things stand, I kind of can’t believe I rooted for Jim.

  19. @Hoyos

    Welcome.

    Thinking about the ribbonfarm piece and your article, I’m actually more disturbed by the show than I was before.

    Then I have succeeded!

    As things stand, I kind of can’t believe I rooted for Jim.

    Hey man, I been there.

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