Older television shows are often under fire for being tone deaf or insensitive.
Shining light on the boring and unacceptable jokes is important and this accountability is a crucial part of growing as a society. However, there is one show that I always find myself defending — The Office (the American version).
Have you heard of it?
I have read and heard a lot of criticism about this show and I find that often, these comments are missing the mark. Where the office differs from a lot of other sitcoms from the 90s and early 2000s is one thing — intention.
The intention of the office is to exaggerate workplace misconduct. Jaya Saxena, a writer for GQ says, “The butt of the joke is the sexist, racist fool of a boss, and if you are taking his jokes at face value, you don’t understand what’s going on.”
The show is exaggerated and often excruciatingly awkward, but at the end of the day it is a satire and social commentary about the struggles of an office dynamic. It addresses many of the problems that emerge from this hierarchy.
The documentary style of the show helps release a lot of the tension that is built up from the audience. For example, I cringe when Micheal makes inappropriate jokes towards Pam. He comments on her appearance and sexualizes her but she often looks to the camera to relieve the tension he creates. Her eye contact helps the audience empathize with her, rather than listen solely to Micheal’s comments. The fourth wall creates a relationship with the more relatable characters of the show, that in an odd way, hold Micheal’s absurd behaviour accountable.
This doesn’t mean that The Office isn’t hard to watch sometimes. It’s crude and not very sensitive when addressing deep societal injustices. In some ways, the #MeToo movement has been a catalyst for the harsh reaction and frustration surrounding this show. This movement and other similar ones have brought unified attention toward the issues of workplace harassment. This in no way means that these problems weren’t prevalent and invasive before, nor does it mean this is the first time they have been addressed. This speaks more to the recent shift of public consciousness. Although this is evident, Saxena says that The Office enables us to laugh at our own unhappiness.
“Its humour, and its problems, come from it being a situation most of us can’t avoid,” Saxena continues. “Most people have bosses and co-workers. Most people have been in a position where they have to decide between taking a stand and keeping their job.”
Writer Matt Melis from Consequence of Sound explains that if we take a closer look at The Office, we will notice that the characters behaviours are representing that of society.
Do you remember the episode in the third season where Phyllis gets flashed in the parking lot? Each character reacted more inappropriately than the next. At face value, this might seem like one big joke. Micheal alludes to how he thought this would happen to a more attractive woman like Pam. Angela shames her, Dwight blames her, Creed dismisses her and even Pam turns it into a joke. Melis explains that this episode does a “remarkable, if not entirely realistic, job of illustrating just how alone and unsupported a victim, male or female, might feel after that sort of terrible experience.”
Like any other sitcom, The Office isn’t perfect. I think criticism and discussion surrounding any show can be productive, especially when it’s political and satirical. This is the exciting thing about sharing opinions and learning about what is harmful.
When our beloved Monica is fat shamed in Friends, she is the butt of the joke. When Seinfield does a bit on suicide, these people are the ones being made fun of, not the health system. However, what sets The Office apart is that when Micheal does something ridiculous, we are supposed to criticize him, we are supposed to roll our eyes and cringe at the ridiculousness and reality of the situation.
I would recommend rewatching it with this lens. You just might be able to laugh at the unpleasant reality that is the power structures of a traditional and workplace dynamic — and you might not. There’s space for both.
Graphic by @sundaeghost