The Office

[26 September 2005]

By Kevin Wong

Squirm-worthy

Remake. Few words arouse suspicion faster than this one. When the U.S. version of The Office first aired in March, many viewers compared it to the original BBC version created by and starring Ricky Gervais. A shot-by-shot remake of the British pilot, the first U.S. episode repeated the same jokes, setups, and camera angles, with “Americanized” dialogue. The result was awkward, and not in the squirm-worthy way that made the BBC version so brilliant.

But just when many viewers dismissed it as a copy, The Office became hilarious. Freed from obligatory references to the original comedy, the show tackled issues relevant to the American, white-collar workplace for the rest of the season. The second episode, in which boss Michael ran a racial sensitivity seminar, was 20 minutes of non-PC bliss, as the officemates discussed which ethnicity is the most sexually attractive and whether the word “Mexican” is offensive.

This redefinition of tone continued for the remaining four episodes in the first season. It revolved around Steve Carell as Michael, regional manager of Dunder Mifflin. Disillusioned and underqualified, he’s possessed of a pandering, “go get ‘em” attitude, the perfect foil for his resigned fellows. Within a mundane, nine-to-five environment, this opposition between stupid optimism and weary cynicism becomes more prominent.

In this way, the office itself is a primary character, on par in importance with its human counterparts. Its off-white, sterilized environment, tight corridors, and closely spaced desks create a sense of claustrophobia. Aside from making its occupants physically uncomfortable, it intensifies their confrontations, forcing them to butt heads without the chance for literal escape from conflict. And so they tend to freeze in place, staring in horror and trepidation at their opponents, always in too-close proximity. Their unease, which translates to the viewers’ unease, magnifies the severity of insensitive statements, and makes what was mildly amusing darkly hysterical.

The second season premiere threatened this environmental chemistry, but also advanced the emotional complexity of the characters. Previous to this episode, the omnipresent office environment caused most of the characters to be defined by their jobs and their reactions to Michael’s antics—a satirical jab against the automaton-creating corporate structure. But this episode played out at a Chili’s restaurant, where Michael held “The Dundees,” an annual, unfunded awards ceremony for his employees. Here, we saw a change in office receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer), formerly the butt of everyone’s remarks, her expressions ranging from slightly upset to tearful.

Now, however, Pam was outside that confinement in more ways than one, drunk and unguarded, even vaguely “wild.” She showed “feelings” for Jim (John Krasinski), though she had ignored his not-so-subtle advances toward her up until this point. And their relationship was left unresolved, implying more attention might be paid to a plot arc this season (in the first, all the episodes were self-contained). Multi-episode stories, combined with glimpses of the characters’ lives outside of the office, might broaden The Office‘s emotional and narrative possibilities beyond standard sitcom limits.

Pam’s stepping out in this season premiere allowed her to drop her guard against Jim and indulge herself, rather than silently tolerating the wishes of others. And Michael discovered his own unfamiliar ground. The non-office patrons at Chili’s forced him to see himself from the perspective of someone not working for him; for the first time, he was not blissfully ignorant of his own weaknesses, but forced to confront his inadequacies when his emceeing was heckled. His employees, feeling a mix of pity and solidarity, praised his work, prodding him, however ironically, to continue his race-baiting, misogynistic routine. Facilitating a return to his clueless state, they also cultivated his delusionary grandeur when it was about to collapse.

This support for Michael reinforced their abusive, cyclical relationship with him, but here The Office reframed work politics as akin to a long-term relationship gone horribly wrong. Aiding this comparison is the relationship between Pam and her stagnant fiancé. Both are draining experiences, where participants repress their creativity in favor of a safe, unsatisfying middle ground. It is only when they step outside their routines that they can breathe freely. In moving the action beyond Dunder Mifflin, The Office showed the similarities between worlds, and the destructive patterns that might trouble workers in and out of their most overtly restricted spaces.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/office-050926/