Illustration by Rūta Ashworth
American sitcoms have always caused a rather Marmite reaction from me. The Simpsons? Yes. Family Guy? Nah. Frasier? Of course. Seinfeld? I’m still waiting for it to click for me. Friends? No. Arrested Development? Sure. Big Bang Theory? Obviously not. And so when I decided to finally take the plunge into watching the American version of The Office, after having binged through the original Slough-centric version countless times, I went into it with more than a little bit of trepidation. Having accidentally watched snippets of the failed Peep Show adaptation for American audiences, I expected the worst and hoped for, well, slightly better than ‘the worst’.
I didn’t quite decide to do this on a whim – there was a little bit of reasoning. At a time when the once-ubiquitous office setting has been upended by millions of people having to work from home, The Office acts as a nostalgic reminder of what it felt like to sit and socialise in a room of similarly bored individuals. The chemistry of the interactions and the weird social observations are largely absent in the world of video meetings and online conversations, and so, huddled in front my Netflix screen, I found joy in escaping to the humdrum and raced through the entire show in the space of a mere fortnight. The original series is a classic of its genre, that genre being comedy mockumentary. It has 14 episodes in total, whilst the US counterpart has 201 episodes and is a sitcom staple (nb: not quite as much a mockumentary); they ended up being incomparable. The obvious question which I initially began to ponder was which series would prove to be better, yet after curiosity became full-blown absorption I turned away from the futile task of a straight up comparison, and instead wondered what it was about the premise which caused both versions to be unquestionably beloved. My conclusions (naturally) ended up causing me to feel rather despondent about the world of work which lies before me.
The anthropologist David Graeber coined the theory of ‘Bullshit Jobs’ around the time of the end of the American series’ run, and as you may expect it means that the modern capitalist system has created a surfeit of jobs which which are pretty pointless – think middle management, PR specialists, administrative assistants and corporate lawyers – either because they are effectively pointless in the wider scheme of things, or their overall value on society is negative. The effort made by the people in these roles to convince themselves of the value of their self worth, a self worth that they intrinsically tie to their job (and upheld by uncritically thinking penpushers such as Gareth and Dwight), is ‘profound psychological violence’. The Office, then, is an exercise in turning that psychological violence into a sitcom. With excellent comedy writing and acting on its side, it is a solid formula.
The Office, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a glimpse into the ‘scar across our collective soul’ which the perpetuation of this type of employment causes. Sure, there are some regional variations on how this plays out – the American version offers a more optimistic approach to this, as at least there is an uplifting resolution at the end of most of the episodes (except, memorably, the classic episodes Scott’s Tots and Dinner Party) and at the finale most of the characters have a dream ending of sorts, whilst the British version is a lot more brutal in drawing out the mundanity of the world of work. The story arcs of the equivalent characters bear this out: Jim, the American, ends up moving to Austin, Texas with his wife Pam and working on the startup of his dreams, whilst in the UK Tim just about ends up with his love interest Dawn at the Christmas party, but still is stuck in a job as a sales rep in a paper distribution company, seemingly never to actually act on his dream of going back to university and studying psychology.
But to go back to my original question: gun to my head, the British original series probably edges it in terms of tight writing and execution. Sadly, the US adaptation perhaps mutated a little too much away from the original premise of finding the comedy in everyday drudgery and social awkwardness, and instead ended up being a confused comedy which just happened to be set in an office.
I am fully aware that reflecting upon the deeper relatability of The Office 20 years after the original series first aired perhaps seems like a pointless endeavour, a ‘bullshit’ filler excuse for an article, if you will. Yet in the 2020s the show(s) have become a relic from a bygone era, and not just because of the physical workplace setting. The American series was especially able to reflect upon the effects of the 2007-8 financial crisis, and the increasing oligopolisation of the American economy as smaller businesses such as Dunder Mifflin were squeezed out. Despite the drab exterior, the series were able to capture the zeitgeist of the adult working world in the 2000s, whether it be faux-sincere corporate political correctness and diversity policies, the fragility of egos in a male-dominated sphere, or the general absurdity of living and working under late stage capitalism. Although they both purport to act as a snapshot of a generic workplace, it is a workplace which may well not return even after the pandemic reaches its own series finale.