Sue J Kim. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 3: Television. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
I am so disappointed in NBC. They should realize that iTunes viewership saved The Office from extinction and have a bit more loyalty!
—Angry iTunes User
The U.S. version of The Office started out dealing with superficial forms of liberal multiculturalism and a somewhat source-less or obscure sense of worker ennui, primarily because it mimicked the British original. But in later seasons, the show has developed into a more complex critique of late capitalism and moved beyond surface terms of multiculturalism. It has become an astute critic of the economic logic that drives corporations and is, unfortunately, the dominant force in our world. The show was prescient in that the kinds of things The Office skewers are what informed NBC and other studios’ refusal to share with writers profits from new forms of media, particularly digital downloads. The studios’ stance resulted in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike that began in November 2007 and ended just weeks before the 2008 Oscar ceremony. In other words, in both its content (the episodes) and its form (its production and distribution), the show explores the small and large negotiations we make as mere human beings trying to survive in the age of late capitalism.
The term late capitalism, also referred to as post-Fordism, denotes the changes in the global economy since the middle to late twentieth century. Fordism, an older mode of production named for the assembly-line innovations of Henry Ford, refers to the general conditions of industrial production, including production-focused, blue-collar jobs with security, unions, pensions, and benefits. But, as we all know, this model no longer describes the economies of most industrialized nations; for example, the U.S. economy focuses less on production, which is shipped overseas to cheaper labor markets, and more on service and white-collar work. In late capitalism, information is important in two ways: You have to have it, and it’s what you’ll be working with (instead of, say, raw materials). Therefore, today the primary form of capital—or value—is information and knowledge. Whereas once you just needed a lot of money or raw materials or a factory, today such straightforward profit strategies no longer apply. In order to compete in today’s economy, companies must have information, particularly highly technical or specialized kinds, and they must be fast, flexible, and mobile. For workers, labor itself has become impermanent and variable, and the principle of collective bargaining becomes difficult when workers and their jobs are part-time, mobile, and difficult to define. Older modes of production have not disappeared; rather, newer forms of production (e.g., software and Web site design; high finance) coexist with older modes of production (factories, large-scale farming). Dunder Mifflin, the mid-range paper supply company on The Office, has served as a kind of petri dish for observing these economic reactions and the ways that people respond to them.
In addition, the relationship of late capitalism to issues of race is complex and inconsistent. While state and corporate institutions happily tout the rhetoric of multiculturalism, the flexibility of late capitalism enables racialized economic inequalities to be hidden in other countries or other neighborhoods. Like this discourse of multiculturalism, new languages of management emphasize what Tara Brabazon calls “corporate objectives, professional development, multi-skilling, generic competencies and strategic plans,” which actually suppress “the volatility and antagonism of employment relations” and perpetuate an “artificial consensus.” Rather than sweep things under the rug, The Office helps bring to light many of these suppressed antagonisms, both in its content and in its production and distribution.
Let me be clear, however, that I am not claiming that The Office is some kind of progressive manifesto or Leftist roadmap; rather, the show makes its point not in broad strokes but in subtle touches that accumulate over time, in the process providing an astute analysis of the conditions of modern work. As Brabazon points out in her analysis of the original British Office, “sources of alternative information about work—outside of neo-liberal agendas—are difficult to find,” so “popular culture is as effective a fount for knowledge as any other.” Her argument that the British Office provides a more accurate account of modern workplace ennui resonates with the ways that other co-medic and satiric programs, most pointedly The Daily Show and The Colbert Report provide more insight into political issues than actual news programs. By the same token, the fact that The Office offers useful insights does not necessarily mean that it is not complicit with some of the things it critiques; it is, after all, on a major network. But as Laura Kipnis notes in her analysis of Hustler, “counter-hegemonic,” or critical of the dominant order of things, does not necessarily equal “progressive” in usual political terms. In other words, elements of progressive insight and resistance can be found within power structures; indeed, it would be difficult to find any person or thing in the U.S. entertainment industry that is not part of a dominant structure.
Unquestionably, The Office is a showcase product for media behemoth NBC Universal. The Office is one of the anchor shows on NBC’s heavily marketed “Must See TV” Thursday-night line-up, filling the void left by Seinfeld and Friends. And while The Office is innovative in many ways, its very departure from situation comedy conventions participates in a new trend. Like the British original, The Office is in faux documentary style; as various cast members and directors note, the camera is essentially another character. Furthermore, unlike sitcoms of the past, the show lacks a laugh track, mood music, and pointed didactic purpose. In this The Office is part of a new wave in sitcoms trail-blazed by Seinfeld; such shows—including other NBC hit shows such as Scrubs, My Name Is Earl, and 30 Rock—are self-conscious and ironic and feature dysfunctional, young, and single characters. The show has also helped pioneer the new trend of multimedia marketing, of which Lost is the vanguard. In addition, the show is an adaptation of a British program, like the hugely successful American Idol and the disastrous Coupling. The Americanization of the British original, however, has been successful—commercially, aesthetically, and, I argue, politically—in unique and unexpected ways.
The original British Office, created by the great Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and first airing on BBC Two in 2001, began inauspiciously but has become widely acclaimed.7 Painfully accurate and aesthetically innovative, the show explores threatened middle-manager masculinity, casual racism, superficial “sensitivity,” and, most of all, the grey purgatory of office work. But, as Brabazon argues, the British series, while certainly a brilliant slice of life, does not reference any larger structures or processes; she writes, “The Office cuts away public domain politics.” We see the challenges of pettiness, insecurity, and alienated work but little sense of where these come from. The company Werner Hogg foists regional manager David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, on its employees, but it has not really created him. In fact, the corporate figures who do know how to play the game—David’s immediate superior Jennifer Taylor-Clark (played by Stirling Gallacher) and Neil Godwin (played by Patrick Baladi), another manager who becomes David’s supervisor—dislike David as much as his employees do and ultimately fire him.
While I do not think an aesthetic product must necessarily provide the answers to the problems it may raise, Brabazon’s observation about how the British Office is not tied to the larger world brings to mind the Marxist literary critic George Lukács’s cranky view of modernism. Lukács disliked modernist works because, in his view, they elevate alienation and despair to a universal condition thereby making them seem inevitable and inescapable. Instead, he argued, modern alienation and despair come from something. While his analyses were not always accurate in regard to specific modernists such as Kafka and Joyce, Lukács nevertheless makes an important point. If we fail to understand the reasons for why things are the way they are, we risk naturalizing and perhaps even glorifying these conditions. In its exploration of deeper causes and reasons, the U.S. Office, for a variety of reasons, has been more successful than the original in providing insight into how the logic of capitalism shapes our lives.
At first, the U.S. show closely followed the original series. The pilot episode was an almost scene-by-scene remake, and ensuing episodes from the first season also reflect the original series. Jim, Pam, and other secondary office workers—who have not yet developed into real characters—experience a generalized sense of ennui and alienation. The office workers hate their boss and their jobs, but they do not know why and neither do we. Dunder Mifflin is an amorphous corporate entity, personified by the ice-queen Jan Levinson-Gould (Melora Hardin), whose hyperprofessional manner, hyphenated name, and exquisitely portrayed exasperation with Michael Scott (Steve Carell) are taken wholesale from the British show. We see examples of Michael’s bumbling racism; for example, he picks Stanley Hudson (played by Leslie David Baker) to play on the basketball team because he is black, while saving Oscar (played by Oscar Nuñez) for baseball season because he is Latino.
But even from the beginning, the U.S. show was different for a number of reasons. First, as Greg Daniels notes, in meetings before production of the U.S. show started, Gervais and Merchant expressed regret that people had read David Brent as more of a malicious jerk than simply a buffoon. People hated David Brent—with good reason—but Gervais and Merchant had intended him less as an object of ire than of pity. So Michael Scott, although still fairly unbearable in the first season, becomes humanized. As TV critic Maureen Ryan puts it, “Michael is funnier when he seems like a real person, not an overwrought sitcom buffoon.” Furthermore, as we will see in later seasons, whereas David Brent is completely incompetent, Michael Scott proves to be a good salesman. Second, the U.S. show is meant for a very different audience. During the first season, I wondered if this was why Pam and Jim were more conventionally good-looking than the British show’s Dawn and Tim. Part of the appeal of the British show was its relentless drabness, but the U.S. show seemed to have two fairly conventional romantic lead actors, regardless of mussed hair or nondescript clothing. But again, the show’s development—including critiques of Pam (in season three) and Jim (in season four)—has complicated this situation. Likewise, the show could have made Michael too likeable, thereby excusing his flaws, but ultimately Michael succeeds in his humanity because we see the larger structures in and from which he gets his strange ideas.
The third reason for the differences is that the U.S. show has had a longer life (the British series ran for two seasons and had a two-part finale), allowing more time to develop plotlines and principal and secondary characters. It is in these later seasons that the show develops its deeper insights. While Brabazon points out that post-Fordist shifts in capitalism, such as globalization, the “paperless” office, flexibility, and even technology (computers, Internet) barely register in the original series, these elements of late capitalism have become increasingly important in the third and fourth seasons of the U.S. show. The show explores the dominance of large corporations and the implications of information as the primary mode of capital. Moreover, the show has moved beyond the basic terms of liberal multiculturalism, and it even subtly critiques patriarchal elements of corporate culture.
“Business is Always Personal”
The show’s critique of large corporations driving out smaller businesses is most obvious in its constant references to Staples and other such “box chains,” but it also makes other critiques of corporate logic. For example, in season three, although Dunder Mifflin has restructured their company to retain the Stamford manager Josh Porter (played by Charles Esten), he uses the position as leverage to gain “a senior management position at Staples.” Michael, for all his faults, is contrasted with the typical corporate executive; as Jim tells the camera, “Say what you will about Michael Scott, but he would never do that.” By the same token, when Dwight quits and must get a temporary job, the show takes us into the bowels of Staples to compare its working conditions with Dunder Mifflin’s. A large national chain store such as Staples gives the worker even less room for individuality, personal satisfaction, and connections with other human beings than is allowed at a mid-range market company such as Dunder Mifflin. In the episode, Dwight unnerves a customer by hovering too attentively near her. Employees of box stores should be nameless, faceless, and hidden until needed, whereas Dwight’s apparent faults—idiosyncrasy, total dedication, and a lack of alienation and irony—are his strengths in his position at the paper company.
The show also pointedly demonstrates how, in late capitalism, information becomes the primary form of capital—more valuable than money, “human resources,” raw materials, or even a product (after all, Dunder Mifflin does not actually produce paper, it merely sells it). More than any other character on the show, Ryan (played by writer-producer B. J. Novak) demonstrates the value of knowledge and special expertise. In today’s economy, these are harder to obtain and worth more than money capital or other assets, such as experience. Thus Ryan, with his MBA and technological savvy (at least compared to Michael), rises meteorically from temporary worker to corporate executive.
For example, in the season three episode “Business School,” Ryan, despite reservations, invites Michael to speak to his business class in order to gain a higher grade. Before Michael enters the room, Ryan explains to his class that Dunder Mifflin is doomed because it “can’t compete with the modern chains, and management is unwilling or unable to adapt.” Michael implodes in the class because he lacks the business and management training that these students are in the process of gaining and that Ryan will use to such effect in season four. When one student questions Michael about how a paper supply company can survive “in an increasingly paperless world,” Michael replies that while computers are fun for playing games, “real business is done on paper.” When he instructs the class to write that down, the camera pans to show all 50 or so students typing on their laptops. When another student asks if the company’s “Herfindahl Index,” a specialized economic indicator that Michael does not know, has declined since the branches merged, Michael responds with a petulant insult. When the students continue to challenge Michael about Dunder Mifflin’s impending obsolescence, using the language and logic of market forces—“But how can you compete with the resources of a nationwide chain?”—to drive him into a corner, Michael finally bursts out, “[Ryan] doesn’t know anything and neither do you. So, suck on that!”
This scene works on several levels. Michael’s childishness, which is both his weakness and his strength, is on display here. The scene also mines some comedic gold in the disjunction between the students’ expectations and Michael’s “lecture.” But this scene also points to the way that late capitalism naturalizes itself as logic. More than ennui or alienation, Michaels’ angry outbursts pointedly demonstrate that modern workers and managers are stuck in situations about which an individual alone can do nothing; “market forces” are inexorable and inhuman. Highly sophisticated models, theories, and language naturalize the current economic system, and unless one is trained in economic-speak, there is no way to respond to or even describe it. In other words, to even describe and/or respond to information-age late capitalism requires specialized information. We may try to blame individual companies, such as Staples, but they too operate within the inexorable logic of a particular economic system.
The episode further develops Ryan and Michael’s contrasting philosophies of business and life by twisting sitcom conventions. On the ride back to the office, Ryan tries to backtrack, telling Michael, “It wasn’t personal.” Michael replies, “Business is always personal. It’s the most personal thing in the world.” When they return to the office, they have a version of the sentimental “learning moment” in classic sitcoms, in which Ryan apologizes and admits he was wrong. But of course Ryan has not learned anything; he will say and do anything to get what he wants, and this is what makes him an excellent candidate for upper management. Rather, what we get is a “lesson” about opposing values in our world: profit versus people. Despite the ostensible multicultural and employee-centered rhetoric of corporations, it is the law of the market that drives companies, not any actual person or group of persons. For all of Michael’s faults, his genuine care for people and the personal contrasts starkly with the cold-blooded corporate logic embodied by Ryan. And that Michael is not always ineffective (he is a good salesman) speaks to the fact that, as Harvey points out, different models of capitalist accumulation coexist in our world.
These seeds planted in season three bear fruit in the season four story arc that we might refer to as “the rise of Ryan.” Ryan, who arrived as a temporary worker in the pilot episode and failed completely as a salesperson in season three, has been promoted to a corporate executive, assuming Jan’s former position as Michael’s boss. The “wunderkind” Ryan undertakes the updating and streamlining of Dunder Mifflin. He foists on employees Blackberries and Power Point—neither of which Michael can use—and he helms the updating of the new Web site, “Dunder Mifflin Infinity.” In a series of talking heads, in which Ryan appears to be on amphetamines or at least highly caffeinated, he explains that the paper industry is getting faster and younger:
Yeah, I created a website. Look, at the end of the day, apples to apples, flying at 30,000 feet, this is a paper company. And I don’t want us to get lost in the weeds or into a beauty contest …
Convergence, viral marketing, we’re going guerrilla. We’re taking it to the streets, while keeping an eye on the street—Wall Street. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here. In other words, it is what it is. Buying paper just became fun.
Ryan epitomizes the ways in which, as David Harvey explains, in the postmodern age of late capitalism, everything is faster and more immediate.
On the other hand, Michael continues not to understand information-age economics. In another season four episode, when an advertising creator tries to stop Michael’s nonsensical babbling by interjecting, “I can tell that your time is valuable,” Michael replies, “Actually, I don’t get paid by the hour anymore, thank you. I get paid by the year.” His statement indicates both his ignorance and his charm. He is oblivious to the idea that the ad men mean their time is valuable, and he is unaware that the shift from hourly wage to annual salary often means that one’s time is even more compressed, squeezing ever-increasing productivity out of middle- and upper-management. Similarly, in another episode, we see Ryan tell Michael that he needs to learn to use something and will provide a tutor if necessary. It does not even matter what it is that Michael does not know how to use; Ryan’s command encapsulates their respective positions.
Several other episodes in season four develop this conflict. In one episode, Michael decides to win back customers by personally presenting them gift baskets assembled by the office workers. He fails to win anyone back because, as one customer puts it, Dunder Mifflin simply cannot compete with the prices offered by the national (and international) retail chains. In reaction to rejection, Michael, in customary fashion, completely capitulates to the superiority of technology; he follows the directions of his rental car’s navigational system—ignoring what is visible through the front windshield—and drives directly into a lake. In another episode, Dwight competes against the Web site in sales, crying, “Woo hoo!! In your face, machines!” and wins by 52 reams. The same episode centers around the virtual launch party of the new Dunder Mifflin Web site; Michael, who has been excluded from Ryan’s exclusive party in New York, announces over the Web-cam to other Dunder Mifflin branches, “I just think you should know that one of my salesman beat your stupid computer,” followed by a bleeped out profanity referring to Ryan. When Michael goes to New York to crash Ryan’s party (and steal sushi plates), someone praises him for denouncing Ryan. The fourth season thus develops its anticorporate theme by making starker the contrast between the slick, heartless young Ryan and the bumbling but well-meaning Michael. But the show prevents Michael from being some kind of idealized anticorporate hero by continually foregrounding his buffoonery and his other weaknesses.
The Evolution of Kelly Kapoor
Just as the show has gone beyond office ennui to explore some of the pressures shaping the modern workplace, it has also gone beyond critiquing the basic terms of liberal multiculturalism and cultural “sensitivity,” including issues of gender and sexuality. Michael, like David Brent, incarnates the most superficial forms of corporate multiculturalism, and while the things he does and says may seem ridiculous, they all too accurately reflect the logic of corporate entities, educational institutions, and other large bureaucracies that want to be “cultural sensitive”—and avoid lawsuits—without actually changing anything. For example, in one episode, Michael refers to Stanley as “our key to the urban vibe”—to which Stanley responds, “I grew up in a small town. What about me seems urban to you?” In such ways, the show pokes fun at the multicultural euphemisms in common parlance within corporate, educational, and governmental institutions.
But the development of three characters—two secondary and one principal—move beyond the relatively easy, although still worthy, critique of surface liberal multiculturalism. Although still secondary, Kelly Kapoor (played by Mindy Kaling, who is also a writer and producer) and Darryl Philbin (played by Craig Robinson) have developed into more significant characters. When they were simply foils for the bumbling Michael and points of reassuring identification for viewers, the show risked replicating the terms of multiculturalism it sought to satirize. But increasingly, the garrulous, air-headed Kelly and Darryl have agency and complexity. Furthermore, while Kelly and Darryl are obvious examples, an unexpected, delightful surprise has been the ways that Dwight helps explode the myth of the generic white person without a history.
The show’s development in these aspects appears most pointedly in the evolution of Kelly Kapoor. In the first season, Kaling’s character is not yet the garrulous Kelly that fans of the show have come to know and love. She appears a few times essentially as background color, particularly in the “Diversity Day” episode, in which she slaps Michael for his inappropriate comments. She is dressed demurely and in dark colors; she is not really a character at all. But the real Kelly Kapoor blossoms in season two; she is a talkative, pop culture-obsessed sorority girl whose principal goal is to get married (specifically to Ryan), have babies, and drive an SUV. The sheer volume and speed of her discourse overwhelms her coworkers, and her romantic-pursuit-as-persecution of Ryan provides some of the show’s funniest, if fleeting, moments. This thread culminates at the beginning of season four, when Kelly tells Ryan that she is pregnant in order to regain his attentions—and then genuinely does not understand his anger when she admits that she was lying.
The season three “Diwali” episode, penned by Kaling, shows that cultural differences can be explored without schmaltz and condescension. The episode begins as expected; when Michael makes fun of Ryan’s “dress,” Kelly points out that it’s a kurta. In fine form, Michael tells us that, “Tonight, one of our most ethnic coworkers, Kelly, has invited us all to a Diwali celebration put on by her community.” When Angela recommends people don’t go because “they eat monkey brains” (a nod to Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom), Michael objects: “That is offensive. Indians do not eat monkey brains.” Then, covering his bases, he adds, “And if they do, sign me up, because I am sure that they are very tasty and nutritional. It’s important that this company celebrates its diversity.” And because the people in the office “can be terribly, terribly ignorant about other cultures,” Michael convenes an “Indian cultural seminar.” Michael’s actions accurately reflect the logic of institutions that want to avoid litigation by being “cultural sensitive” but actually practice the most watered-down version of liberal multiculturalism, in which one’s “culture” determines one’s identity and the main cause of racism is “ignorance.” In contrast, what I like most about Kelly is what she does not know; instructed to tell the staff about the origins of Diwali, Kelly answers, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s really old, I think.”
By the same token, while Darryl begins as simply one of the warehouse crew who helps highlight the difference of Pam’s fiancé, Roy (played by David Denman), from the office staff, in late season three but more so season four (when Robinson became a regular cast member), Darryl starts to become a real person. First, he takes joy at tweaking Michael’s naïve ideas about culture. In season three, Darryl encourages Michael to negotiate for a higher salary by teaching him specious “black man phrases” like “Pippety poppety, give me the zoppety.” Darryl says to the camera, barely containing his glee, “Yeah, I taught Mike some new phrases. I want him to get the raise. I just can’t help myself.” Similarly, in season four, Michael commissions Darryl, Kelly, Andy, Kevin, and Creed to come up with a jingle for Dunder Mifflin; he reacts to their upbeat a capella tune by saying he thought it would be more “rap.” Darryl responds, smothering a grin, “What’s rap?” Appalled, Michael responds, “Wow, Darryl, you need to learn a lot about your own culture.” Again, while Michael is ridiculous, his comments accurately reflect the assumption of liberal multiculturalism that there are discrete, racially signified cultures that all members of a group must know. And Darryl’s playful mocking of Michael indicates awareness of the bankruptcy of such forms of superficial “cultural awareness.”
Furthermore, while we could hardly have expected such a development in season one, the more we learn about Dwight, the more he helps show that white people are not a group without race or culture or ethnicity—or rather, whose history and culture are assumed to be universal and not specific. Described by Rainn Wilson as a “fascist nerd,” Dwight is part product of his family’s German and Amish background and part product of sci-fi/fantasy. He lives on a beet farm with his cousin Mose (played by writer-producer Michael Schur), and he utterly lacks a sense of irony. Among the blandly neosuburban, middle-class office workers, Dwight is even more culturally misfit than any of the ethnic minorities in the office.
The show even subtly critiques elements of patriarchy suffusing contemporary corporate culture, beyond Michael’s overt, bumbling sexism. Two story lines develop this critique: Jim’s effortless popularity and Jan’s fantastic decline. First, let us take a cold-eyed look at Jim. At first glance, Jim is the focal point of identification for the audience; he conspires with us by looking at the camera and laughing at other characters’ actions. But Jim shares with Michael a need to be liked—he simply does it better, wooing his audience (his coworkers and we the viewers) in more amenable terms. When the Stamford manager, Josh, has Jim supervise Karen Filippelli (played by Rashida Jones), Jim wins her over because he cannot stand being the bad guy. In a recent episode, Jim is excluded from “The Finer Things Club”—Pam, Oscar, and Toby’s highbrow book club—because, as Pam puts it, “some people think you monopolize the conversation by trying to be funny.” When Pam relents and lets Jim into the club, this critique proves accurate; Jim begins a discussion of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes by mimicking an exaggerated Irish accent and then, under questioning by Toby and Oscar, makes clear that he has not even read the book.
Moreover, in the course of his heartbreak over Pam, he deeply hurts two women who genuinely love him—Katy (played by Amy Adams) and Karen—and he does not really care, shirking the consequences of his actions. In the second season, Jim takes out his heartache over Pam by unceremoniously dumping Katy. Karen, who calls out Michael’s casual sexism, forces Jim to talk about his feelings, and even mocks Jim’s constant reference to the camera, is also quickly dispatched. Later, Jim cannot face Karen, literally hiding by crouching down in a car. When they do meet, she recommends that he act “like an adult.” Jim’s cowardice calls to mind the numerous times Michael has tried to avoid facing the repercussions of his actions or even acknowledging responsibility. Along these lines, this season John Krasinksi is perfecting a hilariously scared, embarrassed facial expression that complicates his usual smug, conspiratorial relationship with the camera.
Furthermore, we may ask: Why, after all, is slacker Jim so successful? Jim gets ahead casually, effortlessly, simply by being an athletic, heterosexual, “normal” guy; he seems less “peculiar” than Michael or Dwight because he embodies the naturalized norm of masculinity. At a cocktail party as his house, David Wallace, the chief financial officer (CFO) of Dunder Mifflin, invites Jim outside to shoot hoops. At the end of season three, when Jim interviews for the executive position (he eventually withdraws to stay in Scranton), it is implied that he will get the job. Jim does not have to even comb his hair to be promoted over everyone else in his office, while his soulmate Pam never moves beyond the reception desk, and Jan, in order to win Michael back, feels moved to get breast implants. In season four, the terms of Jim’s self-assured masculinity were pointedly examined. For example, in “Local Ad,” when Kevin and Andy fawn over Ryan’s newfound coolness (his job, his clothes, his apartment), Jim betrays subtle signs of insecurity. Despite Jim’s aura of imperturbability, he is irked by Kevin’s constant declarations that Ryan is “awesome” and can have “any girl he wants”—until, that is, Pam turns down Ryan’s offer of a date. The fact that Jim is reassured by the fact that Ryan cannot “have” Pam slyly points out the terms by which Jim’s masculinity is secured.
The phenomenon of Jan, played by Melora Hardin, approaches the gender issues from different angles. The character Jan—initially Michael’s boss but now his laid-off, live-in girlfriend—has offered a vehicle for exploring the contradictions of the rise of corporate feminism, particularly through the events surrounding Jan’s firing from Dunder Mifflin. On one hand, if, as the CFO David Wallace claims, Jan has been a bad worker for two years, why has she seemed to embody the corporation for the last three seasons? On the DVD commentaries, Melora Hardin laughs at “the silly reasons [Wallace is] firing her,” suggesting that in her reading the company really is mistreating Jan. On the other hand, viewers also know that beyond her professional role, Jan is hardly a figure of stability and integrity. As Karen puts it, “she’s nuts.” But Jim does not agree with Karen’s assessment of Jan; as Rashida Jones notes, the moment is a good “Karen-Jim divide,” foretelling the different paths their characters will take. In the last new episode that aired before production shut down as a result of the writers’ strike, “The Deposition,” both Dunder Mifflin and Jan appear ruthless and vindictive. Jan sues the company for wrongful termination, and Michael must make a statement; he ultimately supports the company and sinks Jan’s lawsuit. While Jan and the company can be interpreted in different ways, the show raises all kinds of questions of what it means to be a human being who knows how to wield both the discourses of feminism and the corporation. Jan—like Dunder Mifflin itself—uses anticorporate rhetoric against the corporation when it suits her, and the issue of whether she is right or wrong does not lie in her identity but in the complexities of the situation.
But even more than in its plotlines, the show moves beyond convention by letting its secondary characters blossom. As Hardin notes, she, Carrell, and Daniels had discussed the possibility of Jan and Michael pairing romantically even before the pilot episode, complicating things far beyond the British character. Likewise, in the DVD commentaries, Hardin talks about how much fun it is to play a flawed, complex character:
I love that you’re just seeing little breaks of Jan, just little cracks in the armor, little by little. And it’s just starting to all snowball up. It’s one of my favorite things about her as a character, playing her. She’s just so wonderfully dimensional that way … The writers write me the greatest stuff. I mean, I am so thankful that I get to show her flaws. It’s no fun to just play a perfect person all the time.
In other words, what is great about Jan is what is great about Kelly; they have moved beyond merely being foils for Michael and become flawed, multidimensional, and specific characters, whirling dervishes of comedy all on their own.
The show’s strength in later seasons, involving such developments of secondary characters and complications of principal characters, stems in part from the conditions in which it is created. Many key people involved with the show wear multiple hats, including acting, writing, producing, and directing. The star of the show, Steve Carrell, also has credits as producer and has written two episodes. B. J. Novak and Mindy Kaling, who play the once-warring couple Ryan and Kelly, are on the writing team and receive producing credits. Michael Schur, another key writer, plays Dwight’s cousin Mose and is listed as co-executive producer. Greg Daniels, executive producer of the show, is also a writer and had directed several episodes; Daniels began as a writer on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons and then cocreated King of the Hill. Furthermore, as made abundantly clear on the commentaries, many lines and even scenes are improvised, testifying to the various improve backgrounds of many actors on the show. As Novak has said, “It is a perfect creative environment.” This innovative approach to the show has produced the kind of complex material that appeals to the audiences who access the show via the Internet. Appropriately enough, then, this confluence has also meant that the creators of the show as well as viewers have had to consider issues raised within the show in contexts beyond the screen.
The Office Is Closed
Hollywood and the blogosphere are up in arms about the status of new media, particularly digital video. In August 2007, NBC decided to end their relationship with iTunes due to disagreements over pricing. On November 5, 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, demanding a slightly larger share of DVD sales and compensation for online material. At the heart of both the NBC/Apple dispute and the writers’ strike is the issue of what constitutes “content,” or product, and what constitutes “promotional” material. Such categorizations are important because, while revenue from the nascent digital video market is still financially a minor consideration for the studios, the standard definitions that are established now will dictate who will reap potential future profits.
Through season three of The Office viewers could download individual episodes from iTunes for $1.99. Younger viewers in particular tend to view the show on the Internet, and early popularity of show was fueled by digital video downloads. But when NBC and Apple’s negotiations fell apart in August 2007, NBC decided not to offer new fall season episodes of shows such as The Office, and in December 2007, when the companies’ contract completely expired, all NBC videos were removed from iTunes. The dispute arose because NBC Universal, once the top seller of digital video on iTunes (over 40% of downloads), wanted greater latitude in pricing and the ability to offer more expensive bundled deals. “Bundling” means, as Scott Gilbertson puts it, “buy a movie you want [at slightly higher cost] and get a free TV show you don’t care about”; he adds, “For some reason, NBC believes bundles are what consumers really want.” In a press release, Apple stated that negotiations had ended because “Apple declined to pay more than double the wholesale price for each NBC TV episode, which would have resulted in the retail price to consumers increasing to $4.99 per episode from the current $1.99.” NBC executive vice president of communications, Cory Shields, denied that the studio had requested a price increase; rather, Shields claimed, NBC merely wanted “flexibility in wholesale pricing.”
This development has raised the ire of many viewers, as angry, disappointed posts on iTunes attest (these were posted as comments on season three of The Office before all NBC content was removed):
This show is great. But, I am exceeding dissipointed [sic] in both Apple and NBC in their behavior towards making season 4 available to download on MAC systems. itunes, I speak for a lot of your customers when I say refusing to fulfill your contractual obligations is penalizing us.
I love the Office—I would rather pay iTunes to download and watch on my iPod than sit through the ridiculously slow stream on NBC’s website for F8#! sake!
I have downloaded every single Office episode from The Pilot to The Job. In total that’s about 102 dollars I’ve given to iTunes in order to watch my shows. But now it’s like I’ve bought a TV contract and all I have to air is re-runs. Why can’t there be any frresh [sic] shows? I understand the contract issues but right now NBC is being too greedy. They wanted $4.99 [per] episode. No way!
NBC and Apple … You guys are pushing a large number of legal downloaders to steal the new episodes on torrent sites. I have every episode up to this season. I liked the consistency of quality I got with the digital episodes. I did NOT buy a season pass so you made a big profit off of me. Where do I get the new season? I don’t know … not on iTunes.
Such comments, beyond expressing irritation and inconvenience, raise several points. First, NBC’s decision impacts primarily the younger demographic that uses Apple computers and watches The Office because episodes can be downloaded at http://NBC.com but only to PC computers. (This group, coincidentally, would also include the bulk of flexible, mobile information-age workers who are professionally more like Ryan but who identify with Jim and Pam.) Of course, anyone can watch full episodes online at NBC’s Web site, but as the comments note, the digital streaming is slow and of relatively poor quality, and brief video advertisements from sponsors such as State Farm, Target, and Blackberry are interspersed through the episode (you must watch them in order to see the show content). Furthermore, the removal of NBC material from iTunes may push users to illegally download material from “torrent sites,” such as Kazaa or Pirate Bay. Moreover, while the appeal of iTunes has been its convenience, its virtual monopoly over the digital sales (currently, iTunes is responsible for 76% of digital music sales) conflicts with the logic of free-market competition. In order to prevent Apple from dominating the digital video market as it has the digital music market, NBC, in conjunction with Fox, plans to launch http://Hulu.com, an online video provider similar to YouTube.
All this seems to make clear that digital video is a product and that NBC wants to make more money from it. This view correlates to NBC’s charge that Apple deliberately underprices digital material in order to use it as promotion for its hardware. NBC executive Shields argues that “Apple’s retail pricing strategy for its iTunes service is designed to drive sales of Apple devices, at the expense of those who create the content that makes these devices worth buying.” Other entertainment companies have echoed the belief that “Apple underprices video and audio content as a way to propel sales of a much more significant profit center: iPods and related merchandise.” But the studios’ complaint that Apple sees digital downloads as primarily promotional contrasts starkly with their stance vis-à-vis the Writers Guild of America. The writers’ demands center on “new media,” particularly DVD sales and Internet revenues. Writers want a marginally bigger portion of DVD sales (eight cents per DVD instead of the current four cents), and they want to get paid for material available on the Internet. But because the studios consider online content “promotional,” they do not compensate writers for this material.
That is, writers of shows such as The Office do not receive any revenues from digital video sales and advertisement revenue (such as ads you must watch in order to view shows on NBC.com). Furthermore, shows such as The Office have content exclusively available online for which the writers are not paid. For example, during season two, a series of 13 miniature Web episodes, or “Webisodes,” titled The Office: The Accountants, were made available exclusively through http://NBC.com. The storyline featured Kevin, Oscar, and Angela (played by, respectively, Brian Baumgartner, Oscar Nuñez, and Angela Kinsey) searching for $3,000 missing from the budget. The writers wrote scripts expressly for these Web episodes—which won a Daytime Emmy in 2007—but received no compensation for them because the studio refers to all online content as “promotional.” In the YouTube video “The Office Is Closed,” in which Daniels and other writers explain the reasons for the WGA Strike, writer-producer-actor Schur points out the irony of taking their demands to the public via a medium—the Internet—for which they get paid nothing because the studio insists on categorizing digital video and Internet material as “promotional.” In the video, Schur, Kaling, Novak, and Lieberstein have a good time riffing on this notion, referring to shows available online, such as Lost, as excellent “promos.”
The Office was one of the first shows to shut down production because Steve Carrell and Rainn Wilson refused to cross picket lines. The executive producer of the show, Greg Daniels, who helmed the translation of the show into the U.S. version, also did not cross picket lines and expected to have his contract suspended without pay. As Daniels told Scribe Vibe, Variety’s blog, on the strike, “We’ve seen the future … ‘The Office’ has received 7 million downloads. It generates the most traffic at http://NBC.com. We received a Daytime Emmy for webisodes that no one was paid for. The future is very bright for these companies. The CPMs [cost per thousand impressions] on Internet ads is double what they are for TV.”
Of course, some dispute has arisen about the class status of the writers and the validity of their demands. While many production crew workers have expressed solidarity despite being laid off, one sign testifies to another sentiment: “WGA AMPTP PLEASE NEGOTIATE” “SIGNED 100,000 OUT OF WORK CREW MEMBERS.” Studios have fired crew members as productions have shut down, although some production companies have stated they will not lay off nonwriting staff. The studios that do fire non-writing staff thus exploit class divisions between upper- and middle-class writers and working-class crew members, just as they try to divide the more middle-class writers and wealthy producers, and just as multinational corporations exploit divisions between workers in industrialized and developing nations to corrode union power. As the local Teamsters union, which supports the WGA strike, points out, the principle of collective bargaining is important for all workers and must be defended against the divide-and-conquer tactics of the studios. It is important to remember that the real culprit here is NBC Universal, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world. Although General Electric, which owns NBC, posted record profits in 2006, NBC itself was seen as struggling earlier in 2007, so its drive to maximize profits even further remains as strong as ever.
Like privileged minorities who are surprised by racism, many of the Hollywood writers, particularly those who are also producers, may have been taken by surprise when the studios put profit over people. Like any modern corporation, Hollywood not only participates in the rhetoric of liberal multiculturalism, postfeminism, and new management styles, it also tries to repress the antagonistic relations between groups with fundamentally different goals. For example, some key corporate executives championed The Office, and its actors, writers, directors, and producers have acknowledged as much. Much like the original British show, the U.S. Offices renewal for a second season was seen by some as an act of generosity and faith. Whereas the first season had a relatively small audience (average 5.4 million viewers), after the show won an Emmy in season two for best comedy and Carrell became a star with 40-Year-Old Virgin, by season three the show was ranked 13th in the key demographic of 18 to 34 year olds. Ben Silverman, now co-chair of NBC Entertainment, “brought The Office Stateside via his production company, Reveille.” But despite apparent and actual support of the show and the artists’ work, at the end of the day, the primary goal of a corporation is profit. That is not to say that all corporations or executives are evil; as the business school students point out to Michael, companies are not run by ethics or values but by market forces. Therefore, in the long run studios will do whatever they feel necessary in order to protect future market shares in digital video and prevent iTunes’ monopoly—in the business school student’s terms, studios run according to “the big picture.” The disjunction in purpose becomes most stark when entities critiqued by the show become studio sponsors, most notably Staples and Blackberry.
Even for something that seems as trivial as television and the labor—manual and intellectual—that goes into it, the principles of solidarity and the critique of the logic of late capitalism are important. If anything, the strike provides a unique opportunity because in the United States, things like digital media and the Internet are at the center of young people’s lives. As the chapters in this volume demonstrate, entertainment is never just entertainment, and business is never “just business.” As Michael Scott, who like a child blurts out the truth only when pushed against the wall, says to Ryan, “Business is always personal.” The minor inconveniences caused for many iTunes users and television viewers can point the way toward larger issues of public culture and corporate control. As Greg Daniels puts it,
I suppose the reason people should care about this is because the television networks get their broadcast licenses from the government. They are supposed to create public culture. Instead, they are taking the attitude of “We will crush you” toward the people who create their programming. They are talking of canceling scripted programming and replacing it with reality programs. I think that is not in the public interest.
If The Office is successful as a satire, it is because the kind of heartless corporate drive evidenced by Ryan and the kind of willful hypocrisy and ignorance practiced by Michael are not only everywhere around us but also particularly embodied in NBC Universal. In this sense, The Office falls in the category of smart, insightful satires such as The Daily Show (on which Carrell used to be a “correspondent”) and The Colbert Report, which are more honest than supposedly serious media. This irony becomes even more pointed when comedians step out of their roles and speak truth in “legitimate” spaces, such as John Stewart on Crossfire in 2004, Stephen Colbert at the 2005 White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, and The Office writer-producer-actors on the picket lines.
So, while I’ve argued elsewhere that some productions, such as Lord of the Rings, are complicit with the problems of late capitalism, here I argue that the content of The Office and some elements of its production—particularly the freedom it gives its creative team—challenges the logic of the studios who fund and distribute the show. While NBC continues to act like the Michael Scott of the first season, the show has developed sophisticated critiques of the symptoms and causes of late capitalist frustration and anger.
An example of the show’s development is encapsulated in a conversation between Michael and Jim at the end of a recent episode “Survivorman,” written by Carrell. Michael, who has been excluded from Ryan’s corporate wilderness retreat, tries to compensate for his disappointment by imitating survival reality shows such as Survivorman and Man vs. Wild, in which a professional “survivor” goes out into some remote, dangerous location and survives by his wits alone. While Michael flounders out in the Pennsylvania wilderness, he leaves the office in Jim’s charge. In order to decrease wasted time—and thereby maximize productivity—Jim consolidates all the birthday parties for the month into one party. Chaos and sniping ensue, as each of the birthday persons want a different cake and the benighted Toby, whose birthday is not even during that month, wants to be included because Michael had short-changed his actual birthday by planning it for 4:58 P.M. on a Friday afternoon … in the parking lot. Eventually Jim realizes the futility of his plan, and when Michael returns during the party—which is now only for the actual birthday person (the wonderfully weird Creed)—Jim ruefully recounts the tale to him. Michael laughs, informing Jim that he had also tried this before, to similar effect. When Michael reassures Jim that he will learn in 10 years, Jim replies that he does not plan to be there in 10 years. Michael laughs and says, “That’s what I said.” Then he leaps to his erstwhile catchphrase, “That’s what she said.” Jim laughs and asks, “that’s what who said?” Michael tells Jim that that’s simply something that he says to lighten things up in the office, “when things get hard,” to which Jim replies, “That’s what she said.”
Since the first season, Michael has had to almost involuntarily interject “That’s what she said!” when a suitable occasion arises. The joke is an old one that turns an everyday phrase into a double-entendre. But the changing contexts in which that phrase appears testify to the evolution of the show. Initially, Michael was just an insufferable buffoon, a bad boss like David Brent, but increasingly, we see how he came to be that way. Granted, perhaps the demand of U.S. entertainment that the star be likeable plays a factor in such humanizations of Michael Scott. But in other respects, the show thrives on awkwardness and awfulness, and nothing could be more awful than the prospect of becoming Michael Scott. In the episode, Phyllis accidentally addresses Jim as “Michael,” and this scene in particular subtly references Star Wars, likening Jim to young Anakin Skywalker and Michael to Darth Vader.
In other words, you can be a really good person and have the best intentions, and you can be smart and good looking and distance yourself from those who are “different,” and you can try to win over the audience constantly (as Jim does with both the viewing audience and the other characters on the show), but ultimately, the pressure of the historical situation in which you find yourself makes you the person that you are. The terms of the choices you make—such as Jim’s rejecting the professional opportunity of a corporate position for the security of his old job and a good woman waiting for him—are delineated by that situation. At its best, The Office shows us that we are the way we are for reasons, not special innate qualities or race or ethnicity or gender. In other words, as Marx put it, “[people] make their own history,” but “they do not make it under circumstances chosen by them.” I’d like to think that even the cantankerous Mr. Lukács would approve.