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The Office Forgot That Work Sucks

The NBC sitcom's original portrait of existential workplace malaise became a kumbaya around the cubicle.
  • John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer in The Office (Photo: Everett Collection)
    John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer in The Office (Photo: Everett Collection)

    In “The Convention,” an early episode from the third season of NBC’s The Office, salesman Jim Halpert (John Krasinki) has a hotel-room heart-to-heart with his once and future manager, Michael Scott (Steve Carell). Jim has recently transferred to a different branch of the regional paper company that employs them both, Dunder Mifflin — a decision that Michael, forever the insecure narcissist, assumes has everything to do with him. Not so, Jim insists, before clarifying that it was the whole unrequited infatuation thing, the Pam of it all, that really inspired his relocation. “You’re a good boss,” he tells Michael, before going even further in his reassurance: “You’re a great boss.”

    To which any viewer watching from home might reply, in the words of another Michael from another beloved sitcom of the early 2000s: Him? Charitably, one could argue that Jim, in this moment of vulnerability, is just going above and beyond to make Michael feel better… except that Krasinki delivers the line with utmost sincerity and not a hint of irony, like he really believes it. Has Jim forgotten the truth, or has the show?

    Because Michael Scott is not a great or even a good boss. He’s a terrible boss — petty, lazy, unqualified. A threat to workplace productivity and decorum alike. A walking model for how not to run things. Three seasons into The Office, Michael’s failures were firmly established, his unfitness for leadership not just canon but practically the very premise of the show — the characterization around which so much of the comedy revolved, episode to episode, microaggression by microaggression.

    Michael’s cruddiness as a boss fed into a simple truth that initially defined The Office’s outlook but which the series gradually lost sight of over the years: Even the best of jobs have a tendency to grind you down. They put your livelihood at the mercy of companies that don’t care about you. And they sometimes lay your professional fortunes in the hands of people that must be flattered and endured. The Office, in other words, was a workplace comedy all about how much work sucks.

    That idea was instrumental, of course, to the original, British version of the series created by Stephen Merchant and the show’s star, Ricky Gervais. Their Office offered a particular vision of the 9-to-5 as a gauntlet of boredom and minor humiliations. Eight hours a day, five days a week, spent doing something that doesn’t necessarily bring you satisfaction, with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose to share your time with. Here, playing pranks on the company kiss-ass and flirting with the receptionist were both ways to fill the endless void, a blessed distraction. Joy was fleeting on the original Office, found in the small ways the characters reclaimed themselves — and their time — while punching the clock in maddening perpetuity.

    For a while, the American Office tapped that same rich vein of tragicomedy. And as on the U.K. version, its cringe hinged on the specific indignities of the boss-employee dynamic. Michael, the walking demonstration of the Peter Principle, was both protagonist and antagonist, inflicting his crisis of confidence, his childish whims, and his amateur stand-up comedy routines on an exasperated staff. The show’s best season, its second, got great mileage from his blunders. You didn’t need to have a boss as bad as Michael Scott to find something painfully relatable in the way the rest of the Scranton branch navigated around his fragile ego and dealt with the fallout of his bad decisions.

    Michael was never purely a villain. In fact, The Office arguably only hit its stride and emerged from the shadow of its acclaimed predecessor across the pond when Carell and creator Greg Daniels figured out that his flaws stemmed from a deep emotional neediness. He became, in many ways, more sympathetic than Gervais’ arrogant David Brent, but the wounded humanity Carell brought to the part didn’t forgive his tyranny. Anyone who had worked under someone with easily hurt feelings could appreciate the tightrope walk of the performance: The very qualities that made Michael Scott achingly human are the ones that made him such an awful boss. “Halloween,” in Season 2, might be the ultimate example of this. It finds Michael agonizing over how to handle corporate’s insistence that he lay someone off — a situation he makes much worse with his weak waffling.

    It’s not that Michael stopped making an ass of himself as the seasons wore on. (“Scott’s Tots” is damning proof of that.) But the show’s ambivalence toward him did shift, its love-hate relationship with him slowly shorn of the hate. Where once he looked like the kind of boss you could personally care about but never professionally respect, later seasons softened the stance on the second part, in accordance with Jim’s unlikely praise. Not coincidentally, this coincided with the way The Office gradually began to reshape its uneasy collision of workplace personalities into a big, wacky, surrogate family — a change that really took once Carell left the show, putting a void at its center.

    Of course, lots of sitcoms lose their edge over time, getting broader and more sentimental in their dotage. It’s a natural outgrowth of how invested both the audience and the creative team become in a show’s characters. But in the case of The Office, that familiar drift towards what Larry David derisively called “hugging and learning” blunted the implied critique of capitalistic work culture. What started out as a show about how work crushes your spirit became a show about a lovable group of misfits, sometimes incidentally linked by employment, playing romantic musical chairs.

    And promoting Ed Helms’ earnest Ivy League screwup Andy Bernard to regional manager after Carell’s exit exited further muddied the show’s once withering perspective. A character introduced as an obnoxious, backstabbing Ivy League climber got a warmer-and-fuzzier makeover, The Nard Dog reinvented as an underdog to root for in the big chair. It felt like a failure of nerve and a missed opportunity to get back in touch with the squirmy discomfort of the show's earlier seasons, the ones more defined by the power imbalances of a desk job. Andy, even more so than Michael before him, was gradually made "likable" at the expense of the show's trenchant savaging of managerial ego… at least until the final season, when the showrunners restored a little bite by transforming him, briefly, into a true villain.

    But by its series finale, a teary farewell, The Office had fully bought into the idea of Dunder Mifflin as this magical place, its staff now more family than coworkers. “Everything I have I owe to this job,” Jim confesses in one talking head. Another finds Andy wistfully wishing that he’d known how good he had it when he was still employed by the company. Nine seasons in, even Dwight (Rainn Wilson) is sentimental about his job, a non-unionized workplace of a dying industry. Where once the show presented the office as the place dreams go to die, it now presented a rose-colored upside to spending your better years behind a desk. Stealing joy where you can on the job had been fully replaced, in the show’s comic calculus, by a genuine gratitude for that job. Jim wins the war against himself. He loves Dunder Mifflin.

    Maybe there’s some emotional truth to that arc of acceptance. People do, after all, find partners and friendships through jobs, even soul-crushing ones. Some find meaning in work they didn’t always love — or make peace with working to live instead of living to work. One key to the show’s enduring popularity as rerun fodder, a full decade this summer after it ended, is the feel-good spin it puts on the purgatory of working a job that doesn’t pay you enough and thinks of you as inherently disposable. The Office says that you really can find happiness and fulfillment, or at least companionship, working for The Man.

    But who does that fantasy really benefit? The idea of a staff becoming “family” has always been a useful motivational tool for management. Get those on your payroll to see their job that way and they’ll have fewer qualms about spending all their time at work — and maybe feel a greater sense of personal responsibility to the job, as though not meeting quotas set by corporate were the same as letting down their parents or siblings. The Office may, on some level, realistically depict the way people become attached to their jobs and romanticize them, but it ultimately lacks the bite to satirize that inclination. A portrait of existential workplace malaise becomes a kumbaya around the cubicle.

    Michael Scott, of course, shows up in that final episode, albeit briefly, for just a cameo. The show is so sentimental about having him back, even for just a few seconds, that it can barely bear to hand him jokes. Any remaining misgivings the staff had about this man-child who once loomed over their daily lives evaporate upon his return. He’s greeted, at last, like the benevolent father of Dunder Mifflin — the great boss he always wanted to be seen as, the one Jim described that night in Philly six seasons back. At last, a happy ending for all the middle managers out there.

    A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.