Workplace Awkwardness in The Office
I’ve been rewatching The Office (US) with my partner recently. I have a certain attachment to it and other certain NBC shows that I grew up with. When I got to high school, I felt the need to watch shows regularly like the other students, and NBC’s Thursday comedy line-up was my main slate of shows. I always felt affection for the network, and never really held any interest for other networks (except USA).
I remember certain Office episodes shockingly well, and while the drama and romance is often more annoying than endearing (the growing impatience with Jim and Pam is more frustrating than anything else), the comedy is still pretty good, though it also dates the show. As the series went on, The Office had a stronger penchant for pop culture references (songs like “Umbrella”, dance fads, etc.) It also exhibits a workplace culture that largely feels alien in today’s context: the awkwardness around inappropriate behaviour. While awkwardness has never gone away, the call out culture that exists today leads me to believe the kind of sexist/racist/etc things that arise out of Michael Scott’s ignorance would be confronted on rather than making reaction faces at a camera. In short, it’s a kind of humour that isn’t really active today.
There are also jokes that have just aged well, sexist/racist actions that aren’t Michael being ignorant so much as the joke being straight up racist or sexist. For instance, in season five, when Kelly is confronted in forging poor customer surveys for Dwight and Jim, she shouts that she’s been raped, only for Michael to dismiss her saying she can’t call rape all the time. In this case, the joke doesn’t work because a) it’s terrible, and b) borderline jokes like that only work coming from the perennial fool of the office, Michael.
Speaking of Kelly, season five is also where her toxic relationship restarts with Ryan, an incredibly disappointing turn, as Kelly previously told the camera multiple times how she’s over the jerk, only for his toxicity to sweep her away again. Meanwhile, Pam goes to art school, only to fail miserable and settle. In short, The Office‘s character growth is achingly slow, and often painful and regressive, though the workplace comedy is still quite funny. But as it goes on, The Office becomes less and less relatable as a realistic workplace, becoming a parody of workplaces once were. While there is still plenty of awkwardness in the workplace today, I suspect more young people would be alarmed at the kind of tolerance for inappropriate behaviour throughout the show (and yes, that’s the joke, but it’s noticeable nonetheless.) I know I certainly was.