How The Office became one of the greatest television series about the American dream

How The Office became one of the greatest television series about the American dream

On the best workplace sitcoms, the central sets are rarely destinations, places the characters always hoped to end up. No, the sets are way stations, places arrived at during life’s in-between portions, when those characters aren’t sure what comes next or how to proceed. Think of the cabbies of the Sunshine Cab Company on Taxi, who all longed for something besides driving cabs to make do until that time arrived. Or consider the cops of Barney Miller, turning Greenwich Village’s 12th Precinct into a place where they could contemplate the courses of their own lives. The tents of the 4077th on M*A*S*H, Cheers, the offices of WKRP and WNYX—all were places that the characters went to, then continually wondered about what might be awaiting them back at home, whether hopefully or fretfully. On a family sitcom, the central set is usually a living room, a home where the characters all come together in at least an approximation of love. On a workplace sitcom, the central set is that workplace, and it is not meant to be the center of the characters’ lives until it is.

This often gives the middle seasons of a workplace sitcom a tremendous poignancy. The characters are stuck in a kind of purgatory for years on end, longing for something different but never finding it. Escape seems as if it might walk in the door at any second, but it also seems so very far away, at least until the last syndication check clears. A character or two might leave, but their fate is not the fate of the others. Usually there’s a lifer or two, someone who’s dedicated to the company because they don’t see any other way to live. Often, by the time the last season rolls around, years of narrative stagnation will seem to float away in an abrupt storm of fulfillment. And then there are the characters like Cheers’ Sam Malone or Taxi’s Alex Rieger—those destined to spend their lives at the workplace that’s come to feel like a home, among people who’ve come to feel like family. The way station becomes the destination. The journey becomes the point.

The Office ran too long, and it eventually exhausted all of its story engines, but there was a certain cruel rightness in that all the same. The show, always so adroit about the ways that people try to distract themselves from how their lives have ended up in a workplace none of them would have dreamed of turning into a career, grew from inauspicious beginnings as a remake of a British show into one of television’s very greatest series about the twin pulls of the allure of contentment and the desire for fulfillment. It was a show where attaining personal fulfillment meant giving up professional fulfillment, and it was a show where contentment could become something of an unspoken enemy. At its very best, it had a deeply sad core, a core about people who distracted themselves from their lives at a job few of them loved. That core existed to the very end, and it was what kept the show from flying off the rails.

What’s fascinating about this is that the original Office posited fulfillment as a cruel joke. Tim finally ended up with Dawn at the end of the British Office (one of the best television shows ever made, it must be said), but he was still stuck at Wernham Hogg selling paper, something viewers knew from episode one was not what he wanted. But he had few other options. The job market in the United Kingdom wasn’t exactly booming for someone like him, and he was probably too timid to find something else anyway. He simply made the best of where he was and kept his nose to the grindstone. When that Office ends, there are no suggestions that Tim might find some other, better job. (Indeed, in his closing monologue to the whole series, Tim invites the unseen documentarians to come back in 10 years to Wernham Hogg and check up on him.) He’s got the girl, but the show is under no illusions that this makes everything else better.

After its first season, the American Office quickly realized that this tone was unsustainable for an American series. Americans are less likely to quietly suffer through a job they hate for decades on end, not without some larger dream they don’t follow. Now, that dream—as viewers found out when Andy Bernard quit Dunder Mifflin to pursue his goal of becoming famous in the final season—is usually unattainable. Not everyone gets to win the Super Bowl or bring home an Oscar. Most of us will sit forever at jobs we only like every so often, quietly waiting for retirement or some magic offer to save us from the drudgery. But we Americans like to have that hope out there on the horizon, that thing we might be doing if we just weren’t doing this, if money were no object. Perversely, this often makes us better at our shitty jobs. Tim was dour about his prospects on the original series; Jim Halpert is that guy you’ll see in every American office: a man who doesn’t particularly like his job but keeps pushing forward anyway because that’s what that guy does.

In its best seasons and episodes, The Office turned those dreams against the characters. At the show’s beginning, what Jim wants more than anything is a date with Pam Beesley, the engaged receptionist for whom he pines from a desk that allows him just enough of a sightline to suggest she might as well be on the moon. Jim gets the girl in the end. It’s the one thing he takes a risk on in his life until the final season, but it also ruins whatever other aspirations he had, at least until the series finale. He ends up even more tied to Dunder Mifflin and Scranton, the father of two children, a homeowner, someone who now has responsibilities other than his own dreams. Tim and Dawn uniting in the original series was portrayed as a bit of a happy ending. Jim and Pam’s relationship was rarely portrayed as a bad thing on the series, but it was also presented as something that forced both characters to constantly compromise their own professional fulfillment. Pam’s art became less and less a part of her character arc. Jim became a company man.

That tension between personal and professional fulfillment animated all of the characters. Contentment in a character’s personal life often led to stagnation in the professional life—or an outright disruption. The central figure of the show—in some ways even after he left—was Michael Scott, who was so deeply lonely that he attempted to turn the office’s staff into his ad hoc family, as if he’d seen all of those workplace sitcoms and fancied himself the beloved Sam Malone or Alex Rieger, the guy everybody turned to. The rest of the staff saw this as it actually was: a desperate cry from someone who needed something other than work in his life. The more fans look at Michael’s arc in the full series—especially the show’s fifth season, its best—the more it becomes clear that his arc is balanced between times when he comes close to personal fulfillment and settles down a bit at work and times when that personal fulfillment is jerked away from him and he pours himself into work. (Take, for instance, when the first breakup he has with the woman who will become his wife leads indirectly but beautifully to the terrific Michael Scott Paper Company arc, when he sets off on his own and attempts to rebuild his professional life.)

Yet when Michael finally wins Holly’s heart in season seven, it also takes him away from the company that he had most loved up until that point. Personal fulfillment changes professional fulfillment, just as it did for Jim and Pam. The reverse is true as well. Jim pursuing his dreams in season nine puts a strain in his relationship with Pam, just as the show’s original plan for the character of Dwight in the final season was to write him out entirely, that he might pursue his own dreams of operating a farm (thus ripping him away from Angela, the character the show had clearly telegraphed him as being perfect for since season two). Andy is torn between his need to set things straight in his family and his professional obligations. Jan tries to funnel her own ambitions into a relationship with Michael and fails spectacularly, because that’s not the woman she is. At all times, the series subtly portrays the tensions between the personal and the professional.

One of the biggest lies Hollywood sells is that if you simply find the right person, every day of your life will be the greatest. But where that makes a great ending for a romantic comedy—or even, honestly, the original Office—it’s something that television struggles with, because there’s always the question of what happens next. In real life, love makes things more bearable, but it doesn’t singlehandedly provide fulfillment in every single aspect of life. Finding the right person can provide contentment and solace, but it doesn’t mean that you’re automatically fulfilled. The Office might have too frequently suggested on the surface that, say, Jim and Pam’s relationship had made both of them as happy as they could ever possibly be, but it always kept that tension between the two different forms of fulfillment bubbling along in the subtext. 

The tension between Jim and Pam in the final season ended up being highly controversial for a number of reasons—not least of which had to do with the way the show’s writers blatantly manipulated the characters to produce the rift—but it also provided the most hopeful moments of the series’ final stretch. Jim, chafing at the thought of being at Dunder Mifflin the rest of his life, decides to join up with some old friends in a new sports-centric company called Athlead. He doesn’t tell his wife. It leads to a rift that nearly tears them apart, but it ultimately results in Jim giving up his dreams to return to the woman he loves. In the next-to-last episode, the show almost gets away with presenting this as a grand gesture—though at all times, it’s unclear why the two can’t just work out some sort of compromise that will allow Jim his professional fulfillment—but in the finale, it quite reasonably has Pam realize she hasn’t given Jim what he needs. Being in love sometimes means making sacrifices so that the other person might be happy, for the good of the whole partnership (and a good couple will make these sacrifices about equally), so in the finale, Pam asks Jim to head off to pursue his dreams. The family will depart for Austin. The office is no destination; it’s the point between what was and parts unknown.

The Office struggled with this tension, particularly in the later seasons, which reflected the drudgery of being stuck at a job you didn’t like and seeing no way out. In some ways, it became a victim of its own contentment, of arriving at a place where all of the comedy emerged from a well-oiled machine that rarely broke down. On some shows, that sort of contentment can make the purgatorial aspect of the American sitcom recede into the background, because it highlights just how fun these characters are to spend time with. On The Office, it proved particularly detrimental, simply because the series always thrived on the tension between what was and what could be, between what the characters wanted and what they needed. The series finale ended with the usual hugs and tears, but it also returned to what had always been its heart—to have true fulfillment, you sometimes have to give other things up, but having true fulfillment is a goal worth constantly striving toward. In its own way, the series embodied the tarnished but still potent allure of the American dream.

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