Satire is tricky business. How effective is the skewering of bad behavior if the characters perpetuating it are never held accountable for their actions? Is it on the creator to ensure that the subject of one’s satire is punished? In the wake of numerous recent reports detailing systemic workplace harassment, a new piece in GQ has reexamined NBC’s reboot of The Office and discovered that, well, maybe Michael Scott isn’t quite the doofy, lovable lug we remember.
“[Upon] rewatching,” writes author Jaya Saxena, “it feels like we’re supposed to be laughing just because they’re naming the problem.”
The (white, male) employees in the show who make their co-workers’ lives a living hell are constantly saying things that anyone in a toxic workplace has heard, whether it’s Michael saying, “I’m a friend first and a boss second,” or Dwight’s “People sometimes take advantage because it’s so relaxed.” It’s horribly true, and that’s the joke. Compare that to how VICE employees complaining of sexual harassment were told it was a “non-traditional workplace.” Or when faced with HR training on sexual harassment, Michael protests, “Okay, what is a lawyer going to come in and tell us? To not send out hilarious e-mails or not tell jokes?” How different is that from men who say they “can’t even feel safe saying ‘good morning’ anymore”?
Even audience surrogate Jim resonates differently in our current climate. “If Michael is the obvious villain, then Jim, the erstwhile hero, is the man who sees the abuse and stays silent for his own benefit,” the piece continues. “Jim is the audience stand-in, whose fourth-wall breaks have become a standard meme reaction when anyone is being obviously ridiculous. While the show laughs at Michael through layers of irony, Jim is the one we’re supposed to look to for how to feel. And mostly, he feels like the horrors of the workplace are none of his business.”
Truly, this is where the difference between the BBC and American versions of the show really emerge. Ricky Gervais’ original iteration ran for only 13 episodes (the last a 90-minute finale), and his boss was infinitely more reviled than Michael, who was often patted on the head but eventually rewarded for his bad behavior. David also sees himself fired by the end of the second season and in the finale working a thankless job while drinking himself into angry stupors. Sure, they give him some self-actualization in the final moments, but it’s safe to say the character’s behavior came back to bite him on the ass.
The satirical components of NBC’s The Office suffer because the show had to fit the premise’s inherent mean-spiritedness into the mold of a traditional American sitcom. As such, Michael and Dwight had to both maintain a sense of comedic consistency in terms of character while also remaining “likable” by network TV standards. And the effort of maintaining “likability” across nine seasons inevitably leads to sentimentality. Whatever bite that once existed is bound to lose its fangs.
Obviously, none of this means The Office isn’t funny. It’s objectively funny. But as the world changes, so do our sensibilities and our awareness of the ways in which injustice operates systematically. Who knows how the show will look if they actually end up bringing it back?
You can check out the whole thoughtful piece at GQ.