The advantage that TV shows have over movies is the sheer amount of time at their disposal for character development. And there are few shows that have taken to exploiting this advantage with a sense of zeal that has rarely ever been achieved as has the American version of The Office.

It is supposed to be funny. And it is. The shenanigans the characters get themselves into episode after episode are creative and endlessly amusing. The problem is that, as the seasons go on, it feels like we are laughing at the characters, not with them. It is a strange show on insisting to never allow its characters any extended period of happiness.

Every success is met with ever greater threats to personal and professional life; every emotional contentment is checked with a life crisis. It is a sitcom that takes place inside a universe filled with angst, regret and constant failure. There are moments of light-hearted comedy, but it is an overall depressing affair that takes to task most things we hold dear to life, such as love, friendship and trust.

Adopted from a British sitcom of the same name that shot Ricky Gervais to fame, The Office is set in what is supposed to be a branch of a typical, modern American paper company called Dunder Mifflin. It is supposed to be a workplace where the characters try desperately to keep their private lives out of their professional ones.

But, of course, this is impossible. As much as the modern corporate structure attempts to formalise and rationalise relationships between co-workers, the personal sneaks its head in. Human resource departments, endless paperwork, cubicles and the compartmentalisation of tasks are no match for personalities, attitudes, beliefs, ethnic identities and sexual attractions.

We are no less animals just because we have been forced into working spaces.

The embodiment of the general tone of absurdity and hopelessness the show wants to set up is Michael Scott (Steve Carell), the branch manager. He has the intellect of Homer Simpson, the political sensitivity of Donald Trump (but in a more well-meaning way) and the maturity of a 12-year-old. Yet responsibility falls on his shoulders to oversee the management of the branch, which he bumbles through thanks to his professional underlings.

He gets more second chances than any real life might have afforded him. But he manages to be lovable, partly because of the thoughtful performance of Carell, partly because of his loyalty to his employees.

What Michael sees in the branch office is not just one other extension of a company that sells paper but a place where people meet, become friends, fall in love and grow together. It is a sacred place, and its importance is evident in more than yearly performances. It is about people, and he is there to make their lives easier. Some of Michael’s mischief has not aged well, especially the racial and sexual jokes, but there is something about such a dedication to the employees, the troops, the crew, that partially excuses his behaviour.

Another employee that manages to be lovable despite his misogyny, homophobia and racism is Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), also a farmer of German ancestorship. For most of the season, he comes off as unlikable, but manages to win over audiences in his ability to surprise everyone by showing personal improvement and a hidden sympathy for others. Here, too, what redeems the character most is the loyalty he shows for his fellow workers and a sycophancy to Michael that is never properly explained throughout the series.

Besides Dwight and Michael are an assortment of employees with diverse personalities, all of which are developed over the seasons into three-dimensional characters. They are all used as punching bags to a life that gets the last laugh. It is a point made again and again throughout the episodes, with the caveat that some level of relief may be found from the general discomforts of life by belonging to the group and finding its acceptance.

But there is a plot point that runs throughout the show that escapes a logical explanation and seems quite out of place with The Office’s despondent theme: the fairytale-like romantic relationship between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). It is a relationship that keeps reinventing itself, even as every character wallows in personal misery.

These two characters are given their personal piece of heaven; they are perfectly content with each other. True, there are attempts here and there by scriptwriters to throw some challenges their way but nothing of the kind of daunting personal and professional life crisis every other character has to live through.

They are left alone to play some very sophisticated pranks on Dwight and remind everyone of the good fortune some people are rewarded with without having to put any more effort into their endeavours than everyone else has. Their romantic relationship - for a show that insists on realism, despite the absurdity thrown in for laughs - is a deus ex machina, and their existence serves as a reference point to how abnormal and unfortunate everyone else is.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 25,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1056]

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