The US Office Character Studies

The Office started out in 2001 as a UK mockumentary devised by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I can’t enjoy the level of cringe executed by the UK cast, especially the Ricky Gervais boss, who make me want to curl into a ball due to transferred humiliation. But like many, many other viewers I love the concept. I soon turned to the American spin-off starring Steve Carell as boss Michael Scott. The American Office ran for nine seasons (2005-2013), which makes it one of the most successful comedy series in history. Mockumentaries enjoyed a new lease of life, leading to another favourite of mine, This Country.

From a storytelling point of view, many the characters of The Office are genius comedic creations. We’ve seen some these characters before, in real life as well as in comedy. But some of the archetypes feel fresh. Each member of the cast is a successful blend of archetype and individuality. As some have said, Moreover, together they work perfectly in a comedic character web. Unusually, these characters ‘turn on a dime’. Just when you think you know who they are, they exhibit a newer, more terrible side. For example, I had a soft spot for Gabe until he endured romantic rejection, at which point he became a petulant, entitled brat.

Politically, the show is not without its problems. Many of its gags rely on ‘hipster’ racism, sexism, homophobia, fat-phobia… The problem with ‘hipster -isms’ utilised as gags is that an audience is expected to direct laughs at the character exemplifying those ‘obviously’ problematic attitudes. In reality, a broad audience laughs also at the marginalised groups caught up in the joke. Hipster -isms work both ways, highlighting oppression to those who already see it for what it is and, for the less enlightened segment of any audience, serve to reinforce stereotypes.

Poe’s Law describes when a parody comes so close to reality that the audience can no longer be sure it’s parody. 

The Office has been accused of falling into this category. Many of the gags rely on the audience recognising that Michael Scott is both racist and sexist (among other terrible character flaws). Michael Scott is also a highly sympathetic character, and after the first season, deliberately written that way. (It seems American audiences have a lower tolerance for cringe comedy, same as non-American but also non-British me.) Here’s a truism about empathy in storytelling: any time a character suffers humiliation, the audience tends to side with them, even if humiliation was entirely brought upon themselves.

Because of this empathy, for some members of the audience, Michael Scott’s sexism and racism may be funny in a way which discourages critique of these ideas, reinforcing problematic cultural norms. For this reason, The Office is sometimes said to be an artifact of an earlier time. These days, simply exhibiting sexism and racism, and expecting an audience to gasp at the spectacle, cannot in its own right constitute a joke.

JIM HALPERT

I despise Jim. I start to get really, really annoyed by him sometime in Season 2. He laughs conspiratorially with the audience while failing entirely to stand up for what’s right. Jim Halpert looks good only because he’s surrounded by complete turds.

An article at GQ by Jaya Saxena describes Jim perfectly and ends with this:

We were told it was okay to be the Jim. Now I know it’s as bad as being the Michael.

Jaya Saxena

Basically, early seasons Jim Halpert is the dominant culture’s idea of a Good Man, without him being an actively good man at all. The bar is so low for able-bodied cis, heterosexual white men that by doing nothing at all, he is Good. Clementine Ford deals with the concept of the Good Man extensively in her book Boys Will Be Boys, and also in this article. The following sentence summarises her view:

Sure, most men might not be bad. But it takes more than ‘not being bad’ to be ‘actually good’.

For viewers who already understand how Jim Halpert benefits from his quiet privilege, this character is a fantastic depiction of it. But how many viewers really understand the extent to which he’s coasting by on privilege? How many believe his promotion and eventual high salary are a reward for his decency and level-headedness, and Goodness?

I believe the writers encouraged their audience to switch to a more critical view of Jim at the exact point Charles Miner (played by Idris Elba) joins Dunder-Mifflin. Charles Miner doesn’t automatically love Jim for his affable friendliness. After all, Jim is coasting. He’s a complete slacker. It required a character without Jim’s white privilege in order to see that clearly.

In subsequent seasons, the writers sometimes do make Jim stand up for what’s right. Off the stage, is this because Jim is the father of a daughter now? Is this because the writing team wanted more woke viewers to like him again?

HUMOUR ASSOCIATED WITH JIM

Character Humour: It takes quite a few seasons before the audience is encouraged to laugh at Jim rather than alongside him, and I am going with the theory that the writers were responding to criticism that Jim had become annoying. ‘Annoying’ is a story killer. But when Jim becomes a parent, we are now gently encouraged to laugh in recognition at white, middle-class new parenthood. Pam is parodied alongside Jim, as Cece’s careful and anxious mother. Mr and Mrs Halpert become drawn into their own cosy world of new parenthood and now become slightly distanced from the audience. They have become the ultimate smug married couple. After marriage and Cece, for the first time we are shown a little friction between Jim and Pam which doesn’t derive from the frustration of being apart.

Slapstick Humour: Jim never stops playing pranks on Dwight, and Dwight never stops falling for them. The writers keep Jim’s set-up off the stage. We never see him set up these elaborate gags, completely replacing Dwight’s desk with a cardboard version or whatever, but if we did see Jim in action, his elaborate schemes would make him out to be as crackpot as Dwight. How early must he come into work to carry out some of these schemes?

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