This week The Office, the Steve-Carrell-led TV satire, made headlines to the tune of fan outrage when it was announced that Netflix lost its long-held rights to the show when the streaming service was outbid by NBC. The show, which ran from 2005–2013, found a new generation of fans who discovered it on Netflix long after it originally aired on TV. Rumor has it NBC plans to use the show to galvanize its own fledgling subscription streaming service, banking on the The Office’s entrenched popularity.
The show, the work of many now-famous Hollywood names such as Michael Schur and Mindy Kaling (who have arguably yet to create anything as solid), is the sort that viewers either love or hate. In that, the show is, perhaps shockingly, a lot like the work of Flannery O’Connor. Odd as it sounds, closer examination yields a wealth of creative similarities between the dry Southern Catholic writer of the past century and the most popular TV show of the present one.
For starters, both O’Connor’s stories and The Office focus on settings and characters that might appear too mundane to be of interest: the rural, impoverished, and unglamorous American South, for O’Connor; regional paper company Dunder Mifflin and its office drones in the unhip town of Scranton, for The Office.
Flannery O’Connor wrote not about exotic or romantic characters or plots, but homegrown human beings with their natural flaws and wrinkles, elevating their small-town struggles to the level of universal truth. The Office takes the same approach: unlike, for instance, the lighter fare Parks and Recreation, which is invariably upbeat in its character sketches, people in The Office are eminently human: broken, lazy, deceptive, short-tempered, irritating—lovably real. Of course, this means that, just as in O’Connor’s stories, people in The Office have an ugly side.
Viewers who don’t like the show complain that they can’t bear the “cringe-worthiness” of the social embarrassments it conjures up, not unlike how some sensitive readers find the grim brutality in O’Connor’s stories too distasteful to swallow. And the similarity, moreover, deepens in this: unpleasant elements in both creations have a point, and that point is social or spiritual critique. Flannery O’Connor famously used violence to get her point across; The Office employs satire to the same end—particularly in the emotionally-violent form of social awkwardness.
In each case, this ugliness is used to point out a transcendent truth hidden within human situations. But where in O’Connor’s stories it is used in a grim, aggressive, or violent way, to shock one into seeing the truth, The Office uses ugliness like the disproportionality of a clown suit (or a sumo suit): the incongruity becomes not just an occasion for laughter but an opening of a window onto a new vision of reality. All good comedy, like the disproportions of a caricature, alerts us to things we might not have otherwise had the vision to see. Thus we laugh at ourselves when we laugh at The Office. And perhaps that is one point in which The Office has an advantage with audiences over O’Connor: Flannery O’Connor takes aim at our pride by shocking us into sobriety. The Office takes aim at our pride by letting us laugh at ourselves. For laughter is impossible without humility—the perspective of truth which allows us to realize how petty are the egos that imagine themselves so grandiose.
Pride and its devastating effect on human community are the targets of many of O’Connor’s stories—The Displaced Person, The Enduring Chill, Revelation, and, famously, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, for instance. Likewise, pride, taking oneself too seriously, is typically the butt of The Office’s jokes. With a few tweaks, the explosive confrontation scene in the waiting room in O’Connor’s Revelation could take place in the conference room of Dunder Mifflin, with Michael Scott in the shoes of Mrs. Turpin: a self-righteous individual makes a series of tactless, narrow-minded, and judgmental remarks about other people present, until retribution and revelation comes swiftly on his/her head. Kelly Kapoor slaps Michael for his racist comments; Mrs. Turpin gets a book thrown at her head by Mary Grace.
The show ruthlessly pillories a whole host of vices all too common in modern life—vanity, pettiness, egotism, superficiality, self-absorption, hypocrisy, cowardice. In the early seasons, Michael Scott is the focus of this skewering; but as the writing develops and the characters mature, other characters each take a turn having their sins—and their idiosyncratic blindness to them—dissected for laughs: Jim’s apathy, Pam’s prissiness, Dwight’s authoritarianism, Angela’s judgmentalism, Oscar’s intellectual vanity, Stanley’s short temper, Kevin’s gluttony. Yet, though the satire is biting, the show values the humanity of almost every character and allows them a pitiable side. Take Dwight, whose aggressive ambition and social ineptitude generate some of the series’ most brilliant laughs. The viewer is allowed to feel even Dwight’s pains: being rejected in love, losing a friend, longing to have children. Dunder Mifflin’s drones thus have something in common with O’Connor’s characters, who are so often a complex construction of vices and virtues, like the hyper-critical grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard to Find who realizes (too late) the need to humbly seek out the good in other human beings.
In fact, in some ways The Office is closer to O’Connor than to its TV successors. The show spanned the cultural revolution occasioned by smartphones and social media, filmed largely before the sharp surge in political correctness and progressivism of the past decade. Thus the early seasons recollect a world, now strange and distant, when people were not perpetually connected to the Internet and pressured to be “woke”; so it can possess the nuance and boldness to laugh at, say, diversity training, in ways that would never fly today, as Steve Carrell himself has said. (It’s 2019, after all.) Thus Oscar, the gay accountant, could with subtle self-awareness shrug off Michael’s slurs, mollified by corporate offering him a lavish vacation, and joke about not caring whether Michael says something offensive again because, after all, he’d like to remodel his kitchen.
Of course, The Office doesn’t see eye-to-eye with O’Connor on many things; most notably in its inevitably modern sexual ethics and occasionally heavy-handed reliance on sexual humor (though in this it is arguably much less offensive than many succeeding TV shows of the last decade). But modern relationships, with their ambiguous sex-first-maybe-marriage-later pattern, are also placed under the microscope of satire in The Office; all their ironies are held up for us to appreciate, as when Pam, who at the series’ opening is living with her fiancé but hasn’t set a wedding date, has to call in the warranty on the toaster oven she got for her bridal shower three years previously. Perhaps the most obvious in this case is Michael’s romantic history; though he longs for marriage and kids, his desperation to be loved and immature approach to sexuality leads him down a long road of unfortunate hookups and deep heartbreak before he finds the woman he wants to marry. The cycle of modern romance he traverses hurts him over and over.
So while The Office obviously lacks Catholic O’Connor’s moral depth perception, it does share many other targets: racism, infidelity, viewing your fellow men merely as tools to boost your own ego. Despite its flaws, The Office, like O’Connor, opened a window to see the grace in the ordinary; even to see lost opportunities for grace in the ordinary. “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things,” Pam reflects in the final episode, “Isn’t that kind of the point?”
If real art is meant to hold up a mirror to life, to give us a new perspective on the truth about ourselves or reality, then it is arguably hard to find many post-Seinfeld sitcoms that do that. But The Office did hold up a mirror to modern life to let us see its idiosyncrasies, even if it was only a fun-house mirror. And in that, it was very like what O’Connor did—though perhaps her approach was more “through a glass, darkly.”
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