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The Office - Season One (A TV on DVD Review)

The Office

Season One - 2004 (Universal Home Video-2005)

In most cases, television never gets the office environment right, and most real-life office slaves – who watch TV precisely to escape their pointless daytime duties – don’t seem motivated enough to write angry letters about the infuriatingly glaring inaccuracies.

Office comedies are usually put together by people who have barely ever stepped foot in an office long enough to contemplate plunging themselves bodily into the paper shredder; workplace series are almost always set in the glamour-puss world of Manhattan, which doesn’t count. TV offices have very little to do with the subtleties of office politics or even the drudgery of real work.

The TV office has always been window dressing – a half-baked afterthought or a thin-mint excuse for a specific storyline -- almost forever a second home to lovable scamps and outrageous situations; nothing that happens between the confines of those walls or that script would ever truly occur in the suppressed, strangling atmosphere of the corporate center at the next Turnpike exit down from you.

With this in mind, it’s amazing that the first season of The Office is so on the money: it’s horrifyingly accurate about the quiet deadness of office life, and yet compellingly entertaining and wildly truthful without ever pulling out stops to prove it.

Deliberately designed as far from the most exciting show on television, and purposely set in a drab place (Scranton, PA) about a boring business (paper products), The Office gets the job done. Here, the energy that keeps the series moving is that there is no energy.

Like a breath of stale air conditioning, we are locked in a claustrophobic cubicle with employees who have long since given up. We are exposed – via a mild, tired documentary – to a herd of beaten-down chattel with their emotions long-stifled, their feelings not communicated, and their pauses intensely awkward. In fact, these uncomfortable lapses in conversation have become a staple of the show’s brand, and those silent seconds say worlds more than any flimsy sitcom character or any misguided attempt to be real.

Everyone steps carefully. No one questions this corruption of life – not while there is a mortgage or a car payment to be made. It’s a maze of scared mice.

“I’m boring myself just talking about this,” says one employee as he tries to explain his job function. The receptionist confides in us, quietly, “I don’t think it would be the worst thing if they let me go.” The accountant sums it up with, “I don’t want to get laid off. This place is like five minutes from my house.”

All of this bold, simple truth is given to us straight out of the laser printer, without a laugh track or silly incidental music to soften the blow – thank goodness.

We really don’t need anything or anybody to shake things up and ruin the cold, depressing reality, but we get it anyway, in the character of Michael Scott (Steve Carell, of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin). Fortunately, his Robin-Williams-like stream of consciousness actually magnifies the stillness of the office and drives the point home more intensely.

This middle-manager nerd, with all his tyrannical delusions and lack of a true sense of protocol, makes us all see the bastards of our lives: the idiot with power. He rules, with a goofy glove, over an indifferent fiefdom. However, in all fairness to him, we also realize that if the employees would just loosen up and relax a bit, they may actually find their boss sort of funny. This will never happen.

During the first season’s best episode, about the illogical direction and misguided intention of diversity training, Scott says in a filmed industrial, “Abraham Lincoln once said that if you are a racist, I will attack you from the North. And those are the principles that I carry with me in the workplace.” This makes as much sense as your own company’s mission statement that boasts of a “commitment to excellence.” It means nothing. It just sounds impressive.

Meanwhile, the sales department’s ringing phones go unanswered while the sales force is stuck helplessly in the diversity classroom, and the company’s minority employees wind up being humiliated – not empowered -- by the training itself.

Somebody here has really, really worked in an office.

The boss’ heroes include Bob Hope, Abraham Lincoln, Bono and God (“These people helped the world in so many ways.”). And in a plea to relate to an employee, he asks, “Where is my Oprah moment?”

Those moments will forever be denied, but there are tiny hints at the spark of life, with the help of salesman Jim and receptionist Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer). It’s obvious that they have a crush on each other, mostly because the two of them are young enough and smart enough to know that something is definitely wrong here. They view their world like a Twilight Zone episode, acknowledging the perversion yet not changing the channel.

Whereas Michael Scott is out of rhythm with the rest of the office as a negative force, Jim and Pam become a passive-aggressive power that moves the rhythm counter clockwise. Pam is in purgatory (for three years, she has been engaged to an asshole) – and, like so many underworked and underutilized receptionists, she plays solitaire on the computer. Jim, on the other hand, knows he’s smarter and more competent than anyone around him, but works at not showing it. We pray that his spirit does not decay; he only truly comes alive when he is hanging out with Pam. All office people have been there.

“If this were my career,” Jim says, “I’d throw myself in front of a train.” We hear this and feel a glimmer of hope, cheering for his eventual escape.

The Office is based on a hit BBC series of the same name and given an American flavor that reeks of real. Congratulations to the writers (many of whom actually appear in the show as regular employees) for capturing the despair of office life so accurately. They are to be commended for their “commitment to excellence.”

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: August 16, 2005.

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