May 31, 2009 8 Comments
The Office (the American version) is one of the most conservative television shows I’ve ever seen. Here are three broad reasons.
Although the show has an ensemble cast and multiple storylines/recurring jokes, everyone understands the central, overarching joke is that the boss, Michael Scott, is pathetically needy and lonely, and craves adulation and love from everybody. But I wonder why it’s not more widely noted how often he clutches at empty-headed PC nostrums, wannabe “cool” pop-culture references, Oprah-style confessional group sessions, and similar tried and true…shall we say…left-wing tactics for becoming popular and staying the center of attention.
In other words, Michael Scott understands what few lefties have the self-awareness to understand themselves: many left-wing principles are best understood as techniques for showing off the moral superiority of the person spouting them, so that he will convince others he deserve adulation (and authority). The differences between Michael Scott and the run-of-the-mill lefty are that (1) Scott doesn’t really believe in anything he’s saying, because he’s just repeating things he’s heard on (for example) TV; and so, relatedly, (2) he’s a spectacular (and hilarious) failure at the moral posturing part, because he’s inept and everyone sees through him.
But at least he is astute enough to have picked up on what are the main sales pitches the mainstream left uses for themselves, their brilliance, their superiority, and their claims to power. Even if this is not the show’s intent (and it would surprise me greatly if it were), you can read The Office as a biting satire of leftist thinking and its usage in popular culture – and politics. (Perhaps Obama is essentially a skillful Michael Scott.) A side effect of this taking down of PC leads to my next point.
Stanley is “the black guy” of The Office. At least this is what Michael Scott thinks. But everyone else, including Stanley, ignores that fact.
Although The Office is “diverse”, what they do consistently is to defy any PC notions of race, ethnicity, ‘identity’. The only person who consistently cares about those things, in hilariously inept and latently-prejudiced ways, is Michael. The rest of the individuals mostly just want to be left alone to do their thing, and no one is really that interested in the subject. Not only that, but to play up the various identities – which only Michael does – is consistently portrayed as lame and uncouth. Michael’s PC overtures – I would say, PC notions in general – are made fun of on The Office, over and over again. They have nothing to do with the reality of peoples’ lives. And what do all the characters want to do with their lives? Get married, buy homes, make families – these truly conservative institutions are widely respected and admired on The Office.
The overall effect is perhaps less a “conservative” point of view than a libertarian one. People are treated as individuals, with all their quirks. Race/identity is not ignored but neither is it the be-all and end-all of a person. Stanley is black, so what. He’s married to a white woman, so what. Oscar is gay, so what. Angela from accounting is, of course, a more classically “conservative” stereotype (something like a ‘religious fundamentalist’, albeit not quite) – disapproving of Oscar’s homosexuality, etc. – and that is made fun of too. One of the most vicious targets of barbs is Toby, the spineless dweeb from HR, in theory the office’s most natural purveyor of PC – that’s all he does after all, since he does nothing tangible or revenue-generating. This leads me to,
A final, perhaps most significant reason the show strikes me as conservative is its treatment of business. Obviously it takes place in an “office”, but it’s worth mentioning that this is specifically a sales branch. The creators could have made this any kind of office. It could have been a government bureaucratic office of some kind, or some other place that is only about paper-pushing and form-processing, to try to make the usual points about office work we’ve already seen on Dilbert and Office Space. But what takes place in this office are primarily sales. The heroes and central characters are all salesmen. And being a salesman is treated with respect. We see them manning the telephones. We see them going on sales calls. Think about how rare this is on television!
What sort of jobs do we usually see on television? Lawyers, doctors and cops. People whose jobs are not necessarily about making a profit, but about bringing them into contact with “society’s problems” – which makes it easy to come up with new weekly storylines. These are roles that TV writers know how to write for, if only because there have been so many other lawyer, doctor, and cop shows, but also because such roles are sufficiently distant from the everyday lives of most people (which, of course, is part of their appeal) that you can just make stuff up and only a tiny minority would notice.
But when do you ever see salesmen on TV? When we do see a salesman, it’s likely to be the “used car salesman” character type, a wormy guy with a plaid jacket and no scruples. But on The Office the salesmen are all more or less decent people – well, except Dwight Schrute. But he’s the exception that proves the rule, because as contemptible and strange as that character is, sales is shown as the one area of life where Dwight can function normally. He’s the best salesman in the office! This is almost a paean to the beneficial role sales and business can have on society; just try to picture where Dwight would be in the world without sales.
To be sure, the show does get some mileage from occasionally joking about how this company and office are just middlemen – that they don’t make the paper they sell, they stand between wholesalers and business-side clients. But this fact is never used to smear the salesmen themselves. Indeed, in the world of The Office, sales is pretty much the coolest place to be – the corporate people in New York (while well-paid) are clueless and distant, often neurotic or troubled, a place where people flame out as often as they rise up; Michael the boss (and former good salesman; sales is “where he belongs”) is an idiot as a boss of course; accounting are boring nerds; and the warehouse guys are ok, but underpaid and unglamorous. The “coolest” character is Jim, a salesman. His fiancee Pam also recently moved up in the world – by demanding to be put on sales.
There is no hint of the lefty bias against profit-making or “putting profits over people”. Profits are shown to benefit people. Nobody on The Office could have a job without them (again, this sets it apart from doctor/lawyer/cop shows, doesn’t it?). Branches are closed without them. The lesson is clear. A recent storyline had Michael Scott splitting off and forming his own company with Pam and the temp. When they made their first sale they celebrated. When they sold their company for a nice sum they celebrated. As they should. But this was all “capitalism”.
Maybe my perspective has been screwed up by too much force exposure to PC nonsense, but think about it: How often do we actually see “capitalism” on TV, without a sneer, without cynicism, without portraying the profit-seekers as oily snakes?
The Office is a rarity. Intentionally or not, it’s a very conservative television show.