Scene from The Office episode “Promos.” (Tyler Golden/NBC)
The Office, which ends May 16, will take with it one of a precious few vaguely realistic depictions of working life off the air. Granted, the people who write about television haven’t been watching The Office for some time now. Partly that’s because Steve Carell left and partly because, I think, the longer we were in a recession, the less appealing an extended workday got. Either you’d lost your job, and the show reminded you, in slightly funnier form, of the life you’d once been leading. Or else, at a certain point, the drudgeries of the workplace had quit seeming all that funny.
Some of you will object that your workplaces were never anywhere near as full of character as the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Or, for that matter, the Wernham Hogg paper company that preceded it in the United Kingdom. To this contention I must present this story from my own experience: I once worked with a man who, apropos of absolutely nothing, purchased a lazy-boy chair and had it put in his midtown Manhattan office. At the time of this purchase, he was at best a rather junior employee. Everyone in the office began to wonder why he had purchased this chair, which suffice to say did not match the prevailing décor. In fact, we all referred to said employee as “The Chair,” basically forever after. It used to be a kind of sport to watch people walk down the hallway, glance casually into the door of his office, and come up short, realizing that yes, that was a recliner in that tiny office.
Then there was the employee with a slightly mysterious personal life who, when asked by the firm newsletter what his favorite place was, offered this reply: “Somewhere warm and deep.” We parsed that for weeks. It passed the time.
My point is that the The Office understood this sort of everyday absurdity. Sure, sometimes the storylines got a little wacky. But I was recently rewatching an episode in which Michael Scott (Carell) is explaining that he has brought everyone on a booze cruise because the office is just like a ship, and he is the captain, and it’s all a bit like Titanic (“No, I’m Leo DiCaprio, come on!”), and the sales department is the furnace, etc. And it dawned on me, watching it, how perilously close this is to a lot of the corporate pablum that is peddled, often enough, as “training exercises” in companies across America. The humor cut rather close to the bone. You don’t need to have your boss actually getting to the point where he screams “I’m the King of the World!” from a ship’s prow to see that.