The Americanisation of The Office – Jason Garske

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Jason Garske aka Jay the Echo is a Hip Hop artist and producer from the Bay Area, California. He is interested in the utilization of music and other media as a vessel for social change. Visit his website to see his work. 

diversity day
The Office 1×02 ‘Diversity Day’

The Americanisation of The Office

Created, written, and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the original UK version of The Office established a malleable format that would later be “hybridized” by different cultural perspectives. TV production is a very risky industry; making use of the universality of work and financial dependency, The Office maximises its appeal to a widespread audience. The different versions of The Office also minimise cultural discounts by appropriating the format to fit the culture. However, the American version of The Office arguably reached a level of success unparalleled by any of its counterparts.

The Office US was developed by comedy veteran Greg Daniels and NBCUniversal. Due to his experience with SNL, King of the Hill, and The Simpsons amongst other shows, Daniels knows how make a comedy appealing to the American public. When coupled with his insider knowledge, the appropriation and repackaging of a successful format also reduced some of the show’s risk-factor when presented to the public. The American Office is filled with topical pop culture references similar to those one would expect from an SNL script. Even some of its more blatant product placement strategies, when performed by hilarious characters, come across as endearing. NBC’s influence on the show’s content is overt. The Office and NBC’s sponsors give each other mutual shout-outs, and the show’s collaboration with iTunes has boosted its reach. NBC also helped the show’s ratings by providing the show with favourable viewing days and times.

Each episode of the Americanised version of The Office usually centres on a storyline driven by Michael’s shenanigans (Michael leaves the show later on, but this essay’s focus is on the first season). There are also one or two side-stories that intertwine with the main plot in every episode. Episodes are shot with a one or two-camera mockumentary style of videography, introducing a sense of false reality to the show. The characters are often give interviews, in which they respond to an implied question and usually comment on something relevant to the episode’s storyline.

The interviews also serve to efficiently develop a large cast of characters. The interviews are intimate, usually taking place in a secluded part of the office ,like the conference room.Therefore, the videographer and the camera itself act as an audience surrogate, allowing the viewers to hear unfiltered thoughts, reflections, and reactions to events driving the storyline. This intimacy is also amplified by the fact that the characters are often looking directly at the camera, rather than at the interviewer behind the camera. By breaking the 4th wall , the viewers feel that they are present, being addressed personally as the character speaks. This creates a more immediate connection to the characters because triumphs, comedic moments, and even moments of vulnerability are conveyed to the viewer via facial expressions and eye contact. This style is especially useful for the first season of The Office, because it takes surprisingly little time to develop the audience’s connection to a large cast of very different characters.

Characters also occasionally break the 4th wall outside of the interview setting. While all regular characters do so at one point or another, certain characters break the 4th wall more often to relate to the audience’s implied reaction to the events on screen. Jim often breaks the 4th wall as an immediate reaction to something ridiculous happening in the office. His character is developed in relation to the madness going on around him. He often glances at the camera with a look of bewilderment, or a look of good-natured but ironic compliance with his co workers’ stupidity. Pam is also developed in a similar way, often reacting in a more reasonable or socially acceptable manner than most of the other characters. Because their personalities are developed as most socially normal in juxtaposition with the ridiculousness going on around them, Jim and Pam often act as audience surrogates as well. Their facial expressions to the camera in critique of their coworkers’ behaviors represent the reactions that the audience is expected to relate to.

The Office also utilises a narrative device that is similar to the Bravo wink, a  strategy in that uses narrative techniques to poke fun at a character’s hypocrisy; a character usually makes a statement that is immediately undermined with irony. (Lee & Moscowitz 2013). During episode 4, “the Alliance”, Jim convinces Dwight that Pam is planning to have a secret phone conversation with Corporate in the warehouse regarding possible downsizing of their branch. Dwight agrees to have Jim seal him in a cardboard box in the warehouse in order to hear the conversation. During his interview Dwight asks, “Can I trust Jim? I don’t know. Do I have a choice? No, frankly, I don’t. Will I trust Jim? Yes. Should I trust Jim? You tell me….” (Episode 4, “The Alliance”). While he is speaking, the screen cuts to shots of Jim sealing Dwight in the cardboard box with tape. The audience, who understands that the whole situation is contrived to dupe him, is presented with the ironic result of the decision that he is deliberating. This kind of “wink” strategy emphasises the irony of the situation and ridicules Dwight’s character.

The Office can act as sociological model for studying inappropriate behavior in the workplace. It’s focus represents American culture’s emphasis on propriety, political correctness, and cultural sensitivity in the workplace (Griffin 2008). The show examines this by juxtaposing erratic characters with characters who conform to social norms. Characters like Dwight, Michael, and Kevin are caricatured exaggerations of office weirdos that seem to exist solely for the function of breaking the American social code.  Characters like Jim, Pam, and Ryan act as representations of normality caught in the storm of ridiculousness, and can act as audience surrogates in reaction to the inappropriate behavior.

In episode 2, “Diversity Day”, Ryan witnesses Michael’s shenanigans first hand on his very first day temping at the office. Michael asks Ryan to go along with the joke he’s about to make. Moments later he pretends to fire Pam, falsely accusing her of stealing from the office. Pam breaks into tears and Michael’s expectation that Ryan will play along puts him in a very awkward position. The situation is anyone’s first-day-on-the-job nightmare. Ryan chooses not to support either side, deciding not to comply and bully Pam but also deciding not to defend her for fear of losing his new boss’s favor. He keeps his head down and avoids eye contact after Pam storms out. The audience vicariously experiences Ryan’s feeling of awkwardness.

Sometimes, however, the more socially standard characters will participate in inappropriate office activity, but it is framed differently. The constant struggle between Dwight and Jim exemplifies this. Dwight is developed as an annoyance to Jim from the very beginning. In the pilot episode, he pushes Jim’s papers off of his desk, interrupts his biggest sale of the year, and then steals the sale for himself. When Jim gets back at him by putting his stapler in Jello, his childish office prank is portrayed as more justified [rational r] than a lot of the other inappropriate behavior. The comedic relief of seeing Dwight receiving justice veils Jim’s violation with humour.

Because the show frames characters like Jim and Pam in a sympathetic light, their behaviour is excused. Jim can be lazy at times, and spends much of his time flirting with Pam (who is engaged) at the reception desk rather than working. His constant pranking of Dwight is validated, and depicted as mild in comparison to Michael’s violations of office code. Pam always goes along with Jim’s harassment, enabling and perpetuating inappropriate office behavior. Jim and Pam are also more defensible because their characters are more developed than other characters, and are therefore viewed as more dynamic human beings. The first season of the show spends a lot more time developing their romance than most of the other characters’ backgrounds.

The truth of the matter is that the characters that The Office spends time developing the most are the white heterosexual characters. The viewers get to know Michael, Jim, Pam, and Dwight better than any of the other characters in the first season. This reinforces the idea that white heterosexual characters, as a part of mainstream culture’s dominant group, are viewed as more relatable and marketable by the television industry. While the show doesn’t involve the immersion of one white person into a new culture, its strategy still relates to Kohan’s idea behind the white “trojan horse”; it is the appropriation of white character’s marketability for the sake of immersing the viewership in an unfamiliar culture (Enck & Morrissey 2015).

White heterosexual characters in The Office, especially Michael, face the challenge of being culturally sensitive to the characters that represent more diverse backgrounds. The Office utilises this strategy to discuss and critique harassment culture in the workplace. In the episode entitled “Diversity Day”, Michael gets in trouble for reenacting a racially-charged Chris Rock skit and Corporate mandates that his branch has to go through diversity training. However, the one-day training is insufficient. When the diversity training representative asks Michael to sign the form, Michael responds, “well it says here that I learned something, and I knew this stuff already, so…” The representative eventually gets Michael to sign the form, mainly because he can’t leave until Michael does so.  Michael recognises that he just wants to leave, so he pretends to sign his name muttering, “here I was thinking you actually cared about diversity training… and you don’t”. Later in the episode, Michael proceeds to hold his own diversity training, where he assigns each coworker a race/ethnicity card and encourages them to “treat each other like the race that is on the card”. During this ethically-warped exercise, Michael walks around the room encouraging them to “push it”, “get ugly”, and “get real”.

Michael, who clearly hadn’t learned anything, was still let off easy for his racial insensitivity because the diversity training representative just wanted to complete his objective of getting Michael’s signature. Here, The Office comments on obligatory sensitivity training in the American workplace; how it is often ineffective and only exists to boost the company’s image and make them appear socially aware. Unfortunately, Michael’s comment about the representative rings true and the lack of any progress made challenges American political correctness culture. This episode reveals the toxicity of the image-oriented procedures of American business, and the lack of sincerity behind the dominant culture’s supposedly progressive practices.

The show also provides examples of the failure of stereotypes to accurately predict characters’ personalities, skillsets, and behaviors. In the “Basketball” episode, Michael challenges the warehouse workers to a game of basketball during lunch. When assembling his team, Michael makes assumptions based on his coworkers’ appearances and backgrounds. His first pick is “Stanley, of course”. Stanley responds, asking “why of course? What’s that supposed to mean?” Michael’s assumption that Stanley is good at basketball is clearly a result of the fact that Stanley is African American. Michael ignores Phyllis’ plea to play, probably making assumptions about her skill level based on her gender and weight, despite the fact that she played basketball in school. Michael also rejects Oscar’s request to play based on his Mexican identity, suggesting that “I will use your talents come baseball season, my friend. Or if we box”.

In a Bravo-wink type sequence directly following this scene, Oscar and Kevin both show their prowess by shooting trash accurately into recycling cans. During the game, Stanley is so bad that he has trouble even dribbling the ball. After the game, Kevin shoots around and sinks several shots in a row from different locations on the court. The irony that Michael rejected the exceptional basketball players, and selected a bad one reveals the ineffectiveness of his stereotyping. In this way, The Office displays the individuality of its characters and warns against making assumptions based on race, gender, and stature.

Gender is another recurring theme in The Office. Violation of gender sensitivity in The Office most often takes the form of brief comments and microaggressions. In “Basketball”, Michael asks Pam to dress “youthful” and to be a cheerleader for their basketball team. She refuses, but Jim jokingly volunteers to do so, and dress in a “little flouncy skirt”. While Michael responds, telling Jim to not “be too gay on the court”, Jim breaks the 4th wall. His expression invites the audience to shame Michael’s insensitive retort.

Jim’s initial joke reveals the misogyny behind Michael’s request. Because Michael doesn’t want a male cheerleader, it is clear that his request comes from hegemonic masculinity’s self-entitlement to the objectification of femininity. Jim’s joke criticises Michael’s over-sexualisation of Pam, and tears down the cisgender male gaze. Jim then transitions to audience surrogate as his expression appropriately addresses Michael’s homophobic retort.

The Office invites socially aware viewers to participate in disapproving of Michael’s inappropriate behaviors, and provides a medium through which to examine such behavior in the American workplace. However, it could be argued that The Office also enables improper conduct. This is partially because Michael doesn’t appear to face any real lasting consequences as a result of his wildly inappropriate behavior.

Despite choosing the wrong players for his team because of his stereotyping, Michael’s basketball team still wins. He faces no penalty for his racism, sexism, and implicit biases. Instead of signing his real name on the diversity-training contract, Michael signs “Daffy Duck”. His refusal to comply with the procedure reveals his lack of motivation to change at all, and though we still are often invited to disapprove of his insensitivity, he still gets away with it. After being challenged by Stanley for choosing him for the basketball team, Michael denies ever hearing himself say “of course”. Jim briefly attempts to make Michael acknowledge his own racism by saying “I heard it too”, but Michael deflects his comment by saying “people hear a lot of things, Jim”. Despite the laughable lack of logic behind his defense, Michael’s position as the office’s superior deters anyone from further pursuing any sufficient level of confrontation. Perhaps the show is commenting on a problematic symptom of social hierarchy in the workplace, and the fear of confrontation that enables the madness to continue.

Most cases of sexual harassment in The Office also go unpunished (unacknowledged, even). Michael constantly comments on Pam’s attractiveness, and even evaluates her in comparison with another woman in episode 6, “Hot Girl”. Kevin does the same thing moments later, and neither of the men face real consequences. During Michael’s racially-insensitive exercise in “Diversity Day”, Meredith looks at someone’s card that says “Asian” on it, and she says “I would never date you”. This turns the perpetual desexualization of Asian men into a quick throw-away joke that is presented without any kind of commentary or consequence for it.

Also, the role of diversity in the first season of The Office should also be reevaluated. Because most of the time is spent developing white heterosexual characters, those that don’t fit the dominant sexuality or racial background essentially become potential pitfalls for Michael’s insensitivity. Unfortunately, because they are developed less (especially early on in the series), their identities initially only serve give Michael more material to be offensive. Later on in the series, the writers introduce Oscar as a gay character arguably for the sake of creating tension when Michael is uses homophobic language. This runs the risk of “othering” characters to the point where their identities have no meaning beyond becoming targeted and further marginalised. Luckily, the multitude of later seasons of The Office make up for the 1st season’s less-than thorough navigation of diversity to some degree.

As a documentary-style show that is intimate with its audience, the characters become very real to viewers. Studies show that people tend to compare and blur their realities with the simulated reality on the television screen (Yang & Oliver 2003). Some of the actors from The Office even have blogs that they write in-character. All of these factors contribute to the the way the events in the show are internalised by the viewer’s subconsciousness. The Office’s perceived realness is part of why it’s so important that its content reflects some accurate representation of reality, or constructively comments on the status quo rather than contributing to the perpetuation of ignorance.

Endnotes

Enck, Suzanne & Megan Morrissey. (2015). “If Orange Is the New Black, I Must Be Color Blind: Comic Framings of Post-Racism in the Prison-Industrial Complex.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 32(5): 303-317.

Griffin, Jeffrey. (2008). “The Americanization of The Office: A Comparison of the Offbeat NBC Sitcom and Its British Predecessor.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 35(4): 154-163.

Lee, Michael & Leigh Moscowitz. (2013). “Rich Bitch: Class & Gender on RHONYC.” Feminist Media Studies 13(1): 64-82.

Soc of TV Cheat Sheet #1

Soc of TV Cheat Sheet #2

Soc of TV Lecture #11

Yang, Hyeseung & Mary Oliver. (2003), p.118-128;133-136: “Exploring the Effects of TV Viewing on Perceived Life Quality: A Combined Perspective of Material Value & Upward Social Comparison.” Mass Communication & Society 13(2): 118-138.

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