In the American version of The Office, the occasionally funny but undeniably impotent sitcom that ran for nine seasons from 2005 to 2013, there is exactly one moment that resonates in our new cultural climate. It comes in Season 7, after the show itself had fizzled into diluted self-imitation, during one of the last episodes I watched in an on-again, off-again Netflix binge. Jim Halpert commits an act of surprising and atypical cruelty by hitting his co-worker Dwight Schrute with a snowball at his desk. It’s a fastball right to the face, and though it should have made me like Jim for finally taking a break from his irritating ironic detachment, it had the opposite effect—it highlighted his unearned arrogance. Which made what came next beautiful, in its way. Dwight began to terrorize Jim, and not just with retaliatory attacks. He escalated from basic revenge, a snowball for a snowball, into psychological warfare. It got to the point that Jim became afraid of his own shadow and was finally emasculated in the office parking lot in front of his wife Pam. Dwight understands that to win at a game like this, it’s not enough to hit your enemy with a snowball. You must take up residence inside his head; you must become a ubiquitous shadow delivering constant fear.
The year 2020 belongs to men like Dwight. He is presented mostly as a harmless eccentric on The Office, with the occasional coup—pepper spraying Roy, for instance—that is almost instantly undermined by something buffoonish. On the whole, he’s pathetic—someone who eventually loses to Jim, is less than Jim, does not occupy the same social strata as Jim. While Jim presents a facade of smug superiority, an entitlement apparently earned by being “normal,” Dwight is at least sincere and outspoken in his heinous beliefs. Jim is a whiner, because he understands deep down that his desire to be perceived as exceptional has no merit. He’s a product of a bygone time in America, an interregnum between the swaggering post-New Deal boomtown America and the capitalist apocalypse, where an entire generation of mostly white people could just flounder lazily in cubicles at fictional-adjacent jobs and live profitable, unexceptional lives. (I just missed this Gray Age, and that fact makes me simultaneously grateful and bitter.)
Jim has a faint yearning for more. He wants fulfillment, and yet he wants it for existing. Annoyingly, the show gives him a neutered version for free: the nice wife, the steady job, the sense of false elitism and coolness expressed in a raised eyebrow to the camera. Over and over, Jim Halpert gets validation for having no personality. He’s basically the Obama of paper salesmen—a nice idea, in theory, and with good presentation, but ultimately a hollow avatar who can only be adored today by people with no real values.
Dwight Schrute, on the other hand, is a fucking monster, and 2020 would belong to him. In the best-case scenario, he’d be an intense Trump supporter with only vague white supremacist ideals. (On that front, his obsession with his German heritage doesn’t bode well.) In the worst-case scenario, he’d be the next version of George Zimmerman—a bootlicker with a taste for confrontation, a wannabe cop with a gun who inserted himself stupidly into bad situations and then stood his ground. What Dwight does to Jim in the snowball episode is dark, and evil, and only redeemable because Jim is a squishy arrogant upjumped snob who deserves to be confronted by the miserable reality that all of us, watching today, know is coming for him. But Dwight would not stop there. Dwight has ultimate belief in his own righteousness, evidence be damned, and men like that in 2020 cannot be contained.
This, everything you read above, is what I’d say if you asked me that question: What’s it like to watch The Office in 2020?
Answer: It’s existentially frustrating, a tribute to American mediocrity. Also: Very watchable, especially if you’re doing something else at the same time, like playing online poker. Pretty funny at times, very funny at others. I intermittently enjoyed it. A solid B+.
But mostly, mostly, this binge is an ongoing act of mild anguish.
It’s an article of faith among comedy nerds that the British version of The Office is a far superior show, to the point that it’s basically a cliche—something you say if you want to sound smart. But the fact that it’s practically a cool kids mantra doesn’t make it any less true. The U.K. Office is better because it was made with courage. David Brent, the Michael Scott equivalent, is a loathsome, selfish, despicable toad, and nobody tries to pretend otherwise. Tim and Dawn, the Jim and Pam originals, actually look like normal people instead of Better Homes & Gardens models. Gareth (Dwight) is presented as appropriately annoying. When the U.K. version delves into sentimentality, it feels earned because the rest of the show is appropriately cynical and hopeless. Critically (oh so critically!) it recognizes the soul-killing milieu of the corporate hell they occupy, and how it turns the occupants into bleating hunkered sheep who, in perpetual states of near despair, mistake their sad accidental affiliation for friendship. The “office” itself is a real character, killing everyone in its path, and that’s why it’s called The Office instead of David Brent Is a Prick. You can feel the spiritual erosion in your bones, and it feels bad. In the American remake, the physical office is more like a clubhouse where one-note characters come to play pranks and/or complain.
Michael Scott … I know I have to talk about him, but what is there to say? He’s a psychopathic deviant who manages to be racist and homophobic at least twice per episode, in between bouts of blatant sexual harassment, but the really offensive content is when the writers constantly paint him as sympathetic. Worse, they reward his ham-fisted egocentrism with a series of attractive partners, when in fact he should have been murdered in a bar fight sometime around age 19, dead before he could lose his virginity.
There are only two funny characters on the show, Dwight and Andy Bernard, and it’s no coincidence that they’re also the only two with a sense of rage at the gross, simpering world around them. One’s aggressive, and one’s a fuming doormat, but at least they’re responding to the correct stimuli.
Is it weird to think politically about The Office, seven years after it ended? Is this whole thing just an act of pointless cruelty? If you like the American Office in something more than a passive way, you likely crave reassurance. I know I do. Escapism today doesn’t mean drifting off into fantasy, but returning to the drab boredom of a life that was soul-killing but at least safe. I would argue that it was designed that way from the start. It’s why a bunch of genius creators and writers put their brilliant minds together and produced comfort food. The goal here, which they accomplished brilliantly, was to be at the top of the network pile—funny enough to stand out among the Mike & Molly landscape, but not to challenge or make anyone too uncomfortable. You could walk that line then; hell was on the horizon, but we weren’t quite there. It’s why it still works so well as background noise, and it’s how I managed to get through almost seven full seasons.
Still, the show was intuitive enough to show us our path forward. Just as Parks & Rec, another Greg Daniels production, foresaw the future in the grim person of Ron Swanson, The Office gave us Dwight Schrute. They did their best to make him a purely comic figure, but beneath the genuine laughs, there’s something sinister that didn’t quite make sense until after the show ended. We’re in the time of Schrute, when a propensity for violence, a blind worship of authority, and a disdain for rule-breakers are the unmistakable hallmarks of the emerging fascists. By the end, the writers understood, if only subconsciously: Dwight bought the office building where they all work, cuckolds a state senator, and becomes Jim’s boss. He’s exerting his control.
Here’s the secret: The Jim Halperts of the world were always weak, their smirks always ineffectual. He’s one of the human muppets the show depicts so well, the kind you can watch all day without feeling anything beyond a vague interest. He’s the quintessence of the forgettable late Gen-X second-rater, and if aliens of the future want to know how we blundered our way into the current mess, they need only spend a few hours watching the way these wilting potato sacks flopped through life without understanding their own complicity in our wider cultural collapse.
Their failure is a failure to care. If you live for nothing, you expect nothing, but here’s the really funny part: You get so much worse. You get Dwight Schrute.
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