In Defense of the Dancing Bear

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When I first watched the BBC2 series, The Office, I was struck by how dull it was. The story was very non-narrative, the characters (for the most part) unlikable and I simply didn’t get the show’s comedic elements. I had a change of heart, however, when in my African Cinema class we screened Sissako’s 1999 film, Life On Earth. These two may at first seem non-related, but I can explain… Sissako’s film is an exemplar of post-modern minimalism in African cinema; the story is non-narrative, the characters are unimportant, the cinematography relies on long takes,  drawn out shots and silence. Much of what I disliked in The Office I ended up defending in Sissako’s film. I found myself compelled by the film and saw its entertainment-less as fundamental and necessary to its totality. Though I don’t consider Life On Earth to have much in the way of typical entertainment value, it has value nonetheless. Perhaps Adorno’s negative dialectics explain why Sissako’s films, in refusing me the cheap thrills I’m used to at the movies, asserts itself against the mainstream and has a claim at being ‘art’. My defense of Life On Earth made me reflect on my distaste for The Office. Why do I see minimalism in film as compelling and interesting when I find it dull in a television series? This caused a minor existential crisis, I can’t be biased against TV, I love TV. This caused even more of a tizzy when I watched the NBC version of The Office and found it to be funnier and more enjoyable then its UK double. A much more linear and narrative plot drives the American version of “Branch Closing,” which has a very similar story to the pilot of the UK series. Its characters are more compelling and fleshed out and the slapstick, absurdist comedy is something I can recognize as funny. It would seem that I have defined sitcoms in my mind as something that is definitively non-artistic, as something that must necessarily entertain me.
In the beginning of Sissako’s film the non-diegetic voice of the narrator says, “I am not your dancing bear,” I accept that this film is not going to ‘dance’ for me, it demands my attention and reflection and refuses to spoon feed me ‘pre-digested’ entertainment. Perhaps that is what The Office (UK) demands of me. As a comedic sitcom I expect pure, easy laughs from the show, but The Office’s humor and much of its unique value comes from its break with and reflection on what I define as a ‘sitcom,’ with what I consider funny TV. Like many post-modern artworks the show focuses on what is typically considered mundane, the daily routine is turned into something of interest and worth. The UK show also incorporates many non-linear sub-stories in every episode that aren’t necessarily related to the main story line, something characteristic of minimalist films. The shift away from the individual is also very emblematic of post-modernism; though Gervais is clearly the main character it is not in the same way that Mary Tyler Moore is a main character. The focus is on the ensemble, on the office as a whole, there are plots that don’t revolve or even incorporate Gervais.
Television, as an art form, is on shaky ground. As we discussed in this class and in Theorizing Popular Culture, there is something of a stigma that surrounds television. Perhaps its lack of critical discourse is due to its lack of a critical language, just as Frith said of music, or perhaps its shear elitism. While dramatic series like Twin Peaks and The Sopranos have found positive feedback and are, by many, considered to have artistic merit the comedy is still our dancing bear. Shows like The Office, particularly the UK version although radical elements still remain in the NBC remake, demonstrate the artistic potential that the form has.

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2 Responses to “In Defense of the Dancing Bear”

  1. Administrator Says:

    It’s fascinating to understand the “innovations” of the UK office as importations from avant-garde cinema and video. In class we talked about the impact of reality programming, Christopher Guest films, and a few other factors leading to the “mockumentary” style of contemporary network sitcoms, but your blog opens up another approach for us to consider.

    Does it continue to make sense to talk of such affinities as exchanges between highbrow and lowbrow forms–as, for example, the integration of classical and jazz styles in Euro-American music of the 1920’s and 1930’s?

    Does “negative dialectic” = absence of entertainment value?

    Much to mull over here.

    • ser312 Says:

      I think I would recognize the negative dialectic in The Office’s relation, and subsequent deconstruction, of the sitcom proper. The way in which The Office upends the usual paradigm of sitcoms, in terms of both its structure and content, I see as contributing to its radical nature and its originality and the absence of any expected kind of entertainment I think is a part its dialectical relation to the sitcom.

      The categories of highbrow and lowbrow still befuddle me. I find the exchanges and intermingling of the two, especially in post-modernism, to really blur the categories for me. Though in thinking over you’re question I think I’d say that perhaps it doesn’t make sense to talk about it in terms of exchanges between highbrow and lowbrow, maybe there’s a kind of bricolage that transcends/escapes these two categories.

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