Posts Tagged ‘The Office’

“If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch ‘The Wire,’ unless, that is, he was already writing for it.”

December 1, 2009

The Wire is unlike any other, successful television show I have seen yet.   After all, most television shows have dominant love story arcs that keep viewers interested and engaged season to season.  However, The Wire is not like that that, for instead of planting a hook here and a twist there whilst intertwining a love story throughout, The Wire seems to capture the raw and “de-glamourized” existence of cops and drug dealers of everyday life on the Baltimore streets.

In shows like Castle for example, the bickering love saga between Richard Castle and Detective Beckett keeps viewers interested.  In The Wire when McNulty has sex with Rhoda Pearlman, no viewer would care to see more from that relationship.  After all, the relationship has not been drawn out over seasons like that of The Office’s Jim and Pam or Castle’s Castle and Beckett.  Instead, sex is closer to a transaction than a romantic engagement.  As unromantic as that scene was, the following frame mimics those sex moans when a young boy is shot in the leg and is groaning in pain.  Thus, it seems like the writers instantly bring the viewers back to the dark realities of the Baltimore streets, as if to say, “Cops don’t have time for anything semi-romantic, because they are constantly consumed by the jobs they do.”

This “unromanticized” realness separates The Wire from all other shows on television.  In fact, the intricate web of characters that make up their Baltimore, from the look out kids to the drug dealers to the flawed cops caught in the mix, make The Wire a real “slice of life” series.  As Nicholas Kulish of The New York Times stated, “if Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch ‘The Wire,’ unless, that is, he was already writing for it” [1].  And I think Kulish is right in saying so.  After all, it’s not too hard to imagine a modern day Pip, a young and naïve orphan boy being raised by his brother-in-law and older sister, being part of The Wire’s complex web of characters.

Thus The Wire may be off-putting for those expecting a Jim and Pam story arc throughout the series; however, the realness, that has been left almost untouched by Hollywood glitz and glamour, somehow provides answers “even when it offers no solutions.”[2]



[2] Ibid.


Aristotle on The Office (UK)

November 18, 2009

In the Poetics Aristotle writes, “Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type – not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.” In the same way, the characters of The Office (UK) are not bad, but rather their “ugliness” channels the comedic nature of the show. Office manager David Brent’s (Ricky Gervais) ugliness is ugliness of character; the fact that David Brent believes himself to be this amazing example of utopian management skills, but is actually neither a good manager nor a funny one, is the comedic premise of the show.

However, I think that one can say the comic mask of The Office is in its distortion of documentary and reality TV style. The Office is a scripted comedy, and yet within its diegetic universe the characters recognize and even address the cameras that are filming them. Also, and completely within the flow of the narrative, there are interviews/confessionals with the characters in which they vent or discuss situations in the office, usually beginning with a rephrasing of a question that was ostensibly asked by the film crew. I propose that this style – mockumentary – and its subsequent breakdown of the fourth wall between audience and cast, is what allows the viewer to enter into The Office’s diegetic universe and fully perceive its comedic value.

The value of The Office lies in its comedy rather than in displaying some form of utopian ideal. Christine Geraghty’s use of Dyer’s proposal that “entertainment functions by offering the image of ‘something better’ to escape into” (Soap Opera and Utopia, pg 2) does not mesh with The Office. Rather, it might be better to say that soap operas and certain other dramatic narratives function as a vehicle for the presentation of utopian ideals. But that comedy, as defined by Aristotle and seen in The Office does the opposite. The Office does not present a utopian ideal of office life. The audience doesn’t long to escape into life at the Slough, Berkshire office of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company but rather rejoices and laughs at the fact they don’t work there and will never have to. The meta-mimesis in The Office is what makes us reflexively appreciate our own, real working environments. Through imitation of all that can possibly go wrong in an office, including in that the filming of office life, The Office is endearing in its distopia-ness. However, the real reason we love it is because we don’t have to live it.

Television Deciphers Cultural Comedic Differences

November 17, 2009

In Jeffrey Sconce’s “What If: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries,” he states that many see television as a “technological and cultural ‘problem’ to be solved rather than a textual body to be engaged” (Sconce, 94).  Thus, scholars pride themselves in not watching the medium, and while “most scholars of American literature would be mortified if they misidentified characters or plots in Melville, such inattention to detail is frequent in television studies” (Sconce, 94).  Such passivity by television scholars is extremely problematic though, for television gives us unique views into other cultures and how they compare to our own.

While watching episodes of the British and American television show The Office, it was striking how different the humor was—even when some of the same jokes were being told.  For example, the Jim characters both seem to plays practical jokes on the Dwight all of the time.  Some of these such jokes have include putting Dwight’s desk into the bathroom, putting all of Dwight’s office supplies in the vending machine, sending Dwight faxes from his future self, dressing up as him, and of course putting his stapler in a Jello mold (at least these all happen in the American version).  However, while American Jim is always calm, cool, collected, and nonchalant in performing his pranks and in his reactions, the British version is more irritable.  For example, when British Dwight, Gareth Keenan, says “Wazzup!” and smacks British Jim, Tim Canterbury, with his newspaper, Tim yells, “Don’t do that!”  Later on in the episode, he also taunts Gareth by saying, “You’re a cock. You’re a cock. You’re a cock,” which simply makes Tim, by American standards, look childish instead of cool.  Thus, when Tim puts Gareth’s stapler in Jello and says that it is, “only a trifling matter,” it is clear that Tim’s actions are based purely in revenge instead of merriment and general trickery.  This scene then shows the differences in American and British humor:  While British humor seems to be more calculated and purely strategic, American humor is much more relaxed and based in youthful antics.

There are some jokes, however, that do translate perfectly between the two cultures.  For example, the repeated line, “assistant to the regional manager” and Michael’s (or David’s) obsession with being a humorous “friend first and a boss second.”  Even Tim eating the yellow Jello is easily translated to the calm, cool, and relaxed trickery that is accepted in American culture and TV shows.  However, despite these overlaps, there are many discrepancies in American and British humor, making the viewer actively participate in understanding the humor of the foreign show.

Thus, it is extremely problematic that so many scholars are so passive in understanding television, when television not only explains the cultural difference in humor but in all aspects of life from dress to beauty to behavior as well.  In this case, television is far from a “problem to be solved,” and is much closer to a text that reflects a subtle reality to be engaged with and to analyze.

Two Interpretations of a Mundane Setting

November 17, 2009

Interesting article from the New Yorker comparing the UK and the US versions of The Office.

Pros and Cons of Series Format

November 10, 2009

Probably the main difference between film and television (although so far this class is making me think about why television is always discussed in comparison to film in the first place) is the series format. From this arises several advantages and at least one disadvantage.

The series format allows for more complex character development over time, if the writer knows how to use time wisely. This makes the characters more real and relatable. Paired with television’s intimate proximity to the viewer, television audiences are often bound to connect more with the television characters of programs they watch religiously, than with characters they encounter once in a film viewing. Which brings me to another point: the sheer amount of time people spend watching the characters also enhances their level of identification.

But the series format is, of course, not without drawbacks. Combined with the pressure of the market, the prolonged existence of a show–and the need to produce episode after episode–can be deadly to the spirit of a program. Take for instance The (American) Office. Originally, like its British counterpart, the setting of the show was an isolated one: office workers in a third-rate town disconnected from the current larger culture; they are (and I use this term in its most literal sense) culturally retarded. There is no reference to anything outside this small town that’s come about in the last 5 years. And not only is this cultural backwardness a substantial element of the show, it’s one of the main themes.

Six seasons later, the pressure of writing episode after episode (after episode) of material has forced the show to be topical. The jokes, which used to be almost entirely character-driven, now often center around the current cultural phenomena. This topicality has even taken precedence over character, at times, as when (in a true shark-jumping moment, in my opinion) the characters (some of them completely out of character) mimic the YouTube video trend of wedding processions set to pop music.