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Ordinary Things

Hope and Helplessness in Scranton

How do you unwind from a mundane day at the work? 

Over the last decade, many Americans did so by returning home, putting their feet up, and watching others go through their own day in the office.

Because despite the banal premise of NBC’s hit comedy, The Office provided an escapist allure for millions across the country through a well-balanced dichotomy of hopefulness and helplessness. 

The tone is set for the entire series right from its opening theme, which features generic office clips juxtaposed against cheerful music, hinting of a brighter world behind what seems like a boring office workday.

The Office is at its best when its characters are driving the plot of an episode, just like how it’s often the people we’re with that make the situations we’re in special.

Take the third episode of its first season, Health Care. It begins with a simple problem: Michael, the manager of this branch, is tasked with selecting a new healthcare plan for the his employees.

Even in this early point in the series, Michael is already established as more interested in forcing connections with those in his workplace than actually managing them. This concern is what drives his reluctance to just choose one of the plans in front of him, especially after his proposal of an expensive, top-end plan (which his employees are sure to be gruntled with) is rejected by Corporate.

It’s these moments in the Dunder Mifflin office which make The Office’s world seem so relatable yet simultaneously nonsensical.

As a result, he attempts to pawn off this responsibility to Jim, who is already known to be too-cool-for-school and easily talks his way out of it.

The task then falls on Dwight Schrute, who eagerly accepts the challenge in his usual suck up manner. Excited to exercise a modicum of the authority that we already know he desires, Dwight gets to work cutting benefits to the bone after negotiating usage of his “office”, which is really just the conference room.

Jim reacts to another one of Dwight’s shenanigans

Less than five minutes in, the notable personalities of these three characters have already raised the stakes of the healthcare decision.

It’s these moments in the Dunder Mifflin office which make The Office’s world seem so relatable yet simultaneously nonsensical.

On the other hand, other plotlines feel as if the characters are entirely new, such as Season 4’s The Surplus.

The episode starts with a similarly unremarkable premise: the branch has a surplus it needs to spend to avoid it being cut in the following year’s budget.

Starting off strong, Michael (the known buffoon) needs to have Oscar — accountant extraordinaire — explain the concept of a budget surplus in basic terms. He then discovers that the office is split on whether they more desperately needed a new photocopier or chairs, a choice he is unsurprisingly unable to make.

Following this, the remaining three quarters of the episodes consists of the office sucking up to Michael in various ways in an attempt to sway his decision.

Jim and Oscar take Michael out for lunch in a bid for a new photocopier

Problem is, Dunder Mifflin Scranton has never been shown to be the type to hypercritically butter Michael up in the past four seasons. Contrarily, they have been openly hostile towards him in multiple instances, such as when Stanley berated him in Did I Stutter.

Likewise, the ultra-competitive side of Jim and Pam’s relationship which surfaces here is not seen again in the show, as they revert to their usual sweet selves.

He had matured past his power-hungry ways, and it only took him nine seasons to do so.

While these inconsistencies certainly do not take away from the comedic value of the episode, there is little by the way of connection to Jim, Pam, or anyone else in the Scranton crew’s characters, resulting in a largely forgettable episode.

This isn’t to say that characters can’t change, however. In this late-season episode Livin’ the Dream, regional manager Andy Bernard finally decides to take the leap and attempt to make it in Hollywood, leaving his former position vacant.

Coincidentally, Jim also returns to the branch from his role in his friends startup, as he chooses family over career (a move entirely consistent with the portrayal of Jim’s values throughout the years), making him an ideal candidate for the position.

Even Dwight thought so, having resigned from his ambitions to become branch manager. While this may seem out of character given his tenacity early in the series, we understand it after following his arch throughout the years.

He had matured past his power-hungry ways, and it only took him nine seasons to do so.

Fittingly, it is this maturity that makes us feel comfortable with CEO David Wallace’s decision to promote him to the position later in the episode.

It felt somehow acceptable to root for him, even after his previous attempts at uslurping power included an unsuccessful coup d’etat and the misfiring of a gun.

Oh how the turntables.

Yet, we realize that he is still the same old Dwight as he screams “DWIGHT SCHRUTE IS MANAGERRRRR” at the top of his lungs while wearing his karate black belt over his trademarked brown suit.

Dwight announces his new role as regional manager

Despite facing tough competition during the so-called golden age of television, NBC’s The Office still stands as one of the most popular television series’ of all time.

While its later seasons would take the series in a more caricature-driven route, it never deviated too much from its core theme of appreciating the the people that surround us everyday.

And even years after the series finale, a new generation of fans are following Michael, Jim, Pam, and Dwight as they spend their days in a drab office,

located in an insignificant town,

full of uninspiring people,

and yet, together, managing to find beauty in the most ordinary things.

Kevin and Phyllis compete in the Icelandic sport of flonkerton

 

Did you catch the Michael Scott malapropisms sprinkled throughout this piece?

Derek Woo

By day, Derek builds email campaigns and marketing automations. By night, however, he switches gears and builds on his lengthy lists of unfinished writing drafts. And sometimes, when the stars align (literally – he usually should be sleeping when this happens), he finally finishes one of these drafts and publishes it in the hopes that someone, somewhere will enjoy the read.

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