I discovered the original British version of The Office on Netflix and fell madly in love with it. I knew in my heart that Tim and Dawn would end up together, that David Brent would somehow be redeemed, and that there was no possible way that the American version of this show could possibly be superior. This was narrow minded thinking at its best because although the settings are nearly identical the overall mission of either show is drastically different. I wasn’t prepared for the depth and range of emotion that Greg Daniels intended for the American version. His goal, I realize now at the end, was to create something epic out of the mundane and find beauty in the day to day moments.
Before either version of The Office became familiar the characters of Michael Scott and David Brent were absolutely unbearable. This was particularly true of Steve Carrell’s character before he found his voice. The boorishness, the ignorance was too much at first and his character was nearly unwatchable but as the second season progressed the writers found a way to humanize him in subtle ways. When Carrell finally left the show the audience realized how much of a lynchpin he had been to the overall narrative, his narcissism and insecurities made it difficult to see through to his greatest strength . Michael Scott never gave up on day to day life; he refused to let his job be ‘just a job’ and, to the detriment of his coworker’s patience and productivity, he persevered to squeeze as much joy out of every moment that was humanly possible. This is what redeems him in our hearts without us realizing it in the moment. In spite of how horribly embarrassing this man could be we would laugh and cringe and shake our heads but we’d also keep watching. If Michael Scott was just a punchline, the butt of every joke without having any heart or courage, he would be Toby. Which is probably why Michael hates him so much. But to quote Michael Scott quoting Winston Churchill, never ever ever give up. And he never does which, to me, is about as heroic as anyone can be.
Jim and Pam. Oh, man. To the few of us out there who still consider themselves romantic souls these two are heroin, meth, and crack cocaine all rolled up into one. I use a negative metaphor on purpose because as much as it pains me to admit, they are not real. Don’t get me wrong, I live in hope of finding something with half as much chemistry as they have but living in expectation of it is impractical and immature. These two are soul mates and the show does a brilliant job of letting them fall in love on their own time. This is the addictive quality of the beginning of any relationship. The thrill of discovery, the ecstasy of intimacy, and the warm glow of fulfillment, which makes for great television, however in real life it’s only half the story. Falling is the easy part but maintaining that love is where the real work begins and, ultimately, where the real payoff is. Love, like gravity, is just the thing that pushes you in one direction. It is the other object in space that you are attracted to, that other person that takes up the emptiness that was there before. The trick is to be moving in a similar direction, at the right speed, with the right attitude and holding on without suffocating the other person. This can be, like anything of value is, a lot of hard work but in the end it’s not just about finding the right person. It is about appreciating them when you do and, if you are extremely lucky, having someone with you through the dark times and the good. Jim and Pam, as their relationship matures, are an idealized vision of this possibility. Their courtship is exquisitely drawn out, we get to feel every moment. But when they do finally get together we realize that the job isn’t really over. There are miles to go before the end and because of the faith that they have in each other, they will not be making the journey alone.
It is this optimism for life and love that make The Office so enjoyable. That this wildly disparate group of people that have every reason to loathe each other can become a family, while still mostly loathing each other. By the end of the show even mortal enemies Jim and Dwight have become best friends, embracing their different personalities and joining forces not only because they’ve matured but because it’s just more fun that way. Pam has the final lines of the finale and they are perfectly appropriate but I couldn’t help being reminded of one of my inspirations and favorite writers. “I think an ordinary paper company like Dunder-Mifflin was a great subject for a documentary. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”
This is when I noticed the similarity to the words of David Foster Wallace and I thought, I wonder if that was on purpose. Then I realized that there is a character on the show named David Wallace and that I am half as clever as I thought I was. In fact, when Greg Daniels returned to the show in the final season, that character is once again in charge of the company and I decided that these are probably not coincidences. To anyone not familiar with the writer and essayist David Foster Wallace do yourself a favor and change that as soon as possible. I can recommend the perfect introduction in the form of an essay he wrote for Harper’s magazine called ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again‘. This man was hilarious and brilliant, a true inspiration and a compelling mind who was instrumental to me finding my own voice and confidence. I say ‘was’ because I discovered this man and his writing while reading his obituary in Rolling Stone magazine. It was a lovely and sorrowful article, I remember being immediately struck by its sincerity. Like many people gifted with genius, Wallace had struggled with severe depression for decades. In 2008, at the age of 46, he lost this struggle and took his own life.
What makes Wallace’s writing and The Office comparable is the idea that our environment is ours to interpret and affect. Even at the most stale, boring, dead end job all these characters have more fun than I’ve ever come close to experiencing in the workplace but that is not the fault of my workplace or the people in it. Because the truth is I have had fun at work, even on the worst days, when I was willing to relax and stop focusing on what I was missing and, instead, appreciated what was there. Given, Wallace lost the battle but he did leave me and the showrunners of The Office with the vocabulary to see things a little more clearly; to understand the value of perspective.
I love this show. I almost look forward the day I’m feeling low and need a few episodes to cheer me up but I probably won’t wait that long. I am so grateful that I took the time to watch it, I am grateful for the laughter and the tears. Every character now feels like a friend and I want to hang out and buy a beer for all of them. Except Ryan. Here is the piece by David Foster Wallace, his commencement speech at Kenyon College, that reminded me of Pam’s observation at the end of the series finale. If you take the time to listen it might improve your day. But that is entirely up to you.