From the office of Cane Caldo: Ironic Disdain and “The Office”

Friend of the blog Cane Caldo has a post up where he makes a pretty good case that show drives its humor from ironic disdain of the world and its characters.

It’s a strong case, and he makes some good points. I encourage you all to read the post. That said, I don’t think I agree, or not completely.

In season one, when the show tried to be a carbon copy of the British version of the show (which, by the way, Cane’s argument DEFINITELY applies to), I probably would have agreed. But from season two on, I’m not so sure.

First, let’s talk about Jim. I love the character, but Jim is a dick. No question about that. That said, I think it might be going too far to say that Pam SHOULD marry Roy. “The Office” does a pretty good job selling the shy Pam and boorish Roy’s (and he was boorish) essential incompatibility. Or at least, Fisher does. I’m not sure if the writers could have sold it to me without Fisher’s excellent performance. But I don’t know if it’s enough to say they SHOULD have gotten married just because he works harder and is less of a jerk than Jim. As Dalrock has pointed out, telling women to settle for somebody they’re not really happy with is not generally a good idea.

To move further on: The reason I don’t totally agree with Cane is because I like the characters too much.

Cane says this:

The Office seduces members of the audience into disdaining everyone; that respect, joy, and love are only illusions in a world composed of selfish pursuit. It is of a piece with the works of The Office’s cynical and atheist creator Ricky Gervais. We–the audience–are the Roys, Michaels, Dwights, Phyllis’, and Merediths of the world. But like Michael Scott we pretend that the Jims of the world are our friends; that like Jims we too are in on the joke. The truth is we are all the joke to Gervais.

The problem is that I think the show spends too much time building up fondness for these characters for this to be really true.

Consider the turning point of the series, the classic episode “The Dundies”. Michael, for the first time, is not shown to be a bad man. He desperately wants to be liked and he’s tremendously un-self aware, but he’s ultimately sincere and doesn’t mean any harm. And the entire office still shows up to the show. I forget who said it – perhaps Oscar? – but one character described it as a birthday party where only the kid enjoys it but you show up anyway to keep him happy. This shows a certain grudging fondness for their boss.

And Pam sees what’s happening and tries to cheer him up with a real moment of good will and fondness for her boss.

And this isn’t the first time stuff like this happens. In one episode Pam has an art show that almost nobody shows up at, but when Michael does show up in a rare moment where he seems to be saying something not just to be liked but because he means it Michael offers to buy the painting from Pam and tells her he’s proud of her, moving him to tears. In moments like this, we’re meant to sympathize with both characters and even like Michael Scott; there’s no hint there that we’re supposed to have any sort of disdain for them.

And the show continues this theme of making fun of the characters while keeping them sympathetic, even likeable.

There’s a great parallel to the British Office that really underscores the difference in attitude between the two shows. Both series had downsizing storylines. In the British version, David Brent, the British boss, gets promoted and leaves his employees to the wolves, but fails the physical (heh), and when he comes back he pretends he refused the job to save them.

In the American version, the same thing happens, but with one important difference: It’s the boss of the other branch who quits and throws his employees out, not Michael. Jim sums up why we like Michael when he says “Say what you will about Michael Scott, but he would never do THAT.”

And it’s true. Michael, for his part, travels down to the house of the company CEO and camps out in the foolish hope that he can somehow talk him out of downsizing Scranton. Michael is selfish and childish, but he’s no David Brent.

So I don’t think we’re supposed to have ironic disdain for the characters. We’re meant to laugh at them, and to recognize their flaws, but the show builds up too much goodwill between the characters and audience for me to really admit that the message of the show is that real, genuine emotion and love don’t exist. To the contrary, time and time again the characters prove that, despite some asshole-ish things that they do, they really DO believe in friendship and love.

Another scene underscoring this is the season 4 premiere. When Michael hits Meredith with his car, he organizes a race to cure rabies in an effort to atone for his actions (look, it makes sense in context). This is obviously a dumb and ultimately selfish act of self-delusion meant to absolve him from guilt, but there’s a real moment in there where Michael seems to genuinely believe that he needs to finish the race for Meredith.

This could be taken the way Cane says, that we’re supposed to believe that apologies and forgiveness are inherently fake, but I think this is undercut when Meredith hears about this and is genuinely touched, and so decides to forgive Michael herself. She recognizes that beneath his stupidity and selfishness the guilt and desire for reconciliation is real.

So, there’s my case. What do you “Office” fans think? Am I right, or is Cane?

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6 Responses to From the office of Cane Caldo: Ironic Disdain and “The Office”

  1. Cane Caldo says:

    We’re meant to laugh at them, and to recognize their flaws, but the show builds up too much goodwill between the characters and audience for me to really admit that the message of the show is that real, genuine emotion and love don’t exist. To the contrary, time and time again the characters prove that, despite some asshole-ish things that they do, they really DO believe in friendship and love.

    Another scene underscoring this is the season 4 premiere. When Michael hits Meredith with his car, he organizes a race to cure rabies in an effort to atone for his actions (look, it makes sense in context). This is obviously a dumb and ultimately selfish act of self-delusion meant to absolve him from guilt, but there’s a real moment in there where Michael seems to genuinely believe that he needs to finish the race for Meredith.

    I feel ya, and I feel the show. What I’m saying is that respect, love, compassion, honor, etc. (which are different from emotions) are presented in an irrational or convoluted context because the writers want to tell us that these things are irrational–and not in the sense of transcending reason. I don’t know if they want to tell us this because they believe it and so it merely informs their stories, or if they are trying to convince us. Not sure I care too much.

    None of this means you can’t enjoy the show, but I am careful to explain it lest those around me be caught unawares. Art is powerful because it can influence us without our conscious approval.

    • None of this means you can’t enjoy the show, but I am careful to explain it lest those around me be caught unawares. Art is powerful because it can influence us without our conscious approval.

      I get that, and you’re right that it’s important to pay attention to stuff like that. One of the reasons I like the American version as opposed to the British one, though, is that I feel like it really does have a heart.

      This was a bit clearer in the earlier seasons (like in the art show scene and a nice scene with Michael and Jim when they’re on the booze cruise, for two examples), but I think the sentiment is still there later on. I just doesn’t show up as much.

      Which jives with your assessment, by the way, that season five is when the show starts relying a little too much on cringe humor.

    • As for not caring, I just like writing reviews. I did a series on “Justified” as well, and I have some game and book reviews. I find it fun to analyze and write about this stuff, so hey.

  2. To the contrary, time and time again the characters prove that, despite some asshole-ish things that they do, they really DO believe in friendship and love.

    There’s a moment in “Business Ethics” in Season 5 that I think captures this well. Meredith has gotten in trouble and Michael and Holly are arguing about what to do about it. Michael says, “Well, you have to put up with a lot if you are a family.” And Holly replies something like, “It’s not a family, Michael, it’s a workplace.” And Carrell’s facial expression in response, which registers not just disagreement but the kind of feeling where you struggling not to walk out or lash out over it, is an excellent bit of acting.

    • Yeah, that was a great scene and great acting by Carrell.

      (Interestingly, in “Stress Relief” when Daryl is roasting Michael he points out that Michael doesn’t know the name of a warehouse guy standing in the back. But I don’t think this was really supposed to “count”.

  3. dpmonahan says:

    Part of it is also taste: British sitcoms tend to ruthlessly humiliate their characters, while Americans want to see them redeemed.

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