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Steve Carell as Michael Scott in The Office, holding a phone to his left ear Photo: Justin Lubin/NBCU Photo Bank

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The cringe comedy of The Office survived a massive shift in taste

Why the sitcom remains endlessly watchable in the streaming era

There was considerable outcry when NBC announced that The Office would leave Netflix in 2021. The U.S. adaptation of the BBC series premiered on March 24, 2005, and ran for nine seasons before slowly becoming a fixture of the streaming age. The sitcom will resurface on NBC’s forthcoming streaming platform Peacock, but the comfort and ease of global Netflix access made it a surefire hit in a world connected by Twitter and beyond physical media. Just ask pop star Billie Eilish, who was all of 3 years old when the series began, but loves it enough to work samples of the dialogue into her music.

One would think that a series so steeped in offensive cringe humor might not age well (and actor Steve Carell says it hasn’t). In the context of its workplace setting, many of the things said by Carell’s wannabe comedian Michael Scott would be classified as racist or as sexual harassment, while certain instances of ableism, fatphobia, John Krasinski’s Jim being kind of a dick, and Rainn Wilson’s Dwight don’t play quite as well. Comedy sours fairly quickly as society evolves — ’90s global megahit Friends, for instance, can be a pretty difficult watch — but creator Greg Daniels set The Office apart by contextualizing its lead character through the eyes of the people he impacts, with his moronic (albeit well-meaning) misgivings.

The original U.K. series created tension by having white characters skirt around the specter of race; general manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) would often sweep the topic under the rug. However, Daniels’ adaptation decided to subvert that instinct, and was much more successful than its U.S. contemporaries. The result was a show where the liberal workplace avoidance of race wasn’t just a backdrop, but a primary target, as Michael Scott would try (and usually, fail) to force the subject out into the open.

the cast of the office burns a pile of paper in the parking lot Photo: Justin Lubin/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

American comedy, especially in movies, is rife with scenes of well-meaning, ostensibly liberal white dudes who attempt to be down with social progress, but then act unintentionally racist or homophobic in the process; ah, that sweet, sweet, secondhand embarrassment. “Look at this idiot,” we’re meant to think, as a Will Ferrell type speaks awkwardly in AAVE or leans in to racial stereotypes to the chagrin of minority extras — though the “we” in that equation isn’t always inclusive.

These jokes, often written by white writers, attempt to put white ignorance on display, but they don’t do much more than that. Unintentionally racist jabs by dumb characters are still, well, racist jabs to viewers who experience racism. And if minstrelsy is the end of the joke, one might ask: What, or who, is the real punchline? The burden of this Ferrellian “idiocy” still falls on the marginalized folks in the room. The jokes, while self-deprecating, come from a position of power, and the laughs often depend on being able to separate oneself from the lived realities of racism. Jazmine Hughes calls it the gentrification of racial humor. Mileage may vary.

The Office is no exception to jokes that begin this way, but being a long-running series allows for a more nuanced approach to what might otherwise be a one-and-done racist gag. Rather than having queer and/or people-of-color extras merely roll their eyes before disappearing off-screen, the series gives its diverse supporting cast a good chunk of the narrative point of view, allowing them far more agency than straight, white American-focused sitcoms had up to that point.

It’s practically baked into the show’s mockumentary format — a departure from the era’s multicamera, canned-laughter norms. As Michael says or does something untoward in the name of inclusivity, the single-camera, vérité approach captures his employees’ intimate, suppressed reactions in the moment. These reactions are then further explored in one-on-one asides, which act as confessionals and emotional release valves in response to Michael’s gaudy antics. The formula isn’t hard to predict, but the result is a show not only about one man’s well-meaning idiocy, but about the ripple effects of his behavior.

However, to simply call the style of The Office “mockumentary” fails to capture how it navigates each supporting character, in an environment that requires them to constantly hide their true feelings from Michael and their corporate overlords. The camera often switches between in-world presence and invisible observer, something a documentary would never (and could never) do. While documentary subjects usually show up to present one version of the truth, the camera crew in The Office stands at the ready to film the workers’ secrets, filming everything from break room flirtations to impromptu strategy meetings in hidden corners of the warehouse. In the process, the crew captures not only the apparent focus of the doc — the mundanities of American office life under a watchful corporate eye — but how the workers’ inner lives brush up against that structure when they’re exposed to daily indignities.

One might argue that, in order to portray all these crisscrossing perspectives, The Office isn’t satirizing a documentary at all. Rather, it’s a fictionalized reality show, where glitz and glamour are replaced by workaday monotony, and where the participants don’t seem to have a choice.

the women of the office gasp with michael while at the airport Photo: Justin Lubin/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

The Office arrived during the rise of modern American reality TV. It matches the unscripted format with precision, switching between scenes of interpersonal conflict in a group setting, and solo confessionals filmed after the fact, where characters narrate and comment on events as if they’re unfolding in the present. The Osbournes, The Apprentice, The Simple Life, and The Bachelor had each begun in the preceding two years, their stars blurring the lines between reality and fiction by, essentially, performing their daily lives regardless of the camera’s presence, and naturally exaggerating their responses. The time was right for Jim Halpert’s now-iconic performative reactions right down the lens while no one else was looking.

But the other characters’ non-reactions to the camera are just as indicative of what The Office is all about. Jim’s co-workers minding their own business isn’t a matter of the cameras being invisible to them, but a matter of them trying to perform the role of diligent, uncomplaining employees while they’re out in the open. They’re just trying to get through the day, despite the watchful eye of professional hierarchy, against which they can rarely voice their concerns; their salary depends on their silence, after all.

Their boss, Michael Scott, is the strangest possible obstacle in this scenario. He is an integral rung of the capitalist ladder, keeping employees in line and preventing them from speaking out, but as an individual, he’s also fundamentally incompatible with that very paradigm. No, he’s not secretly some anti-capitalist hero — though it’s fun to imagine he has a “Comrade Mike” somewhere in his arsenal of improv characters — but rather, despite having professional objectives aligned with corporate structure, his personal goals are fundamentally at odds with a tiered workplace like Dunder Mifflin.

Michael may be the regional manager, but he wants to be buddy, pal, and chum to each of his employees — in particular, to older African American salesman Stanley Hudson (Leslie David Baker), to gay Latino accountant Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nuñez), and to the blue-collar warehouse workforce led by Darryl Philbin (Craig Robinson). Most of the humor surrounding Michael, and the doltish behavior he forces on his workers, stems from this very tension between the capitalist hierarchy he embodies and a childlike ethos that compels him to ignore it. Michael does not and cannot grow beyond his loutish quest for attention (and his pathological need to be liked), until characters like Jim and Pam (Jenna Fischer) blur the lines of professional and personal communication in later seasons, and bring him back down to Earth.

The lead of the U.K. show, David Brent, had a similarly obnoxious streak, something the U.S. series attempted to carry over in its inaugural season. However, the writers soon realized that Michael Scott might require a different approach. Many have spoken on the differences between British and American comedy, with the latter’s optimism forming the backbone of shows created by Office writer-producer Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place). And so, before long, Michael was less of an outright A-hole, and more of an overgrown child in a perpetual talent show. Where the gloomier U.K. series presented David as irredeemably foolish, the U.S. version allowed Michael the opportunity to grow. Lest we forget, a good chunk of the talking-head scenes belong to Michael himself, contextualizing his oafish impulses as stemming from childhood trauma. The show doesn’t excuse or endorse his antics, but it fleshes out even his cringiest moments, allowing us to empathize not only with his desire to entertain, but his desire to improve.

Despite taking a full season to figure out Michael Scott, the U.S. Office actually carved out its own unique identity fairly early. The pilot is an awkward, beat-for-beat recreation of its bleak U.K. counterpart, but the second episode, “Diversity Day,” is where the series began to come into its own. It was here that Daniels & co. found the perfect way to integrate their adaptation with a specifically American setting: by focusing on the awkwardness with which U.S. workplaces tiptoe around racial politics.

While “Diversity Day” still relies heavily on racial humor, it’s contextualized in the form of Michael’s wrongheaded attempts to get people to actually confront silent, often insidious stereotypes by forcing them out in the open. He’s well-meaning, but tactless — enough to get slapped in the face by Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling) when he leans too far toward callousness. The tension in these scenarios stems not only from minority characters having to navigate the veiled politeness of white liberalism, but from white liberalism having to confront its own awkward shortcomings when dealing with race (and other issues), rather than merely nodding at them and moving on.

Comeuppance isn’t a prerequisite for comedy, but it’s a nice cherry on top. One of the show’s most memorable scenes, in which Michael tries to prove he isn’t homophobic by kissing gay employee Oscar (a moment reportedly improvised by Carell) results not only in Michael, the person in power, being chewed out in front of his workers, but in Oscar being given a company car and a paid vacation to avoid a harassment suit. Whether or not the show’s comedy works for a given viewer, there’s no confusion as to the target of its punchlines, or where its allegiances lie.

the office: michael scott and stanley hudson stand in front of an office Photo: Justin Lubin/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

In addition to its social politics, what makes The Office so memorable (and so rewatchable) is the largely character-centric humor used to ground its political outlook. It’s a situational comedy on paper, but the situations themselves don’t vary significantly — absurd cold opens aside — until several seasons in, during corporate shake-ups that temporarily alter the status quo. For the most part, the show’s focus remains on people dealing with workplace minutiae, coping with financial downturns, and grappling with the absurdity of a character like Michael Scott, whose attempts to rescue them from corporate pabulum end up throwing a wrench in their day, and in the Dunder Mifflin machine.

As the show goes on, each character in the ensemble becomes familiar enough, and well-rounded enough, that entire episodes can be built around otherwise minor workplace occurrences. A fifth-season fire drill, for instance, devolves into complete mayhem in exactly the ways you’d expect. But it’s the show’s slight of-the-era edge, and its willingness to highlight the façade of liberal decorum, that adds the extra punch. As the fire drill causes Stanley to collapse from a heart attack, Michael yells, “Barack is President! You are black, Stanley!” — just days after Obama’s real-world inauguration — as if to revive him simply by invoking the spirit of “post-racial” America. It’s an exclamation point on an already ludicrous scene, before the episode goes on to reveal that the biggest factor in Stanley’s heart attack was, in fact, stress caused by Michael himself.

Of course, The Office being The Office, the episode ends with Michael’s acceptance of this fact, and a resolve to do better. In the following episode, he organizes a roast of himself in a misguided attempt to have his employees healthily express their feelings. It goes awry, but leaves him on the right track: one step closer to figuring out how to be liked, and how best to keep everyone happy. Wash, rinse, repeat — each embarrassment, a small step on the way to a better future.

In the end, despite a somewhat shaky final stretch (the show didn’t recover after Carell’s season 7 departure), The Office remains a hallmark of American TV for comedy fans worldwide. It’s one of the rare U.S. sitcoms to not only age well, but perhaps get better with time in some respects, as cameras become more of a constant, as inner thoughts find a spotlight through social media, and as the world continues to grapple with issues of race, gender, and sexuality — and how best to navigate them when everyone involved means well, but maybe doesn’t know the right thing to say.