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Why We Still Laugh at The Office in the #MeToo Era

on March 22, 2018, 12:00am

Music, Movies & Moods is a monthly free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. This time, he ponders where a show like The Office fits in in the #MeToo era. Note: This column originally ran in March of 2018.

cos music movies moods 2 Why We Still Laugh at The Office in the #MeToo EraNobody would actually like to work for Michael Scott (Steve Carell), despite what his favorite mug boldly proclaims. Like David Brent (Ricky Gervais) before him in the original UK version of The Office, Greg Daniels’ American adaptation of the white-collar mockumentary revolves almost entirely around Michael’s unfiltered and unchecked obnoxiousness and how it affects his Dunder Mifflin employees. At the heart of the character resides an insatiable need to be liked by everyone at all times, the self-delusional belief that he’s really a comedian (or funny at all) gigging in cubicle land, and a third-grader’s grasp of social boundaries and norms. He’s Ignorance incarnate with a full camera crew present to document all the cringeworthy results. And, across nearly seven full seasons, Michael Scott became beloved by audiences for, or despite, just how painfully inappropriate and unwoke he managed to remain even as the life lessons amassed.

Now, nearly five full years after leaving the air, The Office streams on Netflix in perpetuity, and official announcements have been made regarding a reboot greenlit for the near future. Amid the inevitable debate over the merits of resurrecting the hit series has also sprung discussion about whether or not there is still room for a comedy like The Office and characters like Michael Scott in an era in which both women and men have finally felt empowered to share their stories and taken an unprecedented stand against sexual misconduct, particularly in the workplace. Why might Michael Scott not be the regional manager the #MeToo era needs (though he’d no doubt love hashtag culture)? Look no further than the series’ pilot episode, which, incidentally, mirrors the first episode of the British series nearly joke for joke. In the episode’s opening minutes, Michael introduces the documentary crew to receptionist Pam Beasley and, in a span of 10 seconds, manages to comment on her personal appearance, insult her looks, and sexualize her by making animal noises into the camera. A few episodes later, he half-seriously asks if she would cheerlead for the office basketball squad in pigtails and a halter top.

Yes, it’s awkward and horrible, but let’s also remember Michael Scott’s conduct was equally offensive back in 2005 when we first began laughing at his abhorrent behavior. If Michael’s missteps are more problematic in 2018, it’s only because sexual harassment awareness has finally become a serious societal priority. #MeToo and sister movements like #TimesUp don’t ask us to accept that we’re now suddenly living in a vastly different, more sinister world when it comes to sexual misconduct. Quite the opposite. Testimonials from people of all ages force us to acknowledge that the powerful have always preyed on the less so, often a subordinate at the workplace or someone on a lower rung of the ladder in the same industry. What have changed are our responsibilities as members of a society that now demands better. These movements require all of us to do our individual parts in fostering safe environments (at home, in public, and at work) where sexual misconduct isn’t tolerated and victims have adequate support to speak out and have their stories listened to should an incident occur.

So, where exactly does a program like The Office — a comedy about a regional manager who constantly crosses clear-cut lines – fit in in 2018 and beyond? What’s more, why do so many of us, myself included, continue to stream the show on the regular and still laugh at such offensive behavior? Behavior, I’d like to believe, we’d never tolerate if we actually witnessed it in the workplace.

A simple reason may be that the Dunder Mifflin office, while not unlike the sterile buildings many of us trudge to and from five days each week, doesn’t actually exist. It couldn’t exist. Sure, we recognize certain elements of the environment (e.g. a microwave that never gets cleaned) and characters (e.g. a coworker who dresses too casual for Casual Fridays) from our own humdrum work lives, but none of us actually work at a Dunder Mifflin Scranton. Never would a documentary crew opt to go to a little town most Americans couldn’t locate on a map and spend nearly a decade recording the daily office life of a fledgling paper company and its employees. Just as almost none of the show’s characters could stave off pink slips for more than a few hours acting as they do in a real office. Michael survives unscathed and even fails upward despite his inappropriate behavior. Consider Jim and Pam’s daily pranks and slacking, Dwight’s penchant for weapons in the workplace, puritanical Angela’s regular warehouse trysts, Meredith’s on-the-job drinking and sex for discounts (and steak), not to mention Creed Bratton, the reason criminal background checks were invented. That doesn’t mean that absolutely anything goes on the show – far, far from it – but to compare The Office to, say, our own offices, and the behaviors that occur at each, yields little more than an apples-to-beets comparison. The show’s safe distance from our reality allows us to let our guard down and laugh when we might otherwise get upset.

The argument might also be made that there’s social or satirical value in some of the situations that arise amid the absurdity at Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch. Take the third season episode “Women’s Appreciation” in which Phyllis gets flashed in the office parking lot by an unknown man. Yes, an incident of sexual misconduct technically becomes the catalyst for 22 minutes of absurdist comedy, but the initial reactions of her coworkers also astutely capture the various attitudes and misconceptions about sexual misconduct one might actually encounter in that situation. Michael, before dangling his finger through the fly of his pants, jokes that he figured it would have happened to a younger, more attractive employee like Pam. Additionally, Angela shames Phyllis by pointing out she’s a married woman, Dwight blames the victim by enacting a more stringent dress code on the office’s female employees, and Creed just doesn’t get what the big deal is about “hanging brain.” Even sympathetic Pam turns Phyllis’ trauma into a prank by creating a poster of the perpetrator that looks like Dwight with a mustache. While Michael predictably worsens the matter by leading a women’s appreciation seminar, organizing a group spree to Victoria’s Secret, and flipping the entire experience to make it about his relationship problems with Jan, those first few moments of the episode actually do a remarkable, if not entirely realistic, job of illustrating just how alone and unsupported a victim, male or female, might feel after that sort of terrible experience.

However, that still leaves Michael Gary Scott, he of the “that’s what she said” jokes and third-grade boob humor. He’s obnoxious, incorrigible, immature, insensitive, and habitually crosses the line when it comes to dealing with his coworkers, especially women. But it’s also important to note what he is not – namely, a manipulator leveraging his power over others. Michael may be the boss, but never does The Office give the impression that he intentionally abuses that position – other than to perhaps ensure a packed audience in the conference room for “the Chris Rock routine” and its resulting corporate-mandated diversity training. In fact, his driving desire to be liked by everyone at all times makes him a rather impotent authority figure. He can’t bring himself to fire anyone, downgrade the branch’s health care policy, or even take charge of the unpopular task of scheduling people for the weekend. Basically, his employees have long ago stopped giving Michael credit for having any real authority. That’s not to excuse his inappropriate behavior that he gets away with as the default boss, but it’s important to note that Michael, apart from being fictional, is far, far away on the spectrum that is the problem of sexual misconduct in America from monsters like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., who have habitually used their power and influence to manipulate and degrade others for their own gratification. It’s absolutely impossible to ever imagine Michael Scott putting another person in that position.

The truth is, Michael Scott is what most men are in the stand against sexual misconduct: an imperfect ally – on the side of women, not 100% aware of the scope of the problem or how to go about fixing it, and sometimes unknowingly part of the problem. Michael is most of us men, only a couple additional standard deviations of appropriateness away from the line we sometimes cross. He’s the offensive joke we’ve all made and later regretted due to our conscience or because it hurt someone who overheard, he’s the time we pushed an awkward hug on a female when a handshake would’ve sufficed, or the time we put one person down to ingratiate ourselves with another. He’s the person we were supposed to have grown out of being long ago, and yet our own insecurities and immaturity can’t help us from sometimes committing tamer versions of his own misbehavior. As outrageous as he may be, he’s also a reminder to do better.

I don’t believe The Office could have lasted as long as it did had Carell not imbued Scott with a well-meaning warmth that eventually led to him becoming a sympathetic character of sorts. Like us (hopefully), Michael genuinely cares about people, especially his employees, whom he refers to throughout the series as “a family” or “best friends.” It’s why he intervenes when Todd Packer and Kevin make an inappropriate joke about Phyllis, breaks down sobbing after he’s hurt Oscar by “outing” him to the entire office, and keeps his promise to attend Pam’s art show even after a day of nonstop humiliation. For all his obnoxious faults, Michael Scott isn’t out to harm anyone, and that ultimately allows us to laugh at him (and even sometimes with him) as he falters again and again to overcome his kitchen sink’s worth of personal issues.