The situation of this situation comedy is, of course, dark from the get go: a small, regional paper distributor in a cold industrial town just far enough from the metropolitan as to be outside the fray of the current but not far enough to be rural and have its own culture. The backdrop of the show is the purgatory of contemporary American capitalism. I add "capitalism" as the show is distinctly about the relationship between the self and business. And, like the characters in the show, this company doesn't make anything (the only one who dabbles in creation, Pam, fails and returns to her cruel fate). Nor is it part of the emerging information economy. It is cog and nothing but, at the mercy of forces, never shaping them.
And it's all being filmed for no apparent reason other than everything is always already of the spectacle. The camera is always on. There are other shows that use this figure, most notably "Parks and Rec," but the camera functions differently in the two shows. In "Parks and Rec," the camera acts as an ironic foil standing in for the knowing audience. The cameras are not a character, are never part of the plot. In "The Office," however, the cameras have will and intention. They probe and reveal, are often referred to, and are explicitly addressed. The camera here is not the audience; it is the surveilling media-state — anonymous, relentless, probing, watching. For the camera of "The Office," we are always performing, always being excavated, turned inside out, transformed into spectacle.
Enter Steve Carell's Michael Scott. He does little but flail in the spectacle. His social and emotional life is made of snippets from ads and media, movies and comedians. He actively offers no affect other than the affect offered to him by the media-state. He of course has symptoms that exceed this — intense loneliness and cruelty that come from his stunted development and his imprisonment within the confines of such a world. But he has no outside this manufactured vocabulary of sentiment, no coherent interior life capable of negotiating, redefining, parodying, or resisting the spectacle's hegemony. It is grotesque and often difficult to watch.
Indeed, rhetorically, "The Office" is strange. Despite the traditional set up of a workplace comedy, there are no real points of character identification. The main focus, Michael Scott, is completely demented. From time to time, we are asked to have sympathy for him — we get flashes of his odd upbringing and, as he's stuck in some pre-adolescent phase of development, we don't judge his selfishness or relentless racism and sexism as harshly as we might. We often cringe and furrow our brows. But we have neither identification nor loathing. He's a character in the colloquial sense, something to behold, never something to identify with or love. He is spectacle.
He does not have a secret heart of gold, either (ignoring the later seasons). He has the most extraordinary loneliness that pervades every fiber of his being which can make him act softly. But, through and through, he's lonely, sad, stupid, and selfish — extraordinarily so. The loneliness may predate his job but it does not predate his participation in the American Spectacle. He was, in fact, on TV as a child. He has been inside out from the get go, an American casualty.
The obvious set up is for us to identify with Pam and Jim. But they are so vapid, so achingly banal, that we don't really care. In a way, they are the saddest characters. What are they doing there? Their office mates are not nice and are not their friends. This is not "Cheers." These other characters are cruel, selfish, and insane all in very different ways, careening lines that occasionally intersect beyond physical proximity but which, for the most part, pass each other by in the deep dark night of lonely, dark America. (Creed — his name is creed! — is the only character that seems to resist, to have a complex life outside, yet seemingly within, the spectacle. He even dated Squeaky Fromme.)
And yet it's not just that these people are quirky and odd. They are, for the most part, anxious, cruel, and vindictive. They are deeply alienated from each other and filled with fear and loathing. This is not the "Cheers" gang; this is no "Friends" who harbor secret love for each other (even if, in reality, the characters on "Friends" actually seem to hate each other; but that's for another essay). These characters are disposable, cogs within a nation and system that cares little for their well being but needs their bodies for labor and consumption — at least for the time being. Like the industry they serve, they are being phased out.
There is, however, power and resistance in Michael Scott's madness. He is so completely and utterly insane, so evacuated, that he churns violently, often disrupting the everyday functioning of the system that is killing him. He cannot read social cues; he rarely follows social protocol. His madness pushes him outside the social's rules as he uses snippets of the spectacle as a kind of weapon to break the machine of capitalist etiquette. His relentless madness disrupts the flow of business, of conversation, of everyday functioning. He knows no bourgeois propriety at all and he constantly, and unwittingly, throws people off kilter. His utter lack of self-awareness, his lack of an internal coherence, is the very thing that makes him dangerous. He is unruly through and through.
Bugs Bunny is a great figure of disruption and resistance, engineering lines of flight with ease. He refuses to let discourses stand, never playing the hunted when he's being hunted. Bugs plays mad but is not actually mad. On the contrary, Bugs is knowing, canny, manipulating discourse with casual aplomb. Michael Scott is no Bugs Bunny.
And then there's Daffy Duck who is utterly and completely insane. Like Daffy, Carrel's Michael Scott doubles down on his madness and never, ever relents. Everything and everyone in their path is affected, thrown off. They don't offer a self to which others can appeal; their madness is total. They are loud, demanding, incoherent, obnoxious. And yet they are not criminal. They quote enough of the existing structures that we are forced to respond without calling in the medical-police state.
This schizo madness becomes a kind of resistance, a power itself capable of disorienting, destabilizing, and disrupting the productivity of the spectacle. This is what drives much of the plot structure: Michael doesn't like to be productive. He disrupts everyone's work day at every point he can. He's not an anarchist; he's not trying to break any system. In fact, he thinks the spectacle, not capitalism, is the best thing in the world! And so the system — social and corporate — tolerates him. He speaks its language, only in a schizo tongue.
It may be, then, that the American Spectacle made Michael schizo. But his schizo-ness turns on its creator, creating the possibility of rupture — rupturing the structures of culture and business within the show as well as rupturing our experience as viewers. The daffiness can make the show difficult to watch. It's grating, as is Daffy Duck. But this mode of grating is precisely what's potentially revolutionary: it grates but can't be policed. It's like a ricocheting bowling ball in the china shop of capitalist America. Or some such thing.
The show turns maudlin in the fifth season as it begins to look for its heart of gold. It's as if the daffiness of the show was too much for it. And so it succumbed, letting itself be enfolded in the banal affect factory of the spectacle. This often happens with TV shows, of course, as they are conspicuous constituents of the spectacle. A tragic example is the little known and short lived, "Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23." In the first season, the "good girl" from the Mid-West comes to New York and has her bland sanctimony upturned by the party girl's brilliant and liberating amorality. In the second season, the show flipped the script back to the familiar, ruining the very thing that made it interesting.
But let's forget how 'The Office" turned sour. In its first four seasons, it gives a devastating critique of capitalism, of the fear and loathing that pervades it, of the alienation it forges. And, in the very same breath, it offers a mode of resistance.