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The Office: An American Workplace

Nine seasons after Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant brought it to the U.S., the hilarious, emotional and painfully awkward comedy series has reached its end.

Even strong in its last two seasons sans Steve Carrel’s iconic, meme-inspiring boss character, the NBC Universal show has had an impressive run, with rarely a dull or sloppy episode. And from Jim’s office pranks to Ryan’s professional avalanche, there’s plenty of fond memories to look back upon. For longtime devotees, this is the end of an era and a goodbye to friends alongside whom the audience has grown and worked and been fired and given birth.

And that’s part of what has made The Office so remarkable. As Jim says in the final episode, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.” The Office started as an offbeat and even shallow comedy about 9 to 5ers but somewhere in its nine seasons a meaningful subtext appeared in the quirkiness: a look inside the pedestrian lives of ordinary people with ethical and romantic insights, often in ways that went unacknowledged until last week’s final episode.

Interwoven in the show is a subtle commentary on capitalism and American business (the show makes an emphatic point in the final episodes that it is indeed, about an “American Workplace.”). The focal point of the ongoing narrative is Jim and Pam; he, confrontation-averse but smart, she, shy but kind. They, like the other Dunder Mifflin employees bring their good and bad qualities to the workplace where the former help out everyone else’s latter. As the Michaels and Ryans and Robert Californias have come and gone, the same subtle moral is reinforced: ambition and success are important, but they are secondary to family and community, and they are not necessary for happiness.

Case in point: Andy, Cornell graduate, finds himself struggling up the ladder at Dunder Mifflin, trying to find that magic rung that will finally impress his father. He learns through much heartbreak and failure that the office itself offered something far more satisfying; the community there offers more than what he was ever going to get from his dad. What he found was instead that pact of the pursuit of happiness that is written between the lines in the bill of rights: virtue and care for one another, the mortar that holds the bricks of business together. Ambition is important, the show makes this point, but it makes another more poignant point that ambition that sacrifices family and friends and virtue is not worth it.

The most famous illustration of this point in The Office is when Dwight finally becomes boss, an apparent victory by his many Machiavellian schemes and power ploys. But he discovers, as the other characters have, what is truly important–those around him–and he becomes a benevolent leader and not a despot. While the simple moral seems pedestrian, it is subtle and unexpected in a way that makes it in, fact, profound.

Michael Scott, when he decides to quit and start a family beyond work, having grown and matured in his workplace, reflects “The people that you work with, are just, when you get down to it, your very best friends. They say, on your deathbed, you never wish you spent more time at the office. But I will. Gotta be a lot better than a deathbed.” In an era of Enrons and GM failures and federal furloughs Dunder Mifflin was another struggling company with layoffs and branch closings at every turn, but its employees shared a common goal for mutual success and looked out for one another and the company, even when competing directly. A workplace pact.

T.S. Eliot worked a 9 to 5 job (technically, 9:15 to 5 with an hour lunch break), and said of his employment–at a London bank–that “Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that I enjoy the work.” The Office is about inept management, workplace romance, community and family but it is also about being content with work (see: Mike Rowe’s letter to the candidates before the 2012 presidential election).

The Office was innovative (we mustn’t forget its British predecessor, of course), though now other shows have made its pseudo-reality gimmick common; none however have struck the same chemical balance that has made The Office as enduring, poignant, meaningful and (and this one is key) relevant as it is. It is a nine-season romantic comedy in the last place one would set a romantic story, and in that way it is truly heartwarming.

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