Saturday, October 11, 2008

The New Awkward: A Safety Manual

When I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my shitty life in that nebulous period between my high school graduation and my clumsy transition into the shitstorm that is the world, I considered at one point a career in teaching. I thought I was good at it, and so while attending a local community college, I took my first and last class on the subject. Introduction to Education. I quickly decided that a future in colonic irrigation seemed like a viable alternative.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the part where I got to sit in on classes and observe, and that was when I had a rather lengthy discussion with a teacher about students’ inability to articulate themselves and to form arguments for believing what they do. The example he used was regarding one student’s high adoration and love for his Jeep, claiming it was “awesome” and “tricked out.” When asked to explain further what he meant, the student appeared to have no idea what he was talking about or why he even liked the Jeep in the first place. He just said, "it's cool."

Relating this to film (and bear with me here, there’s a point coming), he said a person who goes and sees a film which he doesn’t like should be able to muster up something just a tad more coherent and specific than “it sucked.” Tell me why it sucked, you asshole. That was when he brought up Zoolander. What he pointed out to me was that, after all of the trails and conflicts and adventures the protagonist takes us through in the film, when it comes time for the climax and the resolution, the character hasn't learned a thing. There is no lesson or moral, and to him, the film failed horribly for that reason.

What I extrapolate from that meeting in the dimly lit afternoon hallway four years ago is that if we do not promote change in our characters, or at least in our audience, then what the hell are we doing? Something might be funny, but what is it worth? We can laugh when a character falls, because we fall too, but we shouldn’t be laughing at them but with them, right?

And this brings me to my main point – what I really want to discuss – and that is the possibly detrimental trend in comedy that now seems to encourage this sort of behavior. That which makes us laugh at, rather than with, the characters. The kind of comedy that creates empathy for the characters in the story seems less popular than those in which the main character is mean, taunting, conniving, immature, selfish and bitter towards those around him.

I’m talking, of course, about The Office.

I have often felt uncomfortable watching The Office, in part because I don’t understand what’s so funny, but also because every ounce of laughter that I do have ends up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. For a long time, I thought it was just me. It is a new kind of comedy that Rolling Stone has dubbed "The New Awkward," and The Office is one of its greatest examples. But by comparing it to another show, I am going to argue why The Office, indeed, "sucks."

So let’s begin…

*****

After premiering on March 24, 2005, The Office got off to a shaky start. NBC’s previous attempt to convert a British comedy, Coupling, had been a train wreck, and other single-camera sitcoms like Scrubs and Arrested Development were struggling to find an audience. Thing is, those shows were funny, and were getting rave reviews. The Office, not so much. Some people liked it and some people hated it, but despite its shift from a golden Thursday night position which lost many viewers, the network ordered a second season. And the rest is history.

Michael Scott (Steve Carell) immediately makes his presence known on the show as an arrogant, immature, incompetent, unfunny office manager of Dunder Mifflin, a struggling paper company. There is nothing likeable about this character, and he has pretty much no redeeming quality that I have been able to detect.

Then there’s an office full of losers who put up with his bullshit for no real reason at all. Secretary Pam, for instance, would be the perfect candidate for walking out, and yet she puts up with a superior that belittles her at every whim. Her engagement to a warehouse worker named Roy serves as the office’s only real interpersonal conflict, as salesman Jim has the hots for her. Haven’t we seen this before.

I say only conflict, because Jim’s immature torture of brown-noser Dwight can hardly be called a real conflict. More like a candy-coated speedbump at the bottom of the grand canyon.

Dwight is perhaps the most pathetic creature of a person ever to grace the TV screen. He is a sycophant who exerts his non-authority for our amusement, all the while playing fireant to our boyish fetish with seeing such beings burn under a magnifying glass with silly little office pranks. But hey, that’s funny!

Oh, there’s also Token Black Guy, and Token Ugly Fat Chick, to go along with all of the other caricatures on the show. The Hot Chick introduced in the last episode has more depth than any of the ones I’ve mentioned.

Having said all that, you might be thinking, “but Spoon, you’re oversimplifying. These characters are deeper than that. Honestly.” Let’s see about that.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, let me give you an idea of the kind of characters I’m talking about. In the pilot, a new office temp named Ryan is learning the ropes about the company. We’ve already found out that this office’s branch might be getting downsized or even axed completely, so the very notion of hiring a temp is dubious already. But whatever, let’s go with it.

Right after Michael, in his unfathomable self-love, has just explained to Ryan that he thinks of the office as his “family,” and that the morale is always high, he calls Pam in for a little “joke.” He tells her that she is fired for stealing post-it notes, and she begins crying. This continues for a few moments until Michael begins laughing at her, and tells her she’s “punk’d.” She calls him a jerk and storms out.

Three things to note here. One, the strange absence of a scene following this or even one of those cutaway interviews to suggest that Michael is sorry, or that he even cares about what he did. It’s possible he cared only because it happened in front of Ryan, and God help us if anyone thinks Michael isn’t the most awesome guy ever. Two, Pam never vents, or considers quitting, or even ponders going to corporate. And three, Ryan seems to think there is no problem working at this office, because he keeps the job. When did it become acceptable for a boss to prank fire you? But wait, we’re just getting started.

An entire episode is devoted to diversity. The writers of The Office decided that the best way to deal with this subject is to have its vilest character organize a diversity meeting of his own whereby employees are encouraged to be separatist to each other. At one point, a black man wearing a notecard that says “BLACK” and a woman wearing one that says “JEWISH” are supposed to treat each other like the race on the card. As if this premise wasn’t the most awful exercise in comedy already, the anxious Michael adds, “c’mon! The Olympics of suffering here… Holocaust versus slavery!”

You can see now why this show is a recipe for sadness.

Even Jim, who might be regarded as the moral center of the show (as well as Pam), isn’t free from the shackles of excessive character flaws. Not only is he something of an office bully to Dwight, he has a lot of vanity and cockiness about his work, and isn’t beyond using male machismo to win the affections of a certain secretary who is currently engaged. I don’t even need to watch the show beyond its first season, which I have not yet done, to know they will be married before the show is off the air.

And what about Pam? Innocent victim, or naïve submissive? I’m leaning toward the latter. As if being with an asshole of a boyfriend wasn’t clichéd enough, continuing to work for a man who will call an attractive purse peddler “new and improved Pam… Pam: 2.0” right in your face is perplexing to say the least.

I am a writer, and though I still have a lot to learn, I do understand that characters must have flaws if they are to seem vaguely interesting to us. But part of that interest comes in seeing change. I watched the entire first season, and even though there were only six episodes, I didn’t see even a trace of development or change in any of the characters. On top of that, the characters are not even aware on any level that they have flaws, except for possibly superficial ones.

In addition to this lack of change, I noticed a lack of real problems and situations. Building a whole episode around a girl who is trying to sell purses to employees which leads to predictable superficiality and contrived plot twists isn’t exactly the most interesting way to create conflict.

And that seems like the perfect place to begin my comparison with another show, one which takes a group of equally vile characters and does conflict and character development RIGHT.

*****

STARVED was a series which only lasted seven episodes. FX pulled the show when it was forced to chose between it and It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia (a lesser triumph, in my opinion). The decision probably had more to do with its controversial nature than with the quality of the programming, and we all know to whom advertisers place their loyalty.

The truth of the matter is the show has more to do with self-love and narcissism than with eating disorders. Let me tell you what I’m talking about.

Our four beloved characters are seated at a booth having lunch in a resturaunt. Billie, a recovering anorexic, talks on her cell phone while cleaning her food scale, which prompts an argument with main character Sam about her sexual lifestyle. He constantly vies for Billie’s attention because he secretly has a crush on her. She punctuates many of her responses to Sam's trivial drama with assertions that the only concern that is important to her is not winding up 82 pounds and hospitalized.

The third breakfast plate arrives for Dan, a three-hundred-pound overeater who has put off gastric bypass surgery several times. He justifies his extra helping by saying he “had” to have sex with his wife last night. “You don’t want to have sex with her?” Billie asks him. “Not when the Cowboys are on. Thank God it was only the Bucks they were playing. See, next week, it’s the Eagles, and I’ll get to see that one, cuz I gave it to her last night.” To which Sam replies, “maybe you need a divorce instead of surgery.”

A messege pops up on Sam’s laptop from a girl who is interested in Sam. He is excited at first, until he learns that she is 5’9” and 140 lbs. “You think 5’9” 140 is fat?” asks Billie. She provides her well-thought out theory on how the fashion and food industries have conspired to make 5’9”/120 the standard, but is laughed at by Sam, who thinks her estimate that his waist is 34 is ridiculous (he will measure it later, and it will be 34).

Billie runs off shortly to wash her carrot, and while she’s gone, Dan ponders if he thinks Sam’s dick weighs more than her carrot. Adam, a black cop with bulimia, agrees to the challenge and so, with something to prove, they all proceed to weigh their dicks on her scale. This last part of the scene is really what the whole show is all about. The extent and depth of their superficiality and competitiveness is distilled in such crystalline acts as this. The writers of this show don’t need to rely on conventional bragging and childish bravado – they bring in the hammer. They say, “when people are insecure and have a constant need to reassess their greatness, really all they are doing is prick-waving. So let’s have them whip out their pricks.” The whole show is written like this.

This theme of insecurity runs throughout the entire show as well, and makes very strong connections between things like male machismo and latent homosexuality. It also addresses, at first directly and then indirectly, the sexualization of food. “Don’t eat that girly food,” one commercial says, for example.

And I’m sure you remember that bit I mentioned about the characters in The Office not having real problems? Well, by episode three, Dan will be kicked out of his home by his wife and be living with Adam, and just before the finale, will have a heart attack which will nearly cost him his life. Adam will find his end when Internal Affairs finds out he’s been abusing his authority by extorting food from innocent citizens, and they fire him. Billie will nearly backslide into her eating disorder, and before the show’s cancelled will realize she’s becoming an alcoholic. And Sam’s every effort to start a relationship will turn into an obsession that blows up in his face, leaving him with a bleeding scrotum, swollen testicles and orange Oompa Loompa skin.

Sometimes the characters get better, sometimes they fall deeper into the hole. But there is very real development, and a hell of a lot we can learn. They fail repeatedly, but they try. And most importantly, they know they’re fucked up. This is why they attend Belt Tighteners: “Belt Tighteners is not affiliated with any 12-step or dieting program. We believe we need a more radical solution to arrest our eating problem. By creating a community of accountability and shame, we don’t act out.” This is why the title of the show at the beginning of every episode includes the audio of the group saying “it’s not ok!” This line is actually the essence of the show.

*****

I want to stress that the major difference in the comedy lies in the awkwardness of the situation. In The Office, it is the characters who feel awkward. Every time Michael makes an ass of himself, the characters look pretty much the same: like someone just opened a beer in church. And whether it’s Michael or Dwight or whoever, this makes us laugh AT the person making things awkward. To a lesser degree, we are also laughing at those who have to endure this nightmare as well.

On Starved, the people who feel awkward are we the audience. No one on the show gives a shit how depraved or vile their actions are, but we have to identify with them anyway. There are no moments for us to identify with the spectators in the show, the minor characters who have to put up with this. Usually, if they are there at all, they speak up.

For example, in the first scene after Sam gets rejected by a girl online, he digs in the trash out back and finds a chocolate cake covered in laundry detergent, and just as he’s eating the underside of the cake, a trash man walks up. In The Office, he might have just made a face, the scene would have included prolonged silence as Sam chows down on the cake, and we would have identified with the trash man, thinking something along the lines of, “My god, how disgusting,” making us in turn think something along the lines of, “man, that poor trash guy… must be real awkward.” Instead, the trash man actually asks, “aren’t you afraid you’re going to swallow some of that detergent?” He asks this as if morbidly curious. He might have passed judgment immediately, but instead engages him. Most of the characters on the show do this, in fact. Though the characters are all fucked up and are trying in varying degrees of success to curtail their flaws, there is a degree of openness which removes from the audience the pleasure of being able to see these hopelessly flawed characters as separate from themselves. The end result makes us, the viewer, feel awkward, because we just might possibly relate to the flawed ones.

One doesn’t have to have an eating disorder to relate to the characters on this show. But who wants to admit that they might possibly be as narcissistic, obsessive, confused, perverted, desperate, lonely or naïve as a character in the show? Because the problems they face, for the most part, are their own doing. They are not the result of contrived circumstances and plot devices. You can’t just say “ah, they have a problem which was not their fault… such is life.” The whole premise of The Office is contrived from the start: we’ll take some people, put them in an office, and make them put up with a manager who does no work and is cruel to everyone. Wait, did I say “make them” put up with him? I must have forgotten they can QUIT AT ANY FUCKING MOMENT.

It is possible that The Office improved, but I doubt it. I’m certainly not going to spend another four seasons to find out. In fact, the only other episode I’ve seen, “Dinner Party” from the fourth season, proves that not only do Jim and Pam still work there, they are willing to have dinner with their obnoxious, racist, sexist boss. Starved did more to prove its worth in the first episode than The Office did in six. And I’m still not convinced there is any value to watching the show.

*****

One last note on satire: Despite my disgust of the show, I begrudgingly admit that The Office does qualify as satire. Some might say I’m misjudging the show on that basis, but I ask you to tell me exactly how apparent is the satire when you’re watching it? When you watch Stephen Colbert, it’s pretty damn obvious. But The Office? Not so much. So on that alone, I would say it’s BAD satire. If the viewer is not aware at all times that the program is satire, then it’s failing. It is, in fact, the other thing – the thing it’s trying to satirize.

And what about that? What is it satirizing? Office life, I suppose. But can’t we say Dilbert has done a far better job of that without the constant mean-spiritedness? I have never in my entire life worked for a boss as horrible and vile as Michael Scott. I’ve worked for bosses who were one or two of many terrible attributes: ignorant, strict, patronizing, power-crazed, over-confident, immature, gossippy or lazy. Sometimes even racist or sexist, too. But they all, for the most part, had good qualities as well. And usually only one or two of those bad things at a time, if any. To make the boss a hodge-podge of some of the worst things a person can become is quite unnecessary, and at the very least unfunny.

And the worst part about it is the notion that it is ok to laugh at these things. It seems to be ok to laugh at these people when they fail, rather than with them. It’s nicer to know that we are not like the people in the show when they are at their worst. The distance is comforting. It allows us, like the characters on The Office, to fuel our egos and believe that there is nothing wrong with us. We can go to school the next day, or to work, or to a friend’s house, and reminisce over the moment when Dwight pedantically tried to define a hero like the loser he is, or when he paid a homeless woman to be his date just so he could be included. That’s funny, right? No. It's just sad.

3 comments:

Bachonga said...

I now hate the office after your comments about ti. I need to check out this starved show.

Christine said...

You know what the problem with Starved might have been? They wanted to make people THINK! And heaven forbid if any work of comedy should make their viewers feel even just a smidge dissatisfied about themselves by the first commercial break.

So now that I've used up my sarcasm quota for the week, you brought up satire, Spoon, I'm curious: what do you think makes a good satire?

Spoon said...

Sorry for the prolonged wait for your response. I've been busy as hell.

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewert, as I mentioned, are good examples of satire. Also The Onion, South Park, The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, Dr. Strangelove and Idiocracy. And don't forget the satirists of old: Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and George Orwell.

There may be many more, but those are just the ones I'm familiar with, and I believe they are all successful.

Basically, it should be a gross exageration of the elements of a subject, not a recapitulation of it. It is almost always fictional for that reason.