Last Thursday Ms. Retronaut and I watched the season premiere of The Office, the NBC sitcom about the employees of a struggling paper company in Scranton, PA. We’ve watched it since its debut, and during the show we were trying to determine how many seasons it had been on the air. We ultimately were able to determine that this was the seventh season by recalling the story lines that dominated the previous ones – for example, the third season saw the character Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) briefly transfer to the Stamford branch, etc.
Then we started talking about the underlying premise of the show. Like the British series it’s based on, The Office is shot like a documentary and it has always been clear that there is at least one cameraman at Dunder-Mifflin filming pretty much continuously throughout the workday. The employees clearly are conscious of being filmed. It informs their actions – sometimes they censor themselves because the cameras are present, and sometimes they try to avoid the cameras altogether. Originally the filming was confined to the Scranton office, however, as the series went on, the cameras left the office setting to follow employees on non-work related outings. They have been at Jim’s barbecue, Michael’s dinner party, and Jim & Pam’s overnight stay at Dwight’s beet farm. They were also present at Jim & Pam’s wedding and were in the hospital when the Halperts’ child was born.
The question that we couldn’t answer was why? Why are they filming the employees of Dunder-Mifflin? What is the camera crew doing with all this footage that they have been collecting since 2005? Clearly they are not making a documentary. Too much time has passed for that. The only other option is that the footage is being used as some sort of televised reality show. One piece of evidence to support this can be found in the second season episode “Christmas Party” where Phyllis’ then boyfriend introduces himself repeatedly as “Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration” in a fairly transparent attempt to promote his business on camera. The camera crew also appears to depart during the summer season, which would seem to indicate the “show” may be on hiatus. The strongest evidence for the reality show theory would seem to be the “confessional” segments that are filmed with Dunder-Mifflin employees commenting directly to the camera with their opinions on the day’s events. These interview segments are standard practice on virtually all of today’s reality shows.
Spoiler Alert: ‘The Office’ exists entirely in Creed’s mind.
OK, fine – it’s a reality show, so what? Well, here’s the problem with that. If the footage shot at Dunder-Mifflin were being used in a reality show, then the characters’ lives would be changed markedly. And it would have happened very early, likely before the first season had finished airing. Think about Jersey Shore for a second. Its cast – Snooki, The Situation, J-Woww, and the rest – have all entered the pop culture consciousness in a big way. Even people who have never seen the show have some general awareness of who they are, or at least about the phenomenon that is Jersey Shore. And this is a basic cable show (it’s on MTV), it’s not even on one of the broadcast networks. The Jersey Shore cast have achieved a certain level of fame and they are cashing in on it. The Situation is now on “Dancing With The Stars” and may take in $10 million this year. (That sentence was very, very hard to type.)
So my point is this, if The Office were a reality show, its “stars” would be nationally known. The birth of Jim and Pam’s baby would be covered by Star and US Weekly. Dwight would be a presenter at the MTV Video Music Awards. Karen Filippelli would be offered a spread in Playboy. Michael would be chatting with Leno and Letterman. Creed would reform the Grass Roots.
None of this stuff has happened on the show, however. The characters continue to live their lives exactly as they would if they were not being televised. It is essentially a fake reality show that chooses to ignore the implications of what reality would really mean for its characters.*
So “The Office Paradox” is that the show’s concept negates its existence.
The UK version, on the other hand, avoided this trap by limiting its run to 12 episodes and 2 Christmas specials.
*Actually this is what most reality shows try to do.