While Nobody Was Watching, ‘The Office’ Became a Commentary on Reality TV Fame

By  · Published on May 16th, 2013

Andy Bernard The Office

In addition to its American counterpart, Ricky Gervais’s The Office has been remade in at least a half dozen different countries, including Chile (La Ofis) and Israel (HaMisrad). It’s often reductive to declare any cultural phenomenon universal or ubiquitous, but, more so than any other television series concocted during the twenty-first century, The Office approaches omnipresence. There’s something about the show’s droll depiction of quotidian cubicle drama that resonates across borders, languages, and cultures. It’s a profound statement about globalization that so many different countries recognize such a similar work environment to the point that such similar comic situations can be structured around it. For every fluorescent-lit cathedral of number-crunchers and quota-seekers, there seems to be an inevitable David Brent or Michael Scott.

Since Steve Carell’s departure from the US Office, the show nose-dived into forced and contrived relationship drama. Despite its acts of trading in its trademark (and incredibly effective) cringe-humor for uninspired quirk, I’ve stuck with the show. Every now and then, The Office still delivers an inspired set-piece that reminds me of why I used to wait anxiously for a new episode each Thursday. And every now and again, characters connect genuinely and develop that way that pays off when you’ve been sticking with a sitcom through its ups and down for nine straight seasons.

But The Office has made a remarkably different transition late in its last season, where the show’s focus has switched from depicting the droll absurdity of everyday middle class labor to something of an insightful examination of the proliferating role contemporary fame takes in everyday life.

As I wrote about in 2011, the episode that sent off Carell is significant because it heralded a transition from a strict approach to representing everyday work to the ratings-grabbing shenanigans of lesser sitcoms, like cameo roles by famous comic actors such as Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey. The Stanleys and the Phyllis’s of the cast (“normal”-looking people whose faces are too-rarely seen on fictional television) became decidedly upstaged by bona-fide “stars” (remember that The Office premiered in March 2005, five months before Carell became a star with The 40-Year-Old Virgin). After James Spader left the show (for good reason), The Office found itself at an impasse regarding where the series should go (including a failed attempt at a Dwight-centric spin-off).

The US Office has now maneuvered its focus toward a subject that the original series only dealt with elliptically: the completion and airing of the non-fiction document that justifies the mockumentary structure of the show. In doing so, we see firsthand how the characters deal with being elevated from unremarkably ordinary Americans at a paper company to potential reality television stars. The characters become aware of their respective inabilities to experience privacy – they struggle, and fail, to find meeting places in the office environment in which they can speak discreetly. Characters constantly look for cameras and fail to perceive any technological presence despite their apparent paranoia. This panoptic depiction of everyday surveillance technology resonates in its juxtaposition with a real-life culture in which one’s private actions can make them, unwittingly, a public persona potentially subjected to incredible derision. There’s even a subplot involving a political sex scandal.

The ninth season of The Office attempts to represent a contemporary moment of crisis in the meeting of technology and unwanted public attention that was only in its nascent form when the show premiered eight years ago. And, strangely enough, because the show’s cringe comedy oscillates so fluidly between laughing at and laughing with its characters, this final season seems to be retroactively implicating the show’s actual audience in illustrating the potential repercussions of the characters’ unwanted fame via the very footage we’ve watched for eight years. It’s easily become the most positively Haneke-esque of all of NBC’s sitcoms. Yes, even more so than Animal Practice.

The issues of 21st century fame are illustrated most bluntly with the tragic ongoing fate of Ed Helms’s Andy Bernard. Enduring an extended midlife crisis that motivated him to spontaneously sail the Caribbean (presumably to film The Hangover III: This, Again?) and inspired by the meager number of YouTube views that Andy-centric promos received in advance of the documentary-within-the-show, Andy quit his job to pursue the prospect of full-time fame. At age 40-something. In Scranton, Pennsylvania.

His delusion is so far-gone that, even when office-mates tell him to his face that he’s potentially ruining his life, his brain contorts these messages to avoid the truth. Through connections provided by his small-potatoes agent (Roseanne Barr), Andy portrays a scientist whose eyes experience chemical burns for a lab safety video, and almost breaks down after being forced to face his life-long fear of putting anything in his eyes. In last week’s episode, Andy attempts a resonantly contemporary shortcut to fame by auditioning for an American Idol-style show hosted by (the very real) Mark McGrath, only to be cut short by the time he reached his turn. Andy then sneaks onto the set and belts out the Cornell fight song, quickly followed by an infantile crying fit.

Andy has always shown signs of psychological complexity, even trauma, like early on when he panicked and punched a hole in the wall in reaction to ridicule. An empathetic character has occasionally emerged under those eccentricities, and The Office has seen several opportunities for Andy to grow (somewhat) from his perpetual nadir of confidence. But as the show wraps up, The Office seems to have zero interest in redeeming Andy or finding a happy ending for him.

He is portrayed as having dove full force into his pathologies, an unenviable victim of a massive and long-running inferiority complex, the stagnancy of middle management, and the false 21st century promise that everyone, in the age of YouTube and reality television, will inevitably find their fifteen minutes. Andy Bernard is perhaps one of the most complex, dark, and misanthropic characters to ever star on a network sitcom. There are times that he seems to have been lifted straight from a Todd Solondz movie. Seriously, he’s not that far off from the protagonist of Dark Horse. Andy embodies an extreme experience of urgent, arrested dissatisfaction towards ordinary living in the face of the mirage of digital possibilities.

This is all to say that, despite its flaws and years-long trajectory of diminishing returns, The Office has managed in its waning hours to accomplish something risky, bizarre, and unique for a sitcom that has an almost-universal means of access, even if the end result is a bit uneven and ambivalent. The show seems to exercise fitting cynicism about a superficial TV-based fame cycle that has turned everyday life into a spectacle of fools and, in the process, has allowed other networks to continually knock NBC out of the park.

Now, if only the show were still funny.

The series finale of The Office airs tonight on NBC.