The Office, Individualism, and the American Dream
Will has a good response to Jamelle’s reaction to The Office. Both posts got me thinking. Jamelle mentions ambition, and being “an ambitious guy” in his post. That’s key. Will mentions being a little older and realizing that life is full of little trade-offs. That’s key also.
In many ways, The Office is a show about power and ambition and it is a show about trade-offs. A lot of people think it’s a show about despair, and for a while there in the third season, it was a show about despair, but that’s not what it is now. As Mark notes in the comments to Jamelle’s post:
In some ways, though, that despair captured in The Office is exactly what makes it so appealing. It’s relatable in a way that the average uplifting sitcom can never be. It may be extraordinarily depressing for someone just getting started, but for most of us, it simply reflects how we’ve learned to live – and laugh at – our daily lives. We can’t all be President, we can’t all be firefighters, we can’t even all achieve middle management, much less upper management. What we can, however, do is laugh, which is what Jim and Pam do (or at least used to do), or we can find a sort of contentment in recognizing that our jobs do not define who we are, like Stanley (my personal favorite character in the show) and maintain our personal character above all else.
This is a very important point. Many shows, and much of the message coming out of popular American culture, is that we are all destined for greatness. We are all destined to do a job we not only like, but love. We are, in spite of any statistics to the contrary, bound to fall into a perfect, passionate love. We will all be powerful and unique, especially if we go to college.
Of course, just like most of us don’t have the body types of movie-stars, most of us will also not be millionaires or celebrities. Most of us will only ever achieve moderate financial success. Most of us will only be content with our work. We will dislike many of our bosses and co-workers and will have to learn to live with them as best we can, just like we learn to live with our imperfect families. Are we all just under-achievers then?
The great thing about The Office is that it points out that wherever we strive for control in our lives we inevitably run up against the realities of compromise. Jim is able to be the slacker-in-chief at Dunder Mifflin precisely because he doesn’t care about anything. But when he starts to care, he has to make a trade. As Will notes:
In the context of the Jim-Pam relationship, “The Office” makes this trade-off pretty explicit. In the second season, Jim forgoes an opportunity to move to a better, higher-paying job in Maryland to stay in Scranton with Pam. Later, Pam gives up her shot at an art career in New York to move back in with Jim. Sure, they’re still stuck at Dunder-Mifflin, working mid-level jobs in a collapsing industry. But they’ve got each other, which ought to count for something.
And unlike your run-of-the-mill sitcom, these trade-offs lead to changes. The characters change over time. Their motivations and relationships evolve. Jim becomes the boss he once dreaded. But he does it to get the girl. I know that in the movies you’re supposed to beat the bad guy to get the girl, or do some other dramatic thing, but what Jim does is every bit as astounding as fighting or dying for Pam. He grows up. I wouldn’t say he “gives up” which seems to be the popular take on this lately. Rather, he relinquishes the power he has over his situation – his apathy – and decides instead to care. And this only intensifies when they become home-owners and prospective parents. Somehow, ironically, caring about a girl you love and a family you desire is frowned upon as underachieving. Jim ought to be caring about his career!
I know people who decide they can do all of this without making trades, but they’re mistaken. Ambition has its price. Kids (or spouses!) can step between you and your ambition, and you often have to choose between one or the other. Time is short when you work and take care of children. More school to get that next, better degree is out of the question if you want to spend time with family. Or time with your kids is drastically reduced while you scrape through law school or your MBA and then race off to your 60 hour a week career.
And here we enter the vague waters of “individualism.” In America we are all so caught up in this American dream. We run abruptly into a midlife crisis because we are unwilling to face the fact that most of us are set up to become – at least in our career path – less than historical figures. We ignore the many other ways we can become satisfied and happy and even prosperous in our lives because we are so attuned to the idea that it is our work and our work alone that is what will fulfill us. We undervalue the rest of our lives. We scorn the notion of “settling down” as though it is somehow a pejorative term, as though it is resignation. Settling has double meanings. One is to take something less than we ought to take, but another is coming to rest upon something.
We all search for peace and peace of mind. Beneath all its despair and all its antics and all its odd and perhaps at times unsatisfying twists, this is what The Office is about. Michael wants a family. He wants more than anything to settle down, to find peace and come to rest upon something solid and stable. It’s been his wish forever, and yet he sabotages himself at every turn. Jim and Pam are fumbling their way toward something like it themselves. Really, all the characters are in one way or another. I think the show is about hope more than it is about despair. It is about how we achieve something good in our lives beyond our work and career.