Why “The Office” Doesn’t Feel So Funny Right Now

Recent events have us all adjusting our schedules and activities, including media consumption. By one estimate we are each watching an extra hour of television, on average, every day. That means more binge-watching and forays into catching up on movies and television shows from the past we have never seemed to have time to watch. Case in point for me: “The Office” – which ran for nine seasons from 2005-2013. Does it stand the test of time? In some ways no. Here’s why:

I discovered the program at the end of its run and enjoyed it immensely. Groundbreaking, well-acted and award winning, the self-proclaimed ‘mockumentary’ launched the careers of course of Steve Carrell, John Krasinsky, Mindy Kaling and others. But starting with season one, episode one, on Netflix, I am finding the show still brilliant in many ways, yet with content and themes that are, in the context of a different society, often unsettling. It all starts and ends with Carrell’s character, Michael Scott, regional manager of the Scranton Branch of the Dunder-Mifflin paper company.

Michael, though well-intentioned, is portrayed as a leader who is childish, self-centered, insensitive, divisive and insecure. Sound at all familiar? In days where we are absolutely starved for leadership, decorum and civility – at the top and by example – I find I am more likely to cringe as his words and actions demean and offend. His philosophies and diatribes are rooted in ignorance rather than malice, but still. Factor in further “Me Too” and other important social movements that we have embraced since the show’s inception and running gag lines like, “That’s what she said,” can be especially cringe-worthy if not entirely inappropriate.

I know, I know, it is all satire and in jest and maybe I just need to lighten up. After all, the show and its escapades are meant to be outrageous. The writers even utilize a range of disclaimers, of sorts, in each episode, most notably Jim’s regular and signature expressions of disbelief. Moreover, other colleagues push back on their boss much more vocally than actual subordinates would be able to put forth without consequence, in particular, Toby, the world-weary HR director. Like an accident, it is both hard to watch and hard to look away.

I truly thought I would be enjoying the show more and chose it particularly for the humorous distraction that we are all seeking right now. Current events, though, can color the lense of how we view something from another time. For me and for “The Office” the degree of difficulty in getting from irony to laughter has become just a little bit steeper.

Entertainment media has always been a product of its time. Some of it ages better than others. At this moment, is there anything from any other era that is truly in synch with where we are today?