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Storytelling: “The Office” and Happy Endings

For the past several weeks, I’ve been binge-watching all nine seasons of the American version of The Office, the hit comedy series that ran on NBC starting in 2005. I’d watched it when it originally aired on network TV, but seeing it again, with no week-long intermission between episodes, emphasized a theme on the show that didn’t hit me as starkly otherwise. That theme is: most people are good.

It’s strange to think of that theme when the show itself has so many cringe moments. Michael Scott, the manager of the Scranton, PA branch office of the Dunder Mifflin paper company, is selfish, cowardly, capricious, petty, and egotistical. When you watch the first episodes, you can’t help but be repulsed by his outlandish personality and sympathize with those under his thumb.

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 11.49.11 AMBut as you get to know him, you see something else: a fragile, shy, isolated, lonely man who just wants to be loved. Those glimpses often come, though, at the tail end of something particularly annoying.

For example, in the Season Two episode “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” Michael shows his staff a video clip from when he, as a child, appeared on the show Fundle Bundle. 

You shake your head as he shushes people when they comment as the video rolls, he makes an inappropriate comment about the female host’s body, and he is visibly jealous when staffers recognize a local weatherman as a child on the show.

Then, the boy Michael Scott is on the video screen, ridiculously dressed in a suit, talking to a puppet about what he wants from life: “I want to be married and have a hundred kids so I would have a hundred friends and no one can say no to being my friend.”

The young girls in the room, daughters of staffers, start badgering Michael with questions: Did he get married, did he have children? The obvious conclusion is that Michael never realized his dream.

The camera pans to the staff who just a few moments before were engaged in their usual eye-rolling at his antics. Each in turn shows shock and sympathy. Michael the Fool has become transformed in their (and our) eyes to Michael, il pagliaccio, the sympathetic clown from Leoncavallo’s opera. You can almost hear the heartbreaking aria “Vesti la giubba” in your head with its clown’s soliloquy about turning one’s sorrow into laughter.

In every episode there seems to be a moment like this, where a character’s fragility or vulnerability is revealed, usually after the person has done something embarrassing, mean-spirited, dumb, or just plain bad.

Similarly, you see the other characters then finding a way to lift that poor soul up, even if they have to bite their tongues while doing it.

When I first watched The Office as it aired, I didn’t always catch this constant through the episodes as I laughed at the staff antics and nodded at the inane business practices, the know-nothing bosses, the office parties and the simmering feuds among workers.

But it shows up episode after episode, and, although many characters do get their happy endings as stories resolve, the biggest happy ending for the series itself is the theme that plays out through the nine seasons of its entire story arc: deep down, people are capable of being very good, even when they don’t particularly like each other.

And, since I’m a country music fan, below is a musical rendition of that sentiment.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She writes under the names Libby Malin and Libby Sternberg.

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