Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thoughts on "The Office"


This week, Twitter and Facebook and Reddit made a fun little viral moment out of the behavior of a couple of lunatics from Scottsdale, AZ, who owned the first restaurant that Gordon Ramsay has ever refused to help on "Kitchen Nightmares."

I'd never seen "Kitchen Nightmares" and I don't really watch reality at all, but I pulled up the episode on Hulu, and it was kind of mesmerizing to see people so totally lacking in self-awareness.  Afterward, I watched a couple of other episodes, and what always bothers me about these kinds of shows immediately became apparent.

The best kind of famous: Internet famous.
"Kitchen Nightmares" is possibly the most formula-driven show on television; every episode (except the most recent one) is exactly the same:  We're introduced to the owners of a struggling restaurant.  We learn a little background about why they are failing.  Then, Ramsay comes in, orders half the menu, and hates everything.  He zooms in on everything with a high-def camera so you can see how gross it looks. If it doesn't look gross enough, he insists it's either too salty or too bland.  He takes one bite of everything and sends it all back, often while complaining about how hungry he is.  Ramsay inspects the kitchen, pronounces it filthy, and is disgusted.  Then the producers flood the restaurant with diners who are encouraged to complain about everything until the kitchen and the servers break down.  Ramsay diagnoses a problem, usually with somebody's "attitude."  There is an intervention of some kind.  Ramsay then brings in a construction crew to redecorate the restaurant, and he reinvents the menu.  The owners and staff eat the food and are overcome with awe at how great Gordon Ramsay is.  They do another dinner service, serving Ramsay's menu, during which there is a minor crisis that is inevitably overcome, and Ramsay flies off to help others.

After a few episodes of this, I was taken aback by how little I was actually learning about the restaurant business, because "Kitchen Nightmares" is a lot like the food in the restaurants it visits; prepared without care or expertise from mediocre ingredients, and then drowned in way too much gloppy sauce.  Or, to put it another way, "Kitchen Nightmares" is about three-quarters bullshit.

If the kitchens and the food are really extraordinarily disgusting as portrayed, then there's no reason to root for these businesses to succeed, but we all understand this is hyperbole. As are the narratives that give the episode structure.  If the restaurant is owned by a husband and wife, then their marriage is always at its breaking point.  If it's a business the owner inherited for his parents, he's stuck in the past and haunted by their ghosts.  If it's owned by siblings or friends, then they will be at each other's throats, having lost sight of why they started the venture together in the first place.

"That's what she said."
The truth is that restaurants fail because managing a business is harder than people realize, and it can be difficult to make serviceable but unremarkable food stand out in a saturated marketplace.  And "Kitchen Nightmares" fails as a TV show because it doesn't realize that contrived drama and phony stakes are less interesting than stories about people trying to make a business work and struggling, and sometimes failing. 

In other words, "Kitchen Nightmares" sucks because it's too much like recent seasons of "The Office."

"The Office" was a show that succeeded when it examined the experience of working in America and told affecting or funny stories about that.  Unfortunately, it wasn't that show enough, especially in the last four years.  

The people we work with generally do not become our family; they remain the people we work with, even if we work with them for years, especially in larger offices and corporate settings. The boundaries we create that distinguish our relationships with our colleagues from our relationships with our personal friends are interesting and rarely-explored on TV.  We change ourselves to conform to a corporate culture.  We often have important parts of our lives that we do not discuss with the people we work with.  

Sometimes there are people we are friendly with at work, who we never make any effort to see outside the office.  Are these people our friends?  It's weird when someone is around you all the time, and then they send out a departure memo one day, and you never see them again.

Similarly, it can be strange to run into your boss with his family at a restaurant, or to discover that the guy from IT is in a popular local band.  

It can be awkward when someone you spend a lot of time with, but don't consider yourself close to is dealing with a personal crisis that is overflowing into their work life.  It's strange to make small-talk at a birthday party for someone who you don't know well, and rarely think about except in terms of the function they perform.  

Television's most beloved sailor. After Gilligan.
The combination of rigidly observed barriers and awkward, forced intimacies that make up the social fabric of the contemporary workplace are interesting and often funny.  And in the early years of "The Office," it was often funny to watch Michael Scott fail to understand the nature of workplace interaction.   

The other big running plot of the early seasons, the slow-burning courtship of Jim and Pam was admittedly affecting, especially since the essential sweetness of that was contrasted with the acidity of Michael's disastrous relationship with Jan.  But through season five, "The Office" was, to a great extent, a show about semi-functional people trying to hang onto jobs at a dysfunctional, struggling company.


Unfortunately, Jim and Pam's romance plot was so popular that, instead of trying to tell new stories about work,  "The Office" decided to try and tell that same story over and over again, using various character configurations, with diminishing results.  Every character under 50 in that place had a major workplace romance arc.


The last several years have brought change to many American workplaces, and much of that change was unwelcome.  "The Office" was already well established, and poised to make really good art about the experiences of millions of people who have been struggling in places that, to some degree or another, resemble Dunder Mifflin.

These were the years "The Office" spent doing episodes about Robert California, and Andy turned into a dumber and less likable version of Homer Simpson, as he ran away from work to chase Erin to Florida and he left for three months to sail around on a boat with Josh Groban.

When "The Office" was about the world's worst boss and his improbable journey toward redemption, it was one of my favorite shows on television.  When it was an exercise in context-free zaniness than neither reflected nor commented upon reality, it was just a sitcom.  

In the end, "The Office" was like Jim, leaning back and smirking for years as time slipped away and it failed to reach its potential.  It was like Dwight, crazed and flailing and disconnected from reality.  It was like Pam, sticking to what was safe and familiar instead of dreaming of something bigger.  And it was like Michael, hopeful and enthusiastic and sporadically competent, but never quite smart enough.



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