by Niv M. Sultan
In real life, people measure the passage of time with units on which the world has largely agreed: there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 of those in an hour, 40-ish of those in a workweek, and on and on. Time operates differently in TV, though, where it often bothers less with pinpoint accuracy and more with broad taxonomy—scenes make up episodes, episodes are pieces of seasons, and seasons are little vessels of a show’s character, either magna opera or things that we don’t talk about. The Office is a series that recognizes and amplifies the incongruity between show-time and real-time, turning an environment in which time tends to be meticulously tracked (in at nine, out at five) into a temporal black hole. Very rare is the instance in which viewers get concrete numbers that elucidate the duration of relationships or gaps between events. To be fair, this sensation probably has a lot to do with the fact that I watched the show on Netflix. In “The Duel,” Jim reveals that the episode takes place 17 days after the one that preceded it—but with Netflix’s distortion of space and time, only seconds separated the two.
Regardless of Netflix’s bending of dark matter, The Office consistently plays with time when it comes to one topic specifically: love. When Jim leaves Scranton and meets Karen and Pam dumps Roy and Jim comes back and celebrates his six-month anniversary with Karen, the “six-month anniversary” is our sole means of contextualizing the events within a timeframe. Timing is similarly elusive in other relationships, be they between Michael and Holly, Erin and Gabe, or anyone else. Pam touches on this in “Heavy Competition,” when, after Jim second-guesses the timespan of Dwight and Angela’s affair, she mentions that “The timeline’s messy.” The timeline is messy indeed; and its messiness points not to the timelessness of love, but to the erosion of the traditional work-life balance. Love, sex, and paperwork bleed into each other because The Office, for the most part, takes place in the office. There isn’t time to have a life outside of work, so the employees of The Office forge lives within it.
The work-life balance was a subject of Juliet B. Schor’s The Overworked American (1992), which explored the nature of America’s modern work culture. Schor explained that over the course of the 20th century, Americans spent increasing time on work, and decreasing time on leisure and family. She wrote that “It is hard to avoid at least a touch of nostalgia for a world in which work was more integrated into family and social life, recreation less commercialized, and time more an easy background than a scarce commodity frenetically spent” (14). Schor’s assessment of free time is the reason why I sometimes skip through the opening credits even though doing so can take longer than letting them run. There’s the creeping feeling that every second outside of labor must be spent preciously, as efficiently as seconds spent laboring.
The state of The Office’s work-life balance is predominantly the handiwork of manager Michael Scott, the show’s backbone. Rather than simply replacing family and social life with work, Michael deeply interweaves the personal and the professional. See (indulge me here): Michael discussing a coworker in “Business Ethics” (“She’s my friend, and ultimately my strategy is to merge this into a relationship without her even knowing”); Michael in “Michael Scott Paper Company” (“They always say that it is a mistake to hire your friends, and they are right. So, I hired my best friends. And this is what I get?”); Michael in “Nepotism” (“Mixing family and business is a beautiful thing”).
The motivation behind Michael’s approach to workplace relationships becomes clear in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” In the episode, a young Michael explains what he wants out of adulthood to a puppet interviewing him on a children’s TV show: “I want to be married and have a hundred kids so I can have a hundred friends, and no one can say no to being my friend.” This, like many moments in The Office, is slightly more tragic than it is funny. Yes, I laughed at the feline puppet’s stunned face, and at the palpable tension in the conference room. But more powerful than awkward humor is the recorded, immune-to-the-withering-of-time proof that Michael looks to work to combat seemingly countless anxieties and insecurities. The beach trips and charity races and excursions to the mall are more than the procrastinations of a lazy manager. They are the remnants of Michael’s dreams of family and friendship, the scars of the temporal ellipsis that bridges his childhood and the moment in which he shamefully relives it.
It’s easy to sympathize with Michael, who trembles at the thought that his employees might leave Dunder Mifflin (or, worse, that they might want to leave). Life often feels like a series of relationships developed and severed; a collection of friends scattered to the wind in the name of progress or growth. It could be that long-distance friendships are like The Office, constructed on the non-negotiable clause that there will be chasms between seasons. Maybe when I see friend X or Y or Z again, months or years from now, we’ll hug and laugh, and I’ll sit back at my old desk, the perch from which I used to play pranks and cast longing glances. I could be Jim, in Stamford, missing Dwight and finally understanding that Michael was less a lunatic and more the string leading to the labyrinth’s exit.
If anyone in The Office has a relatively clear view of the work-maze, it is Creed. Creed is alpha and omega, Old Man Willow in an age where the forest is reduced to paper. But instead of existing outside of time, as primordial avatars often do, Creed is acutely sensitive to it. When post-promotion Ryan visits the office to introduce “Dunder Mifflin Infinity,” Creed warns Michael about the initiative’s dangers: “You’re over 40. That’s the cut-off. Are you listening to what he’s saying? Re-training. New system. Youth. I’m telling you, this kid is the Grim Reaper.” In the workplace, the bringer of death takes the form of a young MBA, returning like a king, with a beard that took who knows how long to grow, killing 9 to 5 with Blackberries that promise that you’ll never have to leave work at work. You’ll bring it everywhere, or you won’t bring it anywhere at all.
Michael, however, ultimately rejects the joblessness-is-death understanding of life. When he leaves The Office for Colorado, without any job prospects, after recognizing Holly as his family—and his coworkers as his best friends, nothing more and nothing less—he muses, “They say on your deathbed, you never wish you spent more time at the office, but I will.” Ryan was not the Grim Reaper, and leaving the workplace is not death. For it is only upon leaving that Michael untangles love from work, and himself from the office. I don’t believe that Michael no longer thinks of his former employees as family. I do believe, though, that at some indeterminable point after his plane takes off and Pam watches it escape, when Michael is on his deathbed, he will miss them, as one misses family and pieces of oneself.
Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared on First Person Scholar and The Ontological Geek. He is currently a political and nonprofit marketing consultant, and recognizes that he’s often part of the problem. Follow him on Twitter.