SWANSON SHRUGGED

by Niv M. Sultan


Sitting down to begin writing this, having less than an hour ago watched the Parks and Recreation series finale—and thereby having completed my first viewing of the series in its entirety—I can already predict the criticisms that future me will have of the next few paragraphs. “It was supposed to be about Ayn Rand,” I’ll say; “about how Leslie is Bizarro-Dagny-Taggart, a gleaming blonde woman laborer who stops at nothing to succeed, and breaks through the walls that men build and maintain and protect from their seats atop them—but she does so in a distinctly public sphere, instead of the realm of private industry!”

Yes, I love that idea. I love Ron Swanson as the libertarian ideal, the apex of “social progressivism and fiscal conservatism” (whatever that actually means). When I scan a piece of pop culture, my mind has come to begin with a critique of the subject’s capitalist themes and implications, because I did it once and it stuck, and because I do capitalism every day. Parks and Rec is so wonderfully fitting for that kind of thing, too. It’s a show about work, the free market, and government. I could go in on Parks and Rec.

But not now.

That’s because for all of its compelling treatments of sociopolitical ideology, Parks and Rec left me feeling emotionally distraught. The season finale was a finger pressing on a new wound, digging at the emptiness that crystallizes when you watch seven seasons of a show in a very short timespan. I loved Leslie and Ron and Andy and Tom, and Jean-Ralphio and the pun-loving accountant. I can’t quite remember the last time that I got so sappy over a TV show, and I’m fairly certain that rather than making me feel more attached to its characters than any other show has (which it very well may have), Parks and Rec simply hit me at the right time.

When I was in college, the anti-capitalist shtick was simple because I didn’t have to compromise much in order to sustain myself. Flirting with socialism while typing away at a MacBook was easy because I didn’t have to pay for my meals. Nowadays, it’s harder for me to deny my hypocrisy; I have become the subject of one of my myriad college papers that I can sum up with: “This thing that I’m talking about is criticizing a thing while also being that thing!” I despise what capitalism does to so many people, but I do so from the safeguarded niche it built for me when people who looked enough like me made it.

In “One Last Ride,” the Parks and Rec season finale, Leslie Knope gives a commencement address in which she says that “We do it [public service] because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing, alongside a team of people who we love.” It made me think of the year I spent in public service, fresh out of college, working on a team whose transition from starry-eyed to hardened was swift and helpful. I adored—and continue to adore—the coworkers with whom I built something good on a foundation of very little common ground.

My year of borderline-quixotic labor is behind me, but I now find myself less willing to compromise on the idealistic than I would have expected. I have an office job, and I get paid a salary, but when I really think about what I’m doing, I wonder what it’s worth. (Millennial malaise 101, perhaps.) I consistently reflect on how lucky I am to be gainfully employed, but as per my mind’s most dire formulations, working a job that isn’t what I want to do in the long-term can be one of two things: a learning experience, or the front step of the abyss. So, from a place of confusion and anxiety, it was painful for me to recognize how much the characters of Parks and Rec love their work and each other.

The fact that Leslie and co. work under increasingly rare, almost mythical conditions didn’t help, either. 40-hour work weeks and the ideals of public service are vestiges of a time long-gone, intangibles that the invisible hand has largely cut down. Today’s workers, should they desire success as 21st-century upper-class whiteness defines it, need to be willing to work 130 hours a week. There are, to many, few values beyond money and renown.

Ron Swanson, then, isn’t the antithesis of government labor—he’s its paragon. He comes in at 9:00, and is out the door at 5:01. He values honesty, respect, and family. One of his catchphrases, “Please and thank you,” evokes the philosophical bedrock of government work. When Ron asks for something, he doesn’t wait for a response before giving thanks. Thank you, the signifier of an honest job well done, is a given. And because thank you is a given, the government, an operation with thankless work at its core, is the pillar around which Ron’s world swivels.

Yes, Ron finds satisfaction when he temporarily leaves public service and runs his own construction company. But it pales in comparison to his ultimate job of managing a national park, a haven declared invulnerable to the sands of time and the hazards of private ownership. It takes Ron a while, but he finds the place to which his life has been a path. And when we last see him at work, he is at peace: paddling not into the abyss, but into a body of water that belongs to everyone and no one at all.


Niv M. Sultan
 
 
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.

ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE

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
 
 
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.