Friday, March 27, 2009

Pop art 

You all must watch the most recent episodes of The Office.

Watch out for "spoilerz" below...

The best take on the current transition from Bush to Obama can be found on The Office...

After seeming mired for a long time in mediocre plotlines following the union of Jim and Pam, The Office has suddenly taken an ambitious leap that is a bid to register alongside the most important television works of recent memory. Its entry point is a different show-- The Wire.

In this season two different Wire character actors-- those who played Beadie and Stringer Bell-- have appeared as characters on The Office. This is a fact that goes beyond simple trivia, for The Office's characters are constantly immersed in pop culture, and have referenced many of the most popular television shows and movies of recent memory. But with the Wire, they have taken a new step-- the actual transposition of actors from the other show to this one, which makes the link, and commentary on the American condition, clear.

The Wire is a 5-season HBO show that detailed the decay of American society and politics during the Bush era by focusing on drugs and police in Baltimore. As all great art does, the show predicted the current crisis, basing numerous plotlines around the idea of lies and absences. Wars were fought between drug lords over false pretenses. News stories and crimes were manufactured for personal gain and extra dollars. In the end, The Wire commented brilliantly on the Iraq War and anticipated the massive balloon of hot air that was the larger American economy that so seemed to contradict the decay in Baltimore. As it turned out, we have been Baltimore all along.

Which brings us to The Office, an adaptation of the British series in which an utterly awful and incompetent boss reigns over a paper-supply company regional office of miserable and morose workers who have to put up with him. In the British series, this boss was ultimately so terrible that he was fired. The American series provides an interesting departure from that story.

In the American Office, Michael Scott -quits- in outrage when his new supervisor is brought in and is clearly set on putting a stop to his inefficient antics (although earlier in the season we are provided the detail that Michael's is the best of all the regional offices). In a lovely detail, Michael quits at the moment that the CEO of the company has offered to come to his self-indulgent anniversary party with the company, extending an olive branch-- it is right at this moment that Michael realizes how sad this compensation is for his general misery in the position.

In any case, Michael's new supervisor is played by Idris Elba, Stringer Bell from The Wire-- a handsome black man (a rather sexist point is made of his attractiveness to women) who now, as it turns out, is essentially replacing an utterly incompetent white man.

Sound familiar? An obvious allegory is being posited here: Bush to Obama. But the best point begins to be made right at the end of the show.

Now in charge of the office, Charles (Elba's character) begins to take over. "No excuses," he warns the group, assigning Kevin, a plodding, fat, dumb white man, to take over the phones abandoned by Pam, and placing Stanley, the office's lone African American, in charge of efficiency.

The subsequent expressions on Kevin and Stanley's faces are priceless. They are both horrified. Michael's unbearable and ridiculous reign set up a situation in which they never had to try; there was always the excuse of Michael, the guy ahead of them who was screwing things up. Stanley, in particular, had clearly resigned himself to a career in which little was expected of him. Now that something was, he simply had no idea what to do.

This is the great insight of The Office into Obama's move into the White House. An eminently competent and efficient man has taken charge of a system that has atrophied, along with all of the people in it. This man symbolizes hope and change-- two conditions that on some level we had all come to think of as impossible. Now that they are expected of us, of people in the government, of bankers, etc., they probably ARE impossible.

Think also about Jim, always way overqualified for his job, coasting along under Michael, devoting all of his time and energy to practical joking and an endless self-reassurance of his intellectual superiority over his co-workers. When Charles arrives, he immediately picks on Jim, recognizing instantly who he has become-- a cynic who isn't helping the situation, who has also enjoyed the excuse of a fool being in charge for way too long. The Jim character, I think, is a call to us, who Scats has called "the chattering classes."

So, there you have it. Salient commentary about the present with simultaneous entertainment. Thoughts?


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