Mis-Inappropriating 'The Office'
Could the former hit show survive in today's era of political-correctness?
Last week, actress Mindy Kaling, who played Kelly on NBC’s The Office, was a guest on Good Morning America. She was asked about her role on the successful sitcom (which ended 10 years ago), as well as the show’s renewed popularity, primarily on streaming services, with today’s teenagers and young adults.
She made some interesting remarks, some of which I think were unarguably true, and others that — as a longtime fan (and early adopter) of the series — slightly irritated me.
She described how such a show probably couldn’t be made today, at least not for a major network, because of how politically incorrect it is by today’s standards.
“Tastes have changed,” Kaling said. “And honestly what offends people has changed so much now.”
I think she’s right about that. It’s hard to imagine NBC signing-off on a comparable show in this day and age. In fact, I’ve made that very point to my wife a number of times, on occasions when we find ourselves revisiting the series.
One of the best examples of that political-incorrectness is the show’s second ever episode, titled “Diversity Day.” That’s the one where office manager Michael Scott (played masterfully by Steve Carell) gets in hot-water with H.R. for doing a controversial imitation of a Chris Rock stand-up routine. In order to spare Scott from the humiliation of singling him out, the company’s corporate office sets up a “racial diversity” seminar for the entire branch, sending a consultant out to teach Scott and his staff about racial tolerance and diversity.
In what goes on to become a regular-gag throughout the series, Scott tries so hard to be “woke” (before woke was even a a thing) in his “celebration” of diversity, that he ends up glorifying racial stereotypes and hailing subordinates of color as miraculous success stories… for merely achieving the common job-positions they have. The irritation his unrealized condescension is met with, by those he’s lavishing praise on purely for their ethnicity, is a riot.
Similar premises play out in later episodes with homosexuality, physical disabilities, elderly people, and lots of other areas. It was, and still is, an uncomfortably funny formula.
Kaling acknowledged as much in the interview, saying, “I think that actually it’s one of the reasons why the show’s [still] popular. Cause people feel like there’s something kind of fearless about it or taboo that it talks about on the show.”
She’s right about that too. The show drags people out of their comfort zones in a way that few do. In that sense, it feels novel, and that novelty has earned the show a new generation of fans.
But here’s the part of the interview that kind of bugged me. When asked when she planned to let her children watch the show, Kaling answered, “I kind of think maybe never. That show is so inappropriate.”
Now, to be clear, I don’t care whether or not Mindy Kaling’s kids ever watch The Office. That’s a personal decision; to each their own. But categorizing it as “inappropriate” strikes me as a cop-out for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it was an awfully clean show, at least through the Carell era (I stopped watching shortly after that, since the writing went downhill). There was hardly any swearing, sexual scenarios were mostly rhetorical and relatively innocent, there was no political or social agenda being pushed, and violence was of course non-existent.
That leaves the aforementioned political-incorrectness, and in that regard, I would argue that the show was always “inappropriate,” including in 2005 when it first aired. Being “inappropriate” right out of the gate was part of its magnificence.
Maybe it’s hard for some to remember what American culture was like 17 years ago, but a white person assuming that an African American individual is good at basketball was every bit as “inappropriate” (and downright offensive) back then as it is now. The same goes for a man trying to kiss a male subordinate to prove his tolerance for homosexuality. Likewise for a boss capping off incremental, good-faith efforts to raise the spirits of a female subordinate (who’s suffering from self-image insecurity) by telling her...
These scenes were always inappropriate. That was the point. And they were inappropriate primarily at the expense of Michael Scott, not the characters he was offending. That’s what so often made The Office an uproariously funny show.
As for real-life people (not fictional characters), here’s a couple of important questions: How many of them (of any demographic) were genuinely offended by the series back then? How many (of any demographic) are genuinely offended by it now?
It’s certainly not today’s teenagers and young adults, our front-line defenders of social and cultural sensitives; they largely love the show. It’s also not Gen-Xers (like me) and Millennials who enjoyed the show the first time around. Could it be the elderly? I kind of doubt it (my parents have never even heard of the show).
Hence, now is probably a good time to clarify what I meant earlier when I said I agreed with Kaling’s assessment that “tastes have changed.”
They have changed, but not as much among folks just looking for something enjoyable to watch on television, their phone, or their computer. Who they’ve changed far more for are people in the entertainment industry, like Kaling (and apparently even Carell), who’ve become increasingly concerned over the years with offending the social-sensibilities of segments of the audience that probably aren’t as easily offended as the entertainment industry has been led to believe.
Don’t get me wrong. You’re always going to find someone who’s offended by something. And in today’s social-media and cancel cultures, relatively few voices banning together online to express collective angst over stuff they deem socially-unacceptable can create an over-inflated, sometimes crippling sense of controversy. And because many in today’s entertainment industry are increasingly worried about such controversy, and how their work will be received, they’re taking fewer chances.
So, while I think network audiences are ready (and perhaps even starving) for more shows like The Office, I don’t think we’re going to see many — if any — going forward. That’s not to say that some secondary network or streaming service won’t take up the challenge (the new RENO 911! reboots have been surprisingly irreverent), but the big networks care too much about social appropriateness.
The good news is that we still have reruns. And if you’ve never seen The Office, here’s my suggestion: give it a try. It’s great. Start with the second episode, “Diversity Day,” because the pilot episode was clumsy and not on par with what the series quickly became.
If you don’t like the show, or find it offensive, stop watching it. But my guess is that you’ll enjoy it… in large part because of its inappropriateness.
What “inappropriate” shows do you like? Tell me in an email or in the comment section below.
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