The last shot of The Office shows us…well, the office: a boxy suburban office park that has been at the center of nine seasons of television. But it is odd to see the same building that the show’s writers have so thoroughly satirized now portrayed so sentimentally, even affectionately, at the end of it all. For the first several seasons on the air, almost the entire cast of characters openly resented everything about their workplace. Nine years later, they all seem to ascribe a sort of magic to the place. What changed?

In purgatorial realms, we are kept from happiness by our “imperfection and weakness,” while “deception and disguise” are often necessary to “make bad situations work out better.”

Last year, I found perhaps the most satisfying explanation and unifying theory of The Office in an unexpected place: the work of the great literary critic Louise Cowan. In her introduction to The Terrain of Comedy, Cowan argues that great comedies do more than make us laugh: they expose to us the hidden “flow of being that animates and connects all things.” While this may sound too elevated for a sitcom, great comics are often truth-tellers in surprising ways and at surprising times. Great comic visions show us a world that reflects the “inner spiritual state” of its inhabitants. The ennui of the office both causes and reflects the inner aimlessness and frustrations of its inhabitants in the first several seasons of the show. Cowan calls this the comic “terrain”: the way in which the geography, the laws, the possible actions, and the intuitive feel of a place show us the condition of the community which navigates it.

Within that world, the characters of a comedy slowly and erratically journey towards some sort of grace. “Comedy,” Cowan writes, “takes place in a fallen world; it begins in established disorder, usually with an old regime in control, where people have lived by law, by reason, or by custom, neglecting wholeness, pleasure, and love.” Those qualities are regained, often through fantastic or audacious journeys of the body or spirit. Cowan concludes: “The terrain of comedy is, in fine, an image of the world as organic rather than mechanic—as living, inter-relating, aspiring, growing, and healing.” As Creed puts it in one of his last lines of the show, “No matter how you get there or where you end up, human beings have this miraculous gift to make that place home.” (He is then taken to jail.)

Cowan, following Dante, suggests three different possible terrains of comedy: the infernal, the purgatorial, and the paradisal comedy. The first type of comedy occurs in a state without grace and is ruled by self-interest and malice. The second terrain hosts characters who “hope and wait” in a world where imperfection and weakness are our enemies and love “is beginning to be apprehended.” The third and final type of comedy is the rare comedy where man is “lifted up into a realm beyond himself” and the mood is merriment and joy. 

In its first two seasons, the US Office does not quite have the heart to recreate the terrain of its UK predecessor (an infernal comedy). In Ricky Gervais’s original Office, the workplace is an utterly grotesque modern trap where, in Cowan’s terms, “selfishness and malice rule.” Characters are “fundamentally alone, though hypocrisy and self-serving may give the appearance of friendship.” Dawn, the “pretty girl” (a key identifying mark of infernal comedies), is “linked by opportunism to unsuitable mates” who she chooses over the show’s comic hero, the inventive but hopeless Tim, a compromiser who seeks escape but dares not expect it. In summary, Cowan suggests, “The style of comedy portraying this darkness may be light and witty; nevertheless grotesque and bestial forces are not far underneath the surface . . . irony and wit govern the utterance of its characters. The intellect is supreme in its own self-love.”

Anyone who has revisited the first seasons of the US Office will recognize how strange the terrain seems compared to later seasons: the office is threatening and deceitful. Hypocrisy—and downsizing—are around every corner. Some of the most galling scenes in these episodes are taken, almost shot for shot, from the UK Office. Yet as time passes, the show’s creators eventually begin to portray the office as purgatory rather than hell. Characters in these sorts of comedies, “though lost and in need of delivery from something outside themselves, are not really wicked . . . most . . . do the best they can and patiently endure.” In purgatorial realms, we are kept from happiness by our “imperfection and weakness,” while “deception and disguise” are often necessary to “make bad situations work out better.” In these worlds, time is benevolent and wounds are eventually healed. Holly was always going to come back.  By the end of the show, the office is a safe haven for characters who are otherwise lonely and foolish—it keeps “the protagonist[s] and other members of the community from despair . . . its mood is wistful sadness or muted joy.” This description is surely appropriate for the last episode.

Thinking of The Office as purgatory rather than inferno also allows us to make sense of the way its characters mellow and grow into themselves with the passing of time. Michael and Dwight both mature in ways that would be out of place for their UK equivalents. Michael begins the show committing sins of selfishness (as when he prioritizes treatment for his burnt/grilled foot over Dwight’s concussion). Ultimately, his weakness and incompetence come to define him more (as when he “declares bankruptcy” by yelling “Bankruptcy!” at the top of his voice). The series gradually shows us more and more of Michael’s virtues: his care for others, his love of children, and his persistence. Michael is perhaps the archetypal character in purgatorial comedies because his greatest fear is being alone. By his exit from the show, he is able to renounce Todd Packer as “an ass,” and one senses that for him, like Odysseus, his journey has finally brought him where he longed to be. 

Obviously, the show rejects infernal ground in its embrace and elevation of Jim and Pam’s fumbling relationship. Jim and Pam, in Cowan’s words, “endure.” Like most of the characters in the show who “keep going . . . they finally, so to speak, catch the bus. When they have caught it, even if they have fallen and skinned their knees and made fools of themselves in the process, they are surely on it and going with it to its destination as if they had arrived a couple hours before departure.” Thus, the show’s conclusion shows us the slow purifying fire of an office forcing imperfect people to accept the demands of love. In their journey through nine seasons, the terrain has brought its inhabitants closer to joy. They can leave for greener pastures.

Except for Creed. He’s headed to jail.

1 Comment

  1. Well done! I am, as Michael Scott once declared, “a student of comedy,” though Dale Earnhardt never proclaimed me the “funniest person” he’d ever seen. So I appreciated this primer on Cowan’s The Terrain of Comedy. This made for great reading.

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