Consider the differences between the film Office Space and the TV series The Office (U.S. version.)
In Office Space, there’s a real overall sense of gall. The protagonist and his accomplices refuse to accept their circumstances as normal. They harbor an inchoate sense of higher purpose that’s inimical to their work lives, and in fact, we frequently see them out of work, out of doors, driving around town, in their apartments, at barbecues. In The Office, on the other hand, there’s an overall sense of compensatory smugness: rather than underground solidarity, and questioning their circumstances, the characters content themselves with feeling smarter than one another and (especially) the boss, as a salve to their embittered acceptance of dreary mediocrity. When they help each other it’s less like prisoners plotting an escape and more like nursing home inmates giving one another a sad hand job.
The characters in The Office have no lives outside of work. Throughout the series we rarely see the outside world, and when we do it’s usually either the parking lot, the loading dock, a business trip, or an office party where all are present and thus no kind of subversive plan can be hatched like the one that forms the plot of Office Space. The Office is like a claustrophobic horror movie set to hokey folk-brewery muzak. Its whole premise is to normalize the most pernicious ennui and paralysis in guise of social critique—social critique being the maximum extent of satisfaction anybody (characters and viewers) is intended to get out of it.
This is how man-boob IPA and fantasy football are reverse-marketed to urbanites who think they’re better than the rednecks; it’s how work-as-identity is given plausible deniability for failed artists bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s and has-been high school drug dealers working sales at Best Buy. The NPC meme’s unintentional depth (that the alt-right can never fathom) is that it has everything to do with how we live, and nothing to do with how we identify.
Unlike the classic hero quest where evil is ultimately overcome, The Office co-opts the viewer to the flaws of the world the characters inhabit by centralizing the upward trajectory of Jim, the series’s one unironically sympathetic character, and his rivalry with the obtuse and narcissistic boss, Michael Scott. There is no third option, as there is in Office Space: the worker’s choices are the carrot, or the stick. The boss can be hated, but only with resignation, and padded, puerile shenanigans form the outer limit of anybody’s volition within this dreary frame of Sisyphean neoliberal servitude.
The Office does not critique the neutered Hobbesianism of corporatism so much as it smuggles it in through the back door by co-opting the viewer’s sense of gall to a passive-aggressive amusement so cheap it scarcely rises to the level of humor or compelling irony. It is the prescription lithium of art and entertainment.