Framing a Legacy: The Office‘s Diegetic Documentary

April 5, 2013
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Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 11.46.07 AMWithin the diegetic world of The Office, the documentary that has ostensibly been filming at Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch since the series began has finally become a reality. As the show reaches its conclusion, the documentary’s impending release—titled as The Office: An American Workplace, the same title The Office itself went under when aired in the U.K.—has become a narrative endgame, pushing the show’s characters to explore their pasts and come to terms with how their time at Dunder Mifflin has shaped them as people.

While the series’ documentary aesthetic has often led to the assumption the show itself—as in NBC’s The Office—was the final product of the documentary crew’s filming, and that we have been watching an edited narrative pieced together from larger swaths of footage, the choice to position the diegetic documentary as public television and a successful international export pushes against this assumption in interesting ways.

The end of the trailer for The Office: An American Workplace first glimpsed in “Promos” featured a logo for WVIA. Although I am not familiar enough with public television station names to know for certain this was the local PBS station in Scranton, a quick Google search confirmed my suspicion that it was (and I had a nice chat about it with the station’s official Twitter account). It’s a decision that makes sense given that public television offers the most logical platform for long-form documentary programming within the contemporary television landscape, and a logical parallel with the U.K. series’ own documentary reveal (which didn’t have to reconcile the same broadcast/public television divide given it was public television to begin with).

Their choice of title, in addition to being used in the U.K., also calls back to the origins of reality television, An American Family, which appeared on PBS stations in 1971. What’s interesting about this parallel, however, is that it positions The Office: An American Workplace as a dramatic rather than comic program. An American Family—the making of which was recently dramatized in HBO’s Cinema Vérité—is considered the progenitor of reality television, as what was supposed to be a somewhat mundane glimpse of American life became a story of separation, divorce, and Lance Loud’s groundbreaking “coming out.” And unlike contemporary reality television, wherein we operate with a fairly clear understanding of how reality editing works to refract real events, the Loud Family were caught off guard, publicly pushing back against what they thought was an overly negative portrayal of their lives.

That An American Workplace inspires a similar reaction among The Office’s characters struck me—and others—as ahistorical given the proliferation of reality television and surrounding discourse, but it fits as an extended homage to An American Family and the reaction of its subjects (albeit amped up for comic effect). However, the choice to tie into this documentary tradition also works to de-emphasize the sitcom origins of The Office in favor of a more serious narrative based around the same footage. The show has often pushed its sense of realism into increasingly absurd and ludicrous scenarios, but the trailers for An American Workplace have largely focused on character-driven comedy, working to reground the show in a more realistic setting. An American Workplace allows Greg Daniels and the producers to shape The Office’s legacy, the diegetic documentary functioning as a selective frame through which the characters—and thus the audience—remember the previous nine seasons.

The choice to feature WVIA by name—although the show never calls attention to its public television roots directly, and they missed an opportunity to embed the trailer on WVIA’s website—also works to ground the documentary within the local. Initially, this registered as an implicit acknowledgement that the appeal of a documentary about a paper concern in Scranton, Pennsylvania might not have an inherent appeal outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania and its surrounding area. The series may have lost its focus on the mundane as it sought to keep storylines fresh in later seasons (like Jim and Darryl cavorting with celebrities in their new jobs in Philadelphia), but limiting the reach of their documentary to the immediate surrounding area would have been an effective way of reframing their “celebrity” within the same isolation the series documented early on.

However, “Promos” goes on to reveal multiple trailers translated into different languages, suggesting a successful international sale; in addition, Ed Helms’ Andy spends the episode responding to online comments people are posting on the trailer, suggesting at least some degree of promotion beyond the immediate Scranton area. In both cases, The Office resists giving up its expanding sense of scale, projecting the broad appeal of The Office itself onto the documentary. There’s hubris in the implication that international markets would be interested in a documentary subtitled An American Workplace as opposed to developing their own, similar documentary projects within their own countries (which is what the BBC did with 1974’s The Family based on An American Family), hubris that speaks to the conception of American programming as superior in value within the international market. It also speaks to the universality of The Office, a nod to its network of international viewers and a pat on the back for the ways in which its stories of love and life resonate with viewers across America around the world.

The distinction between The Office and The Office: An American Workplace remains somewhat unclear: are these really separate narratives based on the same material, or rather simply the same narrative promoted differently? It seems difficult to imagine NBC’s The Office airing on public television, but it would also push against this sense of realism if what we’ve been watching were an entirely different product entirely. These diegetic debates aside, however, The Office: An American Workplace has immediately created a space where the meanings of the NBC sitcom can be discursively reframed to best position the show’s legacy as the series prepares to say goodbye.


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