A workplace sitcom can be recognized from a mile away.
Mainstream American television has given us some timeless comedies – domestic sitcoms such as Friends, as well as workplace comedies such as The Office. What's the difference? Domestic sitcoms are centred around family or friends, set in homes, and tell stories around the characters' personal relationships with their parents, their romantic lives and friendships. Domestic sitcoms remain a television staple and are much loved by people for the familiarity and relative simplicity of the format, with shows like Modern Family or even New Girl adding twists to the subgenre while remaining faithful to the basic idea. In fact, the recent fervor around Friends: The Reunion showed us that we could not be more attached to some of the greats.
Diametrically opposite to this is the subgenre of workplace sitcoms – where the characters have little to no canon-depicted personal life, with all plotlines set in the workplace. This is where love blooms, lifelong friendships are forged, and people find mentors, surrogate fathers, confidantes. Every need is met by someone who sits on the adjacent desk.
NBC network thrives in this subgenre, if their most successful fictional endeavors, The Office, Parks And Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, are any indication. Let's dive into why 'work-coms' make for such engaging comic material and have become a cultural fixation.
The workplace is immortalized by a cocky, unorthodox central character. The Office has Michael Scott, regional manager of Dunder Mifflin – ubiquitous for his cringey-catchphrase, 'That's what she said,' and his half-baked notion that the workplace is a family. Leslie Knope from Parks And Recreation is a thorn in the side of local government due to her over-enthusiasm and willingness to go to any lengths to serve her community, annoyingly sincere and insubordinate at the same time. While the former often focused on the pettiest issues of a slow-moving workplace, such as the threat of downsizing ruining Halloween, or a creepy competition amongst male workers over a young salesgirl, the latter sometimes branched out into making social commentary on sexism or democratic values, such as the iconic episode when Leslie marries two penguins not knowing they're both male and ends up championing gay rights as a consequence.
Workplace comedies remind me of a deeply capitalist narrative that the work you do forms the central narrative of your life i.e. your identity. It is no surprise that workplace comedies have originated in the USA, a country that has long enforced the notion that you are only as valuable as your productivity and your output. In these shows, we routinely see themes of how dedication to your job is actually service to the nation rather than just your firm, which puts them in the same league as soldiers or nurses.
In a recent Nielsen study, which surveyed streaming service viewership from March 9 to 15, The Office exceeded all TV shows with 1.23 billion minutes watched, excluding mobile and PC devices. The show maintains its heavily streamed status with Gen Z eyeballs watching and re-watching all 201 episodes and creating relevant social content with decade-old jokes.
Parks and Recreation, apart from airing reruns on linear Comedy Central through 2024, also returned for a one-time special in April 2020. With all actors appearing as their characters, the show focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing social distancing and other coronavirus restrictions, centered on the show's problem-solving government official Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) as she checks in on her friends amid the outbreak.
I mean, this one's rather obvious, isn't it? A serious exploration of workplaces, even fictional, couldn't brush aside the uncomfortable topics. There's sexual harassment, chronic lack of pay, no semblance of a work-life balance. Plus, look too closely and the rift between fake-work and real-work will become painfully apparent. No, we are not like family, people quit or get fired all the time. We've all known bosses who aren't 'annoying but mean well' – they're just mean. Incompetence is not endearing. The next branch to get shut down might just be yours. You might get transferred and never see your 'work crush' again. These are discomfiting realities. Very little in cinema is cut out to make us face the mirror, and I personally don't think that all content needs to adhere to the same overlap of entertainment with reality. However, when something is pegged to entertain, sometimes it's a necessary evil that the reality remains hidden behind the curtain, and we get to enjoy the sanitized version of things.
Millennials were stuck with domestic comedies for a long while. It's safe to say that without OTT platforms, workplace sitcoms wouldn't gain much traction. I mean, The Office takes some hella getting used to, that's how insufferable Michael Scott is in season one of the show. Funny how a chronic people-pleasing character almost got the show cancelled due to his 'unlikability.'
Domestic comedies, while coasting on waves of nostalgia, would find it tough to form a fresh fanbase in the year 2021. Why? We're accustomed to our work being a staple of life, essential to our survival and being the hand that feeds us. As the diversity of content increases, and the 90s kids are now closer in age to these characters, we seek to see ourselves reflected in them. This is better personified by the business of workplace comedies, with conversations in the break room, office games or the threat of downsizing than the flipside, comprising family dysfunctions fixed in a nifty 20-odd minutes format or couples with endless relationship drama (Ross and Rachel, looking at you), veering dangerously close to a toxic relationship. It's not to say that domestic comedies don't still have a place in pop culture – if anything, they've carved out fresh, more contextual spaces for themselves, with family-oriented comedies such as Kim's Convenience, which brought Asian content to the fore, or Schitt's Creek that commented on class privilege while also representing a beautiful gay couple who get their happy ending.
When we watch these shows, it's a weird way of peeping into our shuttered offices, like watching alternate lives, pre-pandemic, where we still go to work, you know, outside. Tom Haverford is like your chatty colleague and Captain Holt is like a righteous superior. Just as domestic sitcoms and workplace sitcoms are genre-differentiated for a reason, our lives are not much different; they follow the same rules. Do you really think all of the Friends would have stayed friendly working in the same office? Probably not.
Workplaces embody sterility, clarity. They're filled with people you weren't raised with and can hence approach with detachment and yet respect, something that homes and coffee shops have no space for. For as long as humans have been civilized, we've known how to go to work, how to find our fun there, our purpose, and for those who really love it, our passion too. Some of us are Jim Halpert, just putting in the hours, falling for the pretty co-worker, but some of us are Leslie Knope, eager to work on weekends and believing that our job makes a difference. Now, we're all stuck and adrift at the same time, so we watch these shows to reacquaint ourselves with our 'work personas', and both fondly remember and ordain the post-pandemic future to come quicker. Somewhere we're hoping that it can all just go back to normal, all the while knowing that the future looks inconsistent from where we're standing. Things are in flux now, with a gradual realization that the office as we knew it, is extinct. There's talk of blended workplaces and shorter workweeks, and with bingeing these shows, we're saying our goodbyes to a routine and a structure that we honestly had no idea we'd miss this much.