The dark mythology of network television

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, April 16, 2009 22:54 EDT
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Warning: I’m completely caught up on “The Office” and have seen all but the last two episodes of “Lost”. I’m going to reference stuff in both to my heart’s desire. You have been warned, spoiler police.

Now that we’ve caught up with “Lost” (except last week’s) at Casa del Reinas Felinas, I have to say that I’m pretty damn sure that my season two suspicions that the island is some kind of purgatory are quickly being reinforced. It’s obvious that the statue that they saw in the one time jump was one of the Egyptian jackal god Anubis, who judged the souls of the dead. I’d always noted how on-the-nose it was that characters who died had usually come to some sort of revelation or peace with themselves, which is partially about wrapping up their stories, but since it was so on-the-nose, I figured it was more evidence that they were being allowed to pass out of this waiting room they’re in and go to the other side. But now it’s clear that the island doesn’t want its inhabitants to leave, which hearkens back to at least to the Greek tradition about the underworld, and the stories of how people try to leave but have (in the case of Persephone) one foot back there emotionally or (in the case of Orpheus’s wife) the machinations of fate just won’t allow them to leave. The characters who left have all, by hook or crook or even by dying, come back to the island. There is no escape from the underworld.

But as I was thinking about how this explanation was the likeliest for what’s going on, suddenly I realized what other show also shows characters trapped—by circumstance, desire, or an inexplicable longing—and all attempts to leave end up with them circling around again and coming back. Yes, “The Office”. At various points in the show, Dwight, Pam, Ryan, and now Michael have left, only to come back. From a certain perspective, the fact that characters keep trying to leave but almost always end up circling back could be seen as cowardice on the part of the writers, who don’t want to let go of a beloved character. But I choose not to see it that way. No, instead I have, until today, thought of “The Office” as a dark comedy mocking the existentialist desire to transcend your circumstances, a desire that is clearly impossible for those living the short, brutish lives of humans. The inevitable swirling back into the office is a symbol of that inability to escape or transcend our pathetic lives to find true meaning, which does not exist. But is it a nihilistic statement about the impossibility of expecting more from human beings…..or is it, like “Lost”, a tale of the lost souls of the dead who cannot escape nor understand the purgatory they are in?

I’m leaning towards the latter. Indeed, even though the two shows have no relationship to each other and are on different networks, I choose to see them as somehow part of the same story. It is, after all, a traditional play-writing technique to have a plot A that’s characterized by the passion and loftiness of meaning, and a plot B that subtly or sometimes blatantly echoes and satirizes plot A. (This of Shakespearean comedies for a classic example—there’s often a more comical romance amongst the secondary or lower class characters that comments on the love affair of the nobler characters.) “The Office” is “Lost”, drained of all the nobility and injected with comedy.

In fact, many of the characters parallel. Jim is a lot like Sawyer, the smart ass of the bunch. Dwight and Michael are dark parodies of John Locke and Jack Shepherd, not only because they have a continuous struggle for power that is always right under a barely amicable exterior, and not just because Dwight/John is always desiring Michael/Jack’s approval—but because Michael/Jack is a control freak with an inability to really self-assess properly and Dwight/John both hide behind survivalist fantasies to escape the reality that they are boring office monkeys in real life. And Dwight/John also have undying loyalty to the office/the island, loyalty the other characters find irritating and irrational. Since Pam is the Kate equivalent, then, I suspect that Kate will end up with Sawyer as Pam ended up with Jim. Corporate and the Dharma Initiative have a lot in common—their relationship to the souls in purgatory is distant and mysterious, but you can’t say that it’s either hostile or friendly.

As versions of the afterlife, “The Office” seems much more Catholic than “Lost”, which is why I suppose “Lost” dropped the Catholic thing and is going full throttle with the Egyptian mythology. The fluorescent lights, the boredom, the meaningless of it all—being stuck in “The Office” purgatory isn’t the torture of hell, but you’re certainly far from paradise. Despite the survivors’ hardships, the island still has this glow of paradise, since it is a tropical island and there is plenty of food. The desirability of being on the island is a lot more ambiguous to your average person. A diet of fish and mangoes isn’t the worst thing in the world, so long as you don’t get sick.

Despite this, the location that each show centers around is defined primarily by not being the outside world, the one that most of the characters long to join. Which makes sense—they are souls adrift from the world, and so can only think about rejoining the land of the living. But both shows demonstrate that the desires of the dead are simply a side effect of being dead, and not necessarily a reflection of a more objective assessment of the desirability of living life. On “Lost”, we get a lot of information about each character’s role in the land of the living, and it leaves much to be desired—it’s a swamp of loneliness, failure, and grief. We get less of a glimpse of the outside world on “The Office”, but what we know is that whatever it is, it frightens the characters as much as it attracts them, which is why they keep coming back. They feel like they long for the bright world of the living, but in reality, the characters on “The Office” want nothing but the cold comfort of death.

But “The Office”, while it seems to be a more straightforward show than “Lost”, has one more trick up its sleeve. It may turn out that the characters on “The Office” aren’t in purgatory at all, but actually in hell. Unlike “Lost”, no one on “The Office” comes to peace with his or her past and is able to pass into the next world. Their limbo seems to be a permanent limbo, and their hellish torture is that of being haunted daily by the realization that you want to leave but you don’t, and you’ll never be able to escape the relentless boredom and irritation at your coworkers that will define your days into eternity. Indeed, while “The Office” is the comic portrayal of the same story, it also presents a much bleaker vision.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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