Over nine seasons of The Office, we became friends with the employees of Dunder Mifflin Scranton. But as much as there is to love about The Office always and forever, that friendship could lead us to be pretty forgiving of some legitimately terrible things these characters said and did. Even if the intention was to critique a toxic workplace, by making its characters so lovable and laughing off their antics the show ended up making a lot of bad behavior feel okay. Here are The Office’s most Toxic Takeaways.
Over 9 seasons of The Office, we became friends with the employees of Dunder Mifflin Scranton. But as much as there is to love about The Office always and forever, that friendship could lead us to be pretty forgiving of some legitimately terrible things these characters said and did. To be sure, The Office calls out and mines its humor from what’s wrong about its office culture, from routine sexual harassment to the ever-upward mobility of mediocre white men. As star Steve Carell pointed out, “A lot of what is depicted on that show is completely wrong-minded. That’s the point, you know?” Yet even if the intention was to critique a toxic workplace, by making its characters so lovable and laughing off their antics, the show ended up making a lot of bad behavior feel okay. Here are The Office’s most Toxic Takeaways.
Jim: “See, you’re always saying there’s something wrong with society. Maybe there’s something wrong with you.”
Michael: “If it’s me, then society made me that way.” – The Office, 5x02
Toxic Takeaway #1: People Who Do Bad Things Aren’t All That Bad
The American version of The Office was based on a much harsher, and shorter, British show. The boss of the British Office, David Brent, was utterly irredeemable, and Michael Scott was originally written that way, too. But after a rocky first season when the show almost got canceled, the writers decided to soften Michael Scott’s character. To do this, instead of making Michael a significantly better person, they had everyone else react to him as if he was “not that bad.” As writer (and Mose actor) Michael Schur said,“[W]e still maintained his inappropriateness, his blind spot for how people viewed him, his desperate desire to be loved and admired, but we just made everybody be 10 percent nicer to him…” As the show went on, other badly behaving characters like Andy, Dwight, and Angela were similarly softened by being accepted by their coworkers. And following these cues, we root for these people who do despicable things like tag Asian women to tell them apart, or hide the parentage of their son, because they’re our friends.
Jim: “And then tomorrow, I can tell you [tears up]… what a great boss you turned out to be.” – The Office, 7x22
Toxic Takeaway #2: Laughing at People Makes You Better Than Them
As our main viewpoint character, Jim constantly looks to the camera because he knows the audience also sees how unacceptable everyone else’s behavior is. Jim likes to stay above it all. He barely dresses up for Halloween, he lets Michael fall into a koi pond, and he abandons Erin in emotional turmoil because it’s boring to him. By the end, the show does challenge Jim to overcome his tendency to detach, as he takes risks to pursue a career he actually cares about. But this is after eight seasons of subtly reinforcing to us that standing back and making faces at others’ quirky passions makes you the coolest, smartest person in the room. In reality, Jim’s above-it-all mentality makes him complicit in the transgressions he witnesses. Everyone in the office sexually harasses Pam, and Jim (our hero, the guy who loves her) doesn’t do anything about it.
Ryan: “Little advice: take a day off from the whole Jim schtick. Try caring about something.” – The Office, 7x25
Toxic Takeaway #3: Sexual Harassment Is Funny — And Part of The Job
The Office does show how egregious and relentless sexual harassment can be, but it also sends the message that someone can routinely sexually harass their coworkers and still be a “good guy” at heart. The show uses the hate-able Todd Packer as its straw man harasser, implying that the other male characters may “say the wrong thing” from time to time, but they’re OK as long as they’re not him.
Michael: “To be fair, blondes, brunettes— there are a lot of dumb people out there.”
Packer: “Yeah, but they are women, right?”
Michael: “Oh wow! I didn’t say it, I didn’t say it!” – The Office, 2x02
Meanwhile, CEO Robert California might be worse than Packer. He exposes himself to the entire office, leaves Nellie (his employee) a filthy voicemail and seems to be pressuring her for sex, and pries into everyone’s sex lives during a work meeting. But while Robert is obviously meant to read as a creep, this total abuse of power by the big boss plays mostly as humorous eccentricity coasting along on James Spader’s entertainment value. Ultimately, The Office’s critique of workplace harassment was undercut by making many of the perpetrators too likable, the instances too funny, and the results of the harassment too understated. Only a more observant viewer will focus on how much Pam is worn down by the constant scrutiny of her looks; how even the self-assured Nellie is unsettled by her boss’ advances, or how Oscar is alienated by the ignorant attitudes toward his sexuality. The Office wants to let us enjoy jokes about boorish, inappropriate men without deeply examining the impact their transgressions would have on the people they hurt.
Pam: [covering herself with a sweater] “I remembered why I dress the way I do at work.” – The Office, 3x03
Toxic Takeaway #4: Violent Men Are Sweet
Dwight’s frontier masculinity ethos also feels darker in our current political landscape. It’s hard not to think that if The Office were being written today, Dwight would join any number of violent alt-right groups. He hides weapons at work and is part of a street vigilante group. He’s obsessed with the idea of proving his strength in a crisis situation that will never come. And let’s not forget his little flirtation with fascist populism. Yet he’s one of the show’s most endearing characters.
Dwight: “Blood alone moves the wheels of history!” – The Office, 2x17
To be fair, Dwight grew a lot over nine seasons. He was never driven by hatred, and he was far from an incel — never blaming women for his problems and having a female best friend. Yet by making Dwight so sweet and admirable underneath his plethora of weapon-related hobbies, the show may have led viewers to feel that most others with outwardly reactionary beliefs must secretly be big softies, too. Events, since the show went off the air, have shown it’s dangerous to assume this is the case — which brings us to:
Toxic Takeaway #5: Karens are Lovable, Too
Angela’s Karen-like attributes are troubling today. She slut-shames coworkers for the slightest deviance from her very rigid idea of appropriate sexuality. She’s also incredibly racist.
Angela: “I once reported Oscar to the INS. Turns out he’s clean, but I’m glad I did it.” – The Office, 5x03
By the end of the show, we’re supposed to believe that Angela has been humbled by her fall from grace and will be a kinder person from here on out. Her friendship with Oscar after they’re both jilted by the senator is touching. But we’ve always known that there’s a huge gap between Angela’s private behavior and her public persona. The sympathy for Angela implies that it’s okay for people to have very incorrect, even hateful political beliefs, as long as they’re semi-nice in their personal lives. Angela’s best-slash-only friend is gay, so we’re made to feel she must not really hate gay people, even though she never stops expressing prejudiced, ignorant views about LGBTQ people in general. By the end of the show, Angela has learned how to make exceptions for people she knows personally, but she hasn’t actually widened her worldview.
Toxic Takeaway #6: Attractiveness = Relatability
When The Office starts, Jim and Pam are our viewpoint characters. The show telegraphs this to us in a few ways, like how they look at us, the audience, more than other characters do. But the biggest way the show tells us to like Jim and Pam is that they are the two most conventionally attractive characters on the show. And when Michael’s character gets softened in Season 2, he also gets a makeover. He gets hotter in order to make us like him more.
Conversely, the show’s plus-size characters — Kevin, Phyllis, and Stanley — actually get less sympathetic and more other-ed as the show progresses. Phyllis gets meaner and more inappropriately sexual, Kevin turns into a dumb food monster, and Stanley cheats on his wife multiple times.
Holly: “He is not an idiot—”
Kevin: “Thank you, Holly.”
Holly: “—he is mentally challenged.”
Kevin: “Wait, back up.” – The Office, 5x01
Toxic Takeaway #7: Your Job Is Your Family
Michael Scott likes to think of the office as a family, with him as the dad. HR experts call this paternalistic leadership, wherein the boss acts as a strong authority figure who wants you emotionally invested in your work. But this emotional investment often opens up workers to exploitation. As Sarah Levy wrote in Cosmopolitan, a work family isn’t “rooted in mutual trust or shared experiences. Rather, it’s a strategic phrase used by both CEOs and managers in hopes of keeping employees loyal.” Low wages? Layoffs? Unending sexual and racial harassment? Don’t complain, that would hurt Work Dad’s feelings.
Michael: “Your job is being my friend, Pam!” – The Office, 2x12
Michael’s paternalistic leadership style and over-reliance on the workplace as a family forces his subordinates to do almost a decade of unpaid emotional labor. His Women’s Appreciation Day turns into a therapy session for him. His workers feel compelled to attend the Dundies despite not being paid for their time, and without even getting a free meal!
Pam: “The Dundies are like a car wreck that, you want to look away, but you have to stare at it because your boss is making you.” – The Office, 2x01
Toxic Takeaway #8: Your Job Is Your Love Story
The Office is a quagmire of lovers both past and present that puts The L Word to shame. The show’s early success hinged on a love triangle, and when that triangle resolved itself, more took its place. We had Jim-Pam-Roy, Pam-Jim-Karen, Jim-Pam-Toby, Jim-Pam-Alex, Pam-Jim-Cathy, Jim-Pam-Boom Guy Brian, Dwight-Angela-Andy, Andy-Erin-Gabe, Erin-Andy-Jessica, Andy-Erin-Pete, Jan-Michael-Carol, Jan-Michael-Holly, Michael-Holly-AJ, Ryan-Kelly-Ravi, Ryan-Kelly-Darryl, Darryl-Val-Brandon, Angela-Dwight-Isabel, Dwight-Nellie-Todd Packer, Dwight-Angela-Senator Lipton, and Angela-Senator Lipton-Oscar.
Andy: “When people say office relationships are a good idea, they never talk about what might happen if you break up.” – The Office, 9x16
Beyond love triangles, Michael dates Pam’s mom and Toby pines for Nellie. The only long-term relationship that makes it to the finale and isn’t with a coworker still involves two people working in the same office park: Phyllis and Bob Vance. It’s true that more than half of American workers have had a crush on a co-worker, but these people act like the office is the only place to find love, and that it’s normal for an office to be the center of ever-rotating soap opera romances and drama. No wonder they barely have time to get any work done!
Michael: “Love triangle. Drama. All worked out in the end though. The hero got the girl. Who saw that coming? I did.” – The Office, 2x22
Toxic Takeaway #9: It’s Normal to Have Work Enemies
Conversely, the number of office rivalries is also deeply weird. As a rule, you shouldn’t have soap-opera-levels of emotion invested in your coworkers on either side of the love-hate spectrum. According to a 2014 study from Monster, the majority of U.S. workers say an overly competitive workplace has harmed their productivity. 55% of respondents who had a work rival said it brought stress, and 20% said their office rivalries even led to problems with management. 0% of respondents said they resorted to planting fake drugs in their work enemy’s desk.
Michael: “Since when is it illegal to put Caprese salad… anywhere?” – The Office, 5x01
Toxic Takeaway #10: Big Gestures Solve Everything!
Jim’s love of big gestures is pure rom-com nonsense. Relationship experts agree: communication is key to a long-lasting marriage. But Jim’s gestures rely on a lack of transparency, and overall, Pam and Jim don’t communicate well.
Pam: “He took this job in Philly without telling me. He bought our house without telling me. At a certain point, he shouldn’t be rewarded for that.” – The Office, 9x19
They take years to get together because they can’t even confess their feelings. Thankfully, after years of not expressing their feelings or plans openly to each other, Jim and Pam get couples counseling and do the hard work of actually talking to each other. But then the show backtracks on this teachable moment. Jim has the documentary crew express his feelings for him in a supercut, and Pam secretly sells their house. They have learned nothing.
Pam: “—and I could come to you with this big Jim gesture, and show you all at once just how much I love you.” – The Office, 9x23
Toxic Takeaway #11: Women in The Workplace Be Crazy
Jan is shown as someone who can’t keep her personal life out of work. She loses her mind after her divorce, kisses Michael, and clearly has something going on with her much younger assistant Hunter. Her character was regressive even for its time. Jan fit less in an early 2000’s sitcom and more in a “can a woman do business without becoming some sort of sex monster?” erotic thriller of the late ‘80s.
Jan: [opening her blazer] “Is it because of these?”
David Wallace: “It’s not.”
Jan: “Because he likes them!” – The Office, 3x24
Though Jan is no paragon of professionalism, her mistakes are treated differently than those of her male colleagues — not just by the characters but by the writers of the show. Arguably, it’s realistic that the company pushes Jan out for her erratic behavior while offering no shortage of second chances to men who’ve done worse things. But the show itself also leaves Jan behind. It’s not really interested in exploring how her increasingly unhinged mindset has been triggered by the toxic workplace she endured at Dunder Mifflin, after beginning as a seemingly put-together, dedicated professional. Whereas Michael’s toxic behavior is softened and normalized over time, Jan’s gets her other-ed and discarded. She becomes an infrequent guest star whose overblown narcissism is totally unrelatable and without redeeming characteristics.
Toxic Takeaway #12: Old People Are Weird
For some, the many eccentricities of Creed Bratton were lowkey the best part of The Office. Things only get dark when you think about Creed as a person, not a character on a TV show. Specifically, as the oldest employee. As retirement becomes less and less tenable, people are being forced to work longer. But according to a report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the majority of older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Creed isn’t going to help in that department.
Michael: “Look, why do we, as a society, hate old people so much?”
Creed: “Because they’re lame.” – The Office, 4x02
Toxic Takeaway #13: Older Women Are Gross
Kate Flannery gives one of the bravest performances of the show as the drunk and horny single mother Meredith Palmer. But Meredith’s many foibles feed the stereotype that older women, especially mothers, are sexually repellant. Meredith is shamed for her sexuality, her drinking, and the way she parents. Even though she’s super supportive of her son Jake’s stripper career. Okay, bad example.
Michael: “Meredith, you’ve slept with so many guys, you’re starting to look like one. Boom. Roasted.” – The Office, 5x13
Toxic Takeaway #14: Entitled White Men Deserve Happy Endings
After Steve Carell left The Office, the show needed to find a new branch manager and ostensible lead of the show. The choice to promote Andy to take Michael’s job could be read as an accurate commentary on how mediocre white men inevitably fail up.
But the behind-the-scenes story is that Ed Helms was chosen in part because, like Carrell at the start of the show, Helms had a movie career that was taking off. So this reveals that Andy’s promotion is less critique than it is preserving the tradition that The Office must be led by a white man who was once on The Daily Show.
Jim: “You don’t have to prove anything. We like you as regional manager.” – The Office, 8x08
The show did a good job of depicting Andy’s employees’ legitimate resentment, as he made it increasingly clear he did not really deserve his position. Not only does everyone hate him for abruptly sailing away to the Caribbean and skipping out on work, but the branch even does better when he’s gone. Still, the finale has to give Andy a full redemption arc. Despite his public display of gross immaturity and entitlement, he somehow snatches a job at Cornell out of his 15 minutes of viral infamy. And we’re encouraged to feel happy for this child of privilege who’s, at last, managed to return to the university that he’s used throughout the show to feel superior to those who weren’t trust fund babies.
Andy: “I went to Cornell. You ever heard of it? I graduated in four years. I never studied once. I was drunk the whole time.” – The Office, 3x01
Even the show’s star, Steve Carell, thinks The Office wouldn’t work in today’s climate. He said to Esquire, “So much of it was predicated on inappropriate behavior… There’s a very high awareness of offensive things today — which is good, for sure. But at the same time, when you take a character like [Michael Scott] too literally, it doesn’t really work.” The employees of Dunder Mifflin may let a lot of horrendous stuff fly. But they also help us laugh at the absurdity of the modern workplace and give us some useful coping skills for interacting with the people we’re stuck with. There’s nothing wrong with finding common ground with people. In the end, we can enjoy the schmaltzier aspects of The Office, because sometimes your work family really does care about you. They love you. But you don’t have to kiss them. That’s just not appropriate.
Creed: “No matter how you get there or where you end up, human beings have this miraculous gift to make that place home.” – The Office, 9x23