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Workplace Dystopias Aren’t Just Fiction, They’re Here

It seems like everyone today hates their job - and recent film and TV are taking this anti-work vibe to the extreme. From Squid Game to Succession to Severance, narratives today are aware that most of us are trapped in a rigged economic game which benefits a select elite. And real-life inspired work stories WeCrashed, The Dropout, and SuperPumped use documented facts to show us just how bad this has all gotten. Here’s our take on how the workplace sitcom has given way to widespread workplace dystopia and how it reflects our angst that the nature of work today is not just soul-crushingly meaningless but actively wrong.

Transcript

“Work’s just work, right?” - Mark, Severance 1x08

It seems like everyone today hates their job – and recent film and TV are taking this anti-work vibe to the extreme.

“Let’s Burn this place to the ground.” - Irving, Severance 1x08

From the shocking wealth inequality of a show like Squid Game to the bad billionaire Roy family of Succession, narratives today are aware that most of us are trapped in a rigged economic game that benefits a select elite. Apple TV+ series Severance adds a sci-fi twist but channels a similarly sinister view of corporate intentions while mocking the recognizable absurdity of the workplace conventions that are designed to mollify workers. It suggests that (without any of the sci-fi elements) we’re already trapped in a dystopia of meaningless drudgery that serves shady corporate overlords.

“The surest way to tame a prisoner is to let him believe he’s free.” - Harmony, Severance 1x05

Other series like the investment bank-focused Industry and real-life inspired work stories WeCrashed, The Dropout, and SuperPumped use documented facts to show us just how bad this has all gotten.

Over the course of film and TV in the last few decades, we’ve moved from the Gen X slacker aversion to responsibility, to TV optimistically arguing that we should actually be family with our co-workers, to the current jaundiced view that work is an assault on our minds and bodies.

Here’s our take on how the workplace sitcom has given way to widespread workplace dystopia and how it reflects our angst that the nature of work today is not just soul-crushingly meaningless but actively wrong.

Work Sucks, I Know (1990-2005)

Lester Burnham: “You don’t think it’s weird and kind of fascist?”

Carolyn Burnham: “Possibly, but you don’t wanna be unemployed.”

Lester Burnham: “Oh, well alright. Let’s just all sell our souls and work for Satan because it’s more convenient that way!”

- American Beauty

For pop culture in the Gen X heyday of the 90s, work was soul-crushing, tedious, and pointless. 1999’s Office Space presents a series of endlessly interchangeable, unimportant tasks, and the film still resonates today with a depiction of empty corporate life that continues to be recognizable. In Office Space, the blue-collar jobs are still tough and bad, but Peter Gibbons ultimately decides the best option is a construction job that lets him use his hands to create a concrete product – and so makes him feel his work has a purpose. That same year, Fight Club, The Matrix, and American Beauty likewise all presented men disillusioned with meaningless jobs radically breaking out of their corporate prisons, leaving behind the rat race for a more visceral, physical, and “real” experience of life.

“I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.” - The Narrator, Fight Club

Outside of a white-collar office setting, we had movies like Kevin Smith’s Clerks, which dramatized the dreariness of service jobs.

“Everybody that comes in is way too uptight. This job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers.” - Randal, Clerks

Reality Bites presented recent graduates as having to choose between floundering or totally selling out.

In TV, the most popular sitcoms frequently focused on everything the characters did outside of work – hits like Friends and Seinfeld were primarily interested in the romantic and social lives of the characters.

Even popular workplace shows from the 70s through 90s like Cheers, Taxi, and Wings still refused to validate the concept of work. Though the characters eventually grew close, it was because they were bonded by how much they all hated their jobs and needed to come in day after day in order to survive.

“I’m not really a cab driver. I’m just waiting for something better to come along. You know, like death.” - Alex Reiger, Taxi 3x12

This attitude toward work animates The Office (UK) series and the early episodes of The Office (US), which focus on how unpleasant it would be to have to interact with a boss like David Brent or Michael Scott every day. Jim, the closest thing we had to an audience identification character, builds his relationship with Pam, and many of the other characters, on the foundation of how much they don’t want to be doing this job.

“If I advance any higher in the company, this would be my career. Well, if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.” - Jim, The Office 1x3

Eventually, though, TV tried to sell us on the idea that work was actively good.

The Work-Family (2005-2020)

Though Jim is initially defined by how much he hates Dunder Mifflin, for the series to continue, he has to stay. And to make this less depressing, the series motivates him to want to be there – both due to his love for Pam and due to his friendships with the other co-workers. When Jim and Pam get married, the rest of the Dunder Mifflin workers are guests of honor, and by the end of the series, they even view themselves as a family.

“My top salesman, Jim Halpert, was best-man at my wedding, and office administrator, Pamela Beesly-Halpert, is my best friend.” - Dwight, The Office 9x25

The biggest offender in trying to actively turn work into family is Parks and Recreation. For its first two seasons, Parks and Rec maintains aloofness toward work – even though Leslie is committed to the idea of being a public servant, she only wins minor victories and pretty much has to force her apathetic co-workers to do their jobs.

The earlier Gen X cynicism is, in part, embodied in the character Mark Brendanawicz, who tries to keep his head down and do his job without going above and beyond. At first, Leslie’s unrelenting faith in the power of her co-workers is a joke that occasionally becomes sweet. But over time, that faith, and the idea that Leslie’s a good boss because she cares, becomes the beating heart of the series. Everyone becomes excited about their jobs. Eventually, Mark (who rejected Leslie) is replaced with Ben, who loves his job and Leslie, and wins her over with his enthusiasm for numbers, logistics, and planning.

Work-Life Imbalance (2020-Present)

Bets: “It’s great you’re still happy at Heidecker.”

Lacie: “Well, maybe not forever.”

Bets: “No, not forever.”

Lacie: “But for now.”

Bets: “It’s okay for now.”

Lacie: “It’s great for now. Yes, yes it is.”

- Black Mirror 3x01

In today’s climate, the optimism of series like Parks and Rec would feel incredibly naive. But it’s not just because we’ve returned to a version of the Office Space, Gen X era of merely hating the drudgery of work. Now, work has become actively hostile and dangerous, both to us and to other people.

One of the most popular and acclaimed TV series of 2022, Severance, takes the danger of work to its logical conclusion. Severance follows “severed” workers, who have a totally separate work consciousness and outer life consciousness, and each can’t remember anything of the other’s life. Ironically enough, Severance posits a world where work-life balance isn’t just difficult, but literally impossible: the severed workers’ “innies” are constantly trapped at work, unable to exist outside of the office, while their “outies” (who collect the paycheck and don’t ever remember being at work) won’t let the miserable innies quit. So, of course, those co-workers have to become family. When new worker Helly is introduced to the team, she is inundated with language that mimics the idea that work is supposed to be your family.

In fact, the managers at Lumon watch the severed workers constantly and invest in their relationships the same way we do when we watch workplace TV. But as Helly and the other characters start to see how terrible their employer Lumon is, their family-like bond isn’t just about getting through the hours; it’s infused with the much bigger stakes of potential rebellion and the creepy mystery of what shady corporate work they might really be serving unknowingly.

“What if the cost of that help is that you’re murdering people eight hours a day and you don’t even know it?” - Petey, Severance 1x03

In a clever nod to TV sitcom history, Severance stars Adam Scott, who played the happy workaholic, Ben, on Parks and Rec, and here is tortured by his job. It takes production design inspiration from a much earlier, iconic vision of futuristic work dystopia, Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime. And (building on something like The Office) it mocks the system of office perks that aim to distract and motivate workers; here they’re presented in examples that are playfully absurd, yet simultaneously recognizable and vaguely sinister.

“Dylan G’s waffle party will commence at close-of-day. In the meantime, I’ve ordered the pre-waffle party egg bar social for everyone.” - Milchick, Severance 1x08

We see how Lumon attempts to indoctrinate its workers through an entire mythology of purpose that (to an outside observer) is clearly nonsense. And as it seems increasingly clear that something very wrong is happening at Lumon, being anti-work takes on moral overtones. Here, Severance evokes other recent work like Sorry to Bother You, which depicts workers selling themselves into functional slavery in exchange for housing.

Sorry to Bother You follows the main character Cash at first feeling happy that he’s rising up at work, but then discovering he’s secretly helping his bosses enact real travesties on the world, like selling weapons, deepening global conflict, and creating animal-human hybrids for forced labor.

“This is just incontrovertible proof of Worryfree’s evil practices. They’re turning humans into grotesque horse-people.” - Cash, Sorry to Bother You

Conclusion

These are far from the only recent dramatizations of dangerous, toxic offices. A new wave of shows don’t just imagine fictional offices – they use real events. Series like SuperPumped, which portrays the rise of Uber; The Dropout, which follows Theranos; and WeCrashed, which depicts the growth of WeWork, all take place in factual examples of the Silicon Valley workplace, where everyone has to deal with the whims of whatever ambitious, potentially delusional person is in charge. And while the end result of misconduct at Dunder Mifflin was that someone might not get their paper order, these real bosses screwed people over and stole millions of dollars.

While the “work-family” fiction looked nice on TV, real bosses commonly use the trappings of social connection to prevent workers from calling out that they’re not getting a fair wage, or to stay cheerful even if they’re being exploited or losing their livelihoods.

Severance’s science-fiction elements may be intriguing, but the scariest thing about the show isn’t the type of workplace dystopia it imagines – it’s that the type of environment it depicts is really already here.

“No, you’re not livestock, good lord.” - Mark, Severance 1x01

Sources

“The Theranos Fraud.” Wall Street Journal, 4 Jan. 2022, www.wsj.com/articles/the-theranos-fraud-elizabeth-holmes-convicted-trial-blood-testing-start-up-11641330471.

Robertson, Katie. “BuzzFeed Lays off 47 HuffPost Workers Weeks after Acquisition.” The New York Times, 9 Mar. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/03/09/business/media/huffpost-layoffs-buzzfeed.html.