What The Office Does Right That 30 Rock Does Not [TV Correspondent Tryout]

By Guest Contributor Joi Foley

It took me awhile to get into The Office. Straight up, I thought it was a bunch of racist BS. Every time I caught a rerun, I always turned it off in disgust, and spent at least a half hour ranting about how I couldn’t understand why people loved such a horrible show.

Somewhere in the middle of its sixth season, the show appeared on Netflix. Tired of constantly being told “you don’t watch The Office? OMG, you’d love it!” at parties, I decided to sit down and watch it straight through. My plan was to arm myself with specific instances of the show’s immaturity and lack of true humour, so that the next time someone pulled that shocked face like I had just admitted to being the reason we don’t have universal healthcare in this country, I would be ready.

The first season seemed to drag on forever, and it’s only 6 episodes long. I felt no love for Steve Carell’s character Michael Scott. I found him to be not only ignorant, but also self-absorbed and childish. The second episode, “Diversity Day”, includes one of the most painful-to-watch scenes anyone could ever put down on paper:

“The Office” Diversity Day Clip
Tags: “The Office” Diversity Day Clip

Why would anyone want to watch a show with this character as its lead?

But I was determined to understand the show’s popularity, so I kept watching. I began to realize why it made me so uncomfortable; it’s in fact the show’s greatest strength. The Office, unlike other shows that deal with this topic on a regular basis, is not interested in teaching white viewers lessons about race and racism. It is interested in providing its POC viewers with a catharsis, a chance to see their daily experiences validated by mainstream media.

We often talk about how important it is for POCs to see themselves represented on TV. Obviously, this means more than just seeing a brown face in a boardroom scene, or not having characters of colour constantly portrayed as villains. We want ample screen time and good dialogue given to well-rounded characters who are beyond stereotypes, and reflect a true experience of their community.

This is the brilliance of The Office. Its documentary style allows for reaction shots that are directly to the camera so they can be shared with the audience. The workplace setting gives the writers numerous opportunities to address real-life situations of racism, like wage gaps and “unintentionally” offensive theme parties. The ensemble cast creates spaces for anyone watching to fit themselves in and feel vindicated when a character like Michael Scott gets his comeuppance.

The season 3 episode “Diwali” exemplifies the show’s form. Where it really stands out is in the subtle ways it fulfills both sides of the “what we want to see” coin: it presents a relatable experience for Asian-American viewers, and provides a smart, non-exoticised picture of Indian-American culture for viewers who may not have any frame of reference for it.

The episode begins with Michael lamenting his employees’ lack of knowledge regarding Indian culture. He decides to hold a staff meeting to provide them with more info about Diwali:

The Office – Dwight Explains Diwali
Tags: The Office – Dwight Explains Diwali

This should seem fairly obvious and familiar to most of us. Michael is putting pressure on Kelly to literally educate their white colleagues about her culture, and is taken aback when she describes Diwali as one would any other holiday, instead of as some mystical, magical experience.

The more important part of this scene, however, is in Kelly’s description of the holiday, and her inability to answer specific questions about her religion. My first reaction to that moment was a bit of disappointment. Why are they portraying Kelly as uninformed? This is, of course, the same as Michael wanting her to talk about the origins of Diwali, and not just how much fun it is. As a white person, I wanted Kelly to represent her religion, and I assumed that’s what Indian-American people watching would want, too. But Kelly’s response allows her to avoid becoming a mannequin of the exotic. By not having specific answers to the questions and describing Diwali as a fun party, she shows that there is more to her than her religion, and that there’s more to her religion than just its value as something foreign and strange for others to experience.

(It should also be noted that, several times throughout this episode and others, Kelly is shown to be connected and knowledgeable about her religion, so it is likely that Kaling was intentionally playing the question moment as a polite refusal to engage on a blatantly racist remark made by a coworker, and not as Kelly being uniformed.)

Contrast this with another of NBC’s Thursday night offerings, 30 Rock. 30 Rock is one of my favourite shows of all time. How could I not love a show that does a full episode about how a great sandwich is? It’s also pretty intelligent about race & racism, but only in a way that seems to be as an outlet or education for white viewers. On numerous occasions, Liz and her fellow white colleagues are given lessons on how to deal properly with race, and how to check their privilege.

The episode that comes immediately to mind is Season 3′s “Christmas Special”, where Liz – left alone for the holidays by her vacationing parents – decides to donate gifts to a children’s charity called “Letters To Santa”. She ends up going overboard, buying multiple gifts, and choosing to deliver them herself. She becomes outraged when she knocks on the kids’ door and is greeted by two adult guys who take the gifts and slam the door in her face.

She returns to confront them and prove that she’d been scammed:

Lesson learned, Liz Lemon, and, by extension, all the white people watching.

In a similar vein to The Office, this punchline works on two levels. POC viewers are able to laugh at how Liz’s white-knighting backfired on her, and white viewers can laugh at how embarrassing the situation is. However, while the situation is no doubt familiar to the show’s non-white audience, the focus is not on that. The scene leaves us with only Liz’s attempts at lessening her guilt, making the final message a mix of “Sometimes, it’s hard for white people to navigate race” and “This is an example of what you shouldn’t do”.

The Office’s final message is always the same: “Yes, racism still exists, but you are not alone”. In this way, it is more beneficial to all its viewers, POC or otherwise, than other shows who choose to tackle race. One episode can leave anyone watching with both the truth of what’s going on in our world, and the feeling of being able to change it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/morpheus.draven Adam Matlock

    Really, really appreciated this article. I have been thinking about this show recently, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’ve watched the show probably for three years now and while I find it to have a good standard of ensemble acting and characterization, I had often wondered about how they approached race, because all of the situations of racism that any of the characters find themselves in (whether either direct racism or by participating in the lies of institutional racism) are SO overt, SO over the top, that an average white viewer might learn nothing from it – these instances are portrayed in such an extreme and uncomfortable manner that it would be difficult for a white person to see the nuance, to see that racism can come across in subtle, unexamined ways (speech and assumptions for example) that make POC feel JUST as uncomfortable even though there may be no blood spilled with which to quantify the impact. In that case, despite the fact that Liz Lemon seems to be able to find some manner of redemption at the resolution of every such situation, maybe 30 Rock has its purpose for helping white folks to realize when they are in the midst of digging themselves a ditch.

    But I too have also had great affinity for the reaction shots that, while making light of racism, sexism and homophobia, provide some quiet moments of solidarity. That is one of the things that makes the British office so much harder to watch for me (and most of Gervais’ stuff) is that it makes a real point of addressing the characters’ racism head on, and certainly unsympathetically, but rarely gives the POC characters a chance to say their piece in response. Granted, it was a shorter show, and I am unfamiliar with the subtleties of racism in the UK, but few things leave me with less hope in humanity than a Gervais TV vehicle.

  • http://profiles.google.com/gail.sidney Gail Sidney

    What I thought was hilarious was Dwight’s encyclopedic knowledge of Dwali contrasted with Kelly’s explanation from her personal experience… Michael wasn’t trying to hear it from Dwight though, which further underscores the writers feelings on why Kelly didn’t “represent” more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/spmsmith Sandra P.M. Smith

    I thought this was a great article, and it made me think about The Office in a way I hadn’t before. Thank you, Joi!

  • CB

    It took me forever to get into the Office too. Even now, sometimes I really like it and other times I just don’t care for it. I get the point you’re making, and I think the Office accomplishes this sometimes, but it’s certainly not that consistent or frequent. I think one of the issues with the show is the invisibility of black characters. There are some POCs who have smaller roles than the white characters, but they still seem involved in the office community, but I look at the one black character on the show, and he’s barely involved. He rarely has anything to contribute, he’s effectively invisible (often by choice, but I feel like the writer’s are taking the easy way out). As a a black woman, I don’t really identify with any of the characters on the show. Rashida Jones’s character did have a significant role on the show, but since then, black women are pretty much invisible in that world.

  • Beata

    I agree with Indri Pasaribu – The UK Office is consistently on the mark in presenting racism (and other prejudice) as stupid, absurd, and plain not ok. The audience laughs at the character saying the horrible remark, not at the sentiment or the person at the butt of the joke. Gervais’ character David Brent and his sidekick Gareth are pathetic – and they’re often called on the siht they say and do, even humiliated for it.
    This scene (from 4:14) takes place after a superior counsels David on making a racist joke during work drinks with new staff:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yQBWrAR5zM

  • Mselle83

    I’m Indian, and I though Kelly’s response was pitch-perfect in Diwali. I would consider myself a good Indian girl — I was taught our traditions and holidays and understand my mother’s language and can even read some of it. But I also grew up here. And I don’t have as strong a connection to many of the customs in Indian and in Hinduism.

    I find your citing of her being knowledgeable in other areas as an inconsistency kind of laughable. What, every minority has encyclopedic knowledge of everything? That’s ridiculous, especially with immigrants and the first generation born outside their land of origin.

    Kelly rings so true to me in so many ways. You never see ditzy Indian girls — they’re always seen as nerdy and unattractive, or beautiful and prudish. Kelly is like that silly, girly friend you have. Which, newsflash, most of us would be anyway.

  • Val

    One of the differences between The Office and 30 Rock is that The Office is produced in part by People of Color. Mindy Kaling, who plays Kelly and Larry Wilmore are both producers.

    Also, 30 Rock is hipster humor which laughs at stereotypes rather than examine them. The fact that Sherri Shepard has a recurring role on the show really says it all.

  • http://profiles.google.com/siloqui87 Analice Baker

    I found the office diversity day to be absolutely hilarious! I think this is because I have been the person put on the spot because their white friend thought it was okay to recite Chapelle or Chris Rock jokes, saying the most racist stuff on the planet, and then get offended because I didn’t give them a cookie for it. They think “diversity” has to be on THEIR terms, and that racial jokes should be told freely without consideration of who’s telling the joke, who’s listening and what the joke is saying. I honestly could see myself looking down and shaking my head before losing it like the man who was holding the exercise at the end!

    The Diwali thing was great too because I have also been the one people have asked about “X”, and expected to educate the whole group, its sort of sad because there’s this misguided wish to include diversity and make PoC feel involved and important, but it goes wrong when they’re put on the spot and told they hold the reputation of their culture in their hands.

    The 30 Rock thing? I could see the little bit of cleverness behind the fact that she started out with this patronizing view of it, and when she sees the two black men she immediately thought ‘scam’, so she was almost willing to ruin the chrismas of two of the children she was so proud to help (although she didn’t know they were real kids at first) just to vindicate herself. I found it hilarious when she’s shown the reality of the situation, but I think she got off kind of easy.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent analysis. I love both shows dearly, but it is very clear that while The Office understands privilege and subtle racism, 30 Rock and Tina Fey absolutely do not.

    What makes The Office (and I have watched the US, British and German versions of it, my statement goes for all of them) so easy to relate to for both PoC and white people is that the PoC in the office are stereotypes, but stereotypes more commonly associated with white people.

    Oscar is the non-flamboyant, suburban gay guy, Kelly is the air-headed, loud ditz and Stanley is the late-middle aged guy who has checked out and just doesn’t care anymore. These are all more commonly associated with white people rather than PoC.

    They rarely trot out their cultural backgrounds, and if they do, it is only very low-key. They aren’t defined by any cultural stereotypes.

    This makes it all the more bizarre and awkward when Michael drags their ethnicity into the conversation out of nowhere and for no reason, often with the aplomb and finesse of a walrus performing brain surgery. His othering of them is very apparent and grating, and even the most oblivious white person is aware of it (which is why many episodes are based on Michael’s cultural insensitivity).

    30 Rock’s PoC, however, are all very crude stereotypes. Tracy is an eccentric, irresponsible, loud-mouthed, crude black man. His wife is a thick, sassy, angry black woman. Twofer (I cringe at that nickname) is the self-loathing educated black guy with a chip on his shoulder. Every other PoC encountered is just another stereotype.

    They already are, very openly, “the other,” and the message the show relays with regards to sensitivity is “those dark folk sure are weird and zany and they don’t like when we talk about their ethnicity.”

    Fey seems incapable of grasping that perhaps PoC would rather be judged on individual merit rather than ethnicity, she just has a vague grasp of “don’t talk about race.”

    The coup de grace for a sensible portrayal of race came early in 30 Rock’s run, with an episode in which Lemon dates a black man she is entirely incompatible with on a personal level, just to show that she is not racist. When she tries to break it off, he “plays the race card.”

    This is yet another display of Fey’s complete and utter lack of any nuanced thought into the matter. She basically just claims that dark folk will play the race card, there’s nothing white people can do about it because PoC have a chip on their shoulder.

    I love Fey and 30 Rock dearly, but goddamn if those race-centered episodes aren’t hard to watch.

  • http://twitter.com/GREGORYABUTLER Gregory A. Butler

    I never got “catharsis” from the racism portrayed in The Office – it just made me really mad, and made me change the channel.

    Also, since network TV shows are made by White executives for mainstream White Americans, I’d bet money that they don’t give a good God damn about the “catharsis” of the viewers of color.

    However, they DO care about validating their racism and the perceived racism of their White viewers.

    Basically, theirs is the unapologetic racism of the White person with a Confederate flag on their wall who complains about “those people” benefiting from Affirmative Action – and there’s not a damned thing beneficial about that!

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    I like the Office and don’t like 30 Rock. This may have to do with the fact that I can’t watch women continually embarrass themselves. It makes me highly uncomfortable and I don’t laugh. Personal issue, I guess. (It’s also why I could never even *start* getting into Desperate Housewives – Teri Hatcher spent too much time embarrassing herself.)

    The Office is like Dilbert to me, in that it reflects the day-to-day life of an office without a whole lot of embellishment. Dwight and Michael are mostly caricatures, but nearly everyone else is quite close to the regular folks I work with every day. The stupid racist stuff that happens, the stupid sexist stuff that happens, the wars between departments, out-of-touch HR personnel – is exactly the catharsis you mentioned.

    I’m not a die-hard Office fan though. I watched for a season or two, and then dropped it for a while. Now I watch an ep here and there. Maybe because it was too much about Jim&Pam, maybe because it seemed Michael was getting a little out of control – whatever. I still love Mindy Kaling like crazy. CRAZY. Actually, I think I love every character except Jim, Michael, and Dwight. (Sometimes I like them, sometimes I don’t.)

    Also, for some reason, even though I LOVE Aziz Ansari, I can’t get down with regularly watching Parks&Rec. I still like it more than 30 Rock, though.

    Interesting theory about the approaches of the two shows. Maybe it’s one more reason I’m into one and not the other…

  • Anonymous

    I agree so much with this review! I am often disgusted by the way 30 rock handles race, trying to make it seem like poor white girl Liz Lemon isn’t racist or sexist, and any time she is accused or racism or sexism she ultimately is vindicated in some way.
    I think the great thing about the office is that the joke is on the racist person, when you laugh you are laughing at how horribly prejudiced Michael Scott is, and how untrue his statements are, and its reinforced by the other characters reactions.

    People often say you can’t joke about race or gender or lgbt issues, it turns out you can… when the butt of the joke is on the prejudiced person.

    • Mickey

      Totally agree! This is one of the reasons why “All in the Family” was such a success. Archie Bunker was a bigot who did not really know he was one (or didn’t care in some instances), but the joke was on him, which made it hilarious.

  • Guest

    In response to Kelly describing the religion like any other, I thought that the contrast that was made between her lack of knowledge and Dwight’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Dwali was spot on hilarious. In my opinion, the fact that Michael Scott wasn’t trying to hear it from Dwight exemplifies the feelings that you may have as a white person of wanting Kelly to “represent”. As a non-white person, I was feeling that Dwight’s character was used to try to articulate that white people “well versed in non-white culture” can carry an even more powerful message.

  • cc

    i’d like to add quickly that mindy kaling (kelly kapour on the office) wrote both episodes: “diversity day” and “diwali.” she’s a wonderful person to have on the show, especially as a writer and person of color.

    i think her lack of understanding diwali rings true for many people. people often ask me things about my own culture’s holiday, and the truth is that i don’t always know. but, as resident “X” person, i am expected to know.

    • dolo

      bj novak wrote diversity day. in fact on one of the extras from the dvd it is the one he is most proud of.

  • Alicia

    I feel Kelly’s response to what Diwali “means” is pretty valid. I can’t explain the extremely detailed reasons of why certain Korean customs exist, despite considering myself an educated Korean-American. The Yoot game for New Years, for example, isn’t something I can explain – it’s just fun. Throw the sticks and earn some money.

    • Keke

      I definitely agree that Kelly’s response was very realistic. After all, most people don’t understand the significance of the Christmas tree, Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. We just know that it’s fun. So to me, it’s expecting a lot of a person to not only have detailed knowledge about a holiday’s origins, but to educate people about it too.

  • Indri Pasaribu

    i actually like the british office better. it does the whole thing you mentioned about the racism of white people in a more humiliating and consistent way. in that show, you are always laughing at the white people being so stupid, but the american one is not that consistent. sometimes they make racist jokes that you are supposed to find funny. an example that comes to mind is how they always use the gay mexican staff character as a punchline.
    anyways, ricky gervais seem to have good p.o.c writers behind him or something, because all the other subsequent work he’s done have similar type of humour that is humiliating, hard to watch, and yet really effective. for instance, i really like extras.