The Office, The Wire, and The Lonely World


by John Bucher @(johnkbucher)

I’ve long been taken by the concept of ritual. For some, that word brings to mind images of secret societies, blood, and empty ceremony for ancient purposes. Ritual actually reinforces the stories we tell each other about who we are as a people. Ritual is still alive and well in the lives of Americans who sing “Happy Birthday” and blow out candles; wear white at weddings; gather as tribes (or families) on certain days of the year; watch certain movies, sports competitions, and eat certain foods on those days they gather; and even go to bed at the same time each night. On a psychological level, ritual reinforces that we are part of a group – that we are not alone. This is actually one of ritual’s most powerful effects. It decreases loneliness.

Television has become the most significant ritualistic force in our lives, as it allows us to reinforce, alter, or retract the stories we tell about ourselves on a minute-by-minute basis. We may never know how great the role television has had in defining our story as humans. One thing we can be sure of, there is a seamless loop between our own stories that we see reflected on television and the television stories that reflect in our own lives.

I find a clear connection between two shows that have resonated deeply with audiences the past few decades – The Office* and The Wire. Both shows reflect our story as Americans. However, the distance between the two is as far as the east is from the west. Both shows developed core audiences and have taken on even greater life since concluding their original broadcasts. Both shows, at their core, tackle the problem of loneliness.

In The Office, we certainly have blatant takes on loneliness in the on-going dance between Pam and Jim. Dwight and Angela engage in a similar dance occasionally as well, as do Kelly and Ryan. Andy’s relationship with Angela and later Erin has things to say about loneliness as well. And dare we forget the ravenous love between Phyllis and Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration. Perhaps the most significant exploration of loneliness in the show comes through Steve Carell’s portrayal of Michael Scott.

Michael Scott is the picture of loneliness in America. He often makes his condition painfully obvious, while trying desperately to hide it from everyone in the office. Michael is constantly trying to get his co-workers to hang out with him outside of work. They form elaborate systems to avoid doing so. He inserts himself into wedding ceremonies, birthday celebrations, and lunchroom discussions; dying to connect with those he spends his time around. All the while, he seems aloof – not really understanding how much everyone is trying to avoid him. The only way we can avoid dealing with how much we relate is by laughing at him. We watch thinking of those we like to avoid, feeling better about ourselves and knowing that part of our collective story includes a chapter about people that deserve to be avoided.

In The Wire, loneliness takes different shadows. Drug dealers sit together in communal groups in front of government projects, homeless children take care of each other inside abandoned buildings, and police detectives find comfort in each other’s beds. Even the most distinct example of an individual on the show, Omar Little, needs his lover, Brandon. Literally everyone on The Wire is trying to reconcile loneliness. It could be argued that the most important character on the show is Andre Royo’s Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins. Bubbles comforts the loneliness of the widest range of characters – everyone from his fellow addict, Johnny Weeks, to the ethical stalwart, Kima Greggs. Bubbles is a symbol of hope throughout the show. He appears at moments when things seem most bleak, pushing his cart of white tees. He’s a constant force and reminder that even when the world seems most empty, there is someone nearby. Bubbles serves as a reminder that refuges from loneliness are not perfect. His struggles with addiction were always a few feet away. But refuges are there. They do exist.

The Office takes work-place rituals to task while The Wire offers curious insights into the ever-changing rituals of the streets. But neither show forgets why we have rituals in the first place. They tell our stories — the stories of us. They tell stories of how we need each other regardless of the circumstances. There’s a scene in The Office where Michael finally gets his wish. He is invited to Dave and Busters by his co-workers for an after-work get together. Over the course of the evening, he manages to remind everyone why they never invite him anywhere. The same situation often occurs at family get togethers and office events. We are reminded exactly why we don’t do this more often. An unkind word is said. A relative can’t resist inserting their political views. A co-worker dominates the conversation with tales about his niece. Perhaps the greatest hope we find in ritualistic television is that the characters all force themselves to get together again later. They are intentional about their battles in fighting loneliness. We see them. If they can do it, maybe we can too.

* – For the sake of this piece, I focus on the American version of The Office. I am a fan of the original British version of the show. At some point, I might compare the British version to The Wire looking at the same problem of loneliness. I also intentionally focus on the “Michael Scott” years of The Office, as they seem the most concerned with loneliness.