The Spiritual Wisdom of “The Office”

My wife’s favorite TV show of all time is The Office. This is not news to anybody who has met her. We have watched it several times through since being married. We even named our first dog after our favorite character from the show, Halpert. Most of us know someone whose favorite show is The Office, or it is your personal favorite show. In fact, I’m willing to bet if you placed one hundred millennials and Gen Xer’s in a room you would be likely to find 60 to 70 who could make a similar claim. And rightfully so-I think The Office is one of the greatest sitcoms to air in my life time (second only to Friends, of course). I use the word great with a variety of meanings.

It is, easily, one of the most influential shows of all time. It is hard to imagine mega-hit shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Rec existing without The Office first establishing the workplace-sitcom formula. Catch-phrases, facial expressions, and character names have woven themselves into the cultural consciousness. My wife and I have spent a not insignificant amount of time examining different relationships and correlating them to characters from the show. Most of us know someone with a Dunder Mifflin shirt or a Dwight bobble-head. Cultural impact aside, The Office is also easily one of the funniest TV shows of all time. Whether it is the cringe inducing antics of Michael Scott, the ruthless pranks on Dwight by Jim and Pam, Kevin’s decreasing IQ as the show goes on, or Dwight’s ultra-serious, non-self-aware approach to, well… everything; The Office has cemented itself into the funny bones of most of the people who have ever taken the time to watch it.

But, The Office is not just culturally significant, and it is not just hilarious, The Office is also stunningly beautiful. Beautiful is not a term I have heard very many people use to describe The Office, but it is an apt descriptor. What kept audiences returning to the sitcom season after season for nine years? What keeps people regularly revisiting it nearly ten years after the show ended? The humor, of course, is a contributing factor. The loveable characters, the Jim and Pam “will they, wont they” tension, the nostalgia-all of these play a part in The Office’s re-watchability. However, I believe there is something even deeper that keeps us coming back to work with the crew at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. And it is the girl from the desk next-door Pam herself who gives us the meaningful hook of the show in the last episode. While signing off in her last interview with the documentary crew, Pam says this:

“I’m glad you made a documentary about us. There is a lot of beauty in ordinary things.”

That, to me, is the brilliance of The Office. We didn’t just like laughing at the characters, we liked seeing the characters in a context reminiscent of our own. From a visual perspective, everything about The Office is plain: from the set to design to the costuming to the color palette of the frames which look like they were lit by fluorescent lights. It’s nothing spectacular or beautiful to look at, but as the show goes on, as the characters grow, as love blossoms, dies, and resurrects, as scandals happen, as community is explored, The Office demonstrates the glory shimmering beneath mundane, everyday things. Pam’s final remarks sum up the emotional appeal of the show. Spotting beauty in the mundane lives of the employees at Dunder Mifflin somehow enables us to spot it in our own lives as well (if we ever take a break from our screens to examine it). The truth is, banal things can be deeply spiritual. The Office offers a visible sign of inward grace, and in that way The Office is deeply sacramental.

If you think I’m wrong or over-reaching, consider the methods of remembrance Jesus left his disciples. The most famous example we have is in the extra-ordinary practice of taking communion. In the ancient world, what was more common or mundane than bread and wine? Consider baptism, is there anything more banal than water? Or marriage, a dime a dozen. Jesus and the early church passed down a ritualistic practice of such ordinary things and they called them sacraments. A sacrament is a visible sign of inward grace. Plain, ordinary things given to us to remember that God is everywhere, all the time.

I think we instinctually know this. This is why we can still be awe-struck by sunsets, something we have seen every day of our existence. This is why a walk in the woods doesn’t just feel good for your body, it feels good for your soul. This is why so many of us are railing from the isolation we are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being with people, sharing presence, is more than a good time or a way of passing the time, it something our souls were created to experience and enjoy. The Office offers us wisdom for spiritual living in that when you watch the show, when you immerse yourself in the mundane world of this sitcom, you too can see the beauty in the ordinary.

The truth is if Jesus can claim to be spiritually present when we take bread and grape juice together nothing is ordinary. Everything around us carries the potential to reveal the glory ever so slightly hidden within all of creation. May we be spiritual people who can, like Pam, say with gratitude that there is beauty in ordinary things.