One of the first prime-time shows I watched weekly while in high school was L.A. Law, a Steven Bochco legal drama that would move nimbly between social issues and – for the mid-1980s – suggestive flirtation; a recurring element was a mythical sexual position known as “the Venue Butterfly”. The lawyers – shout out to Susan Dey and Harry Hamlin – dealt with a plethora of issues but the comic quirks rarely detracted from their dedication.
The classic workplace drama, as distinct from soaps and their villains, presented employment for the most part as a means to do the right thing. That matched a society where many people held the same job or worked at the same place from when their education finished to retirement. The gold watch episode, where a craggy supporting character was ushered out the door, often against their wishes, was a writers’ room staple.
That stability is increasingly rare. Whether through entrepreneurial zeal or economic anxiety, people don’t expect to have a lifelong workplace or a settled job. This century we’re getting the shows that reflect that. If you’re not emotionally invested in your own employment you’re far more likely to be receptive to a comedy where the characters have a similar outlook. Perversely, a successful workplace comedy rarely dispenses with a character, creating a sense of stasis on the screen, but their younger audience have no such illusions.
As with the Golden Globes, blame Ricky Gervais. When he and Stephen Merchant introduced The Office in 2001 it felt like a turning point for how television related to the workday. The Slough branch of the Wernham Hogg paper company was soul sucking drudgery, complete with Gervais’ nightmarish boss David Brent, which the staff had to endure. The American remake, more winsome and dedicated to everyday escapism, codified that transition. No-one came to work at Dunder Mifflin to improve the world, but encasing a colleague’s stapler in jelly was a definite possibility.
Perhaps it’s a matter of space. The workplace comedy thrives in an open-plan layout, where mismatched colleagues can’t help but overlap with each other and butt heads. It’s like a schoolroom for adults, usually complete with the class clown. By contrast the 1960s setting for Mad Men, which took the workplace drama to dark, interior realisations, was built around the office. Many of the characters treated their space as a redoubt, full of secrets to be held onto. Matthew Weiner’s drama knew that work was no laughing matter.