Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that hell is other people, but he was wrong: hell is an office job. The stereotypical image summoned by nine-to-five drudgery is cheesy inspirational posters, fabric-lined cubicles, and shared kitchens with cupboards stuffed full of chipped coffee mugs. Its more bougie counterpart, the corporate aesthetic, is straight lines, suits, chrome, and grey carpet, perhaps more upscale but similarly dull and impersonal. Two television shows capture this office aesthetic best, deploying it to different ends but motivated by the same desire to play with the idea of the office as hell.
The Office, in both its American and British iterations, capitalised on the familiarity of middle-management mundanity to create a backdrop for its humour. The workspace populated by Jim, Pam, Michael, and Dwight became the site for its characters to fall in love, make friends, fight and pull pranks. For sitcoms like The Office, recognisable locations are important to establish the relatability of its characters; Friends has its coffeehouse, How I Met Your Mother its bar, Brooklyn Nine-Nine the bullpen of a police station. The titular office establishes the relationships between characters spatially – Pam behind the reception desk, accessible to Jim but also out of reach, Michael in his office, separate from the open plan cubicles and their workers despite his desperate desire to belong with them. The characters overcome the dull nature of their office jobs through their relationships, and any happiness and fulfilment the characters find are generally despite the day-to-day bleakness of their jobs.
In Severance, a newer show by Apple TV directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, the corporate imagery takes a darker turn. These workers are Severed, meaning their brains are surgically split between their work and home life, neither remembering the experiences of the other, thus becoming two separate people in one body. Despite its more ominous tone, the show uses similar aesthetic nods to office life to The Office – the four workers in the Macrodata Refinement Department sit in cubicles covered in dark green felt, gather around a vending machine, and walk down bland hallways. What it is precisely the workers are doing is mysterious – they themselves don’t know what the encoded numbers they receive relate to, a jab at the meaninglessness of much office work.
The visuals of Severance brilliantly enhance this uncanny plot – the physical workplace in Severance is designed to resemble an office in a dream. The piles of papers and long hallways look almost true to life, but look closer and you’ll find they’re slightly off. Despite being set in the near future, the computers look like something Jobs and Wozniak might have dreamt up in the ’70s. Fluorescent lights beam down on the workers in repeating squares, yet the lighting is always pleasantly warm. One of the workers, Dylan, proudly collects prizes like finger traps and Waffle Parties for efficiency. Everything about the office reinforces the characters’ lack of free will: there are no windows to the outside world, just doors that lead to a warren of seemingly endless hallways hiding more departments of an unknown quantity.
Of course, there’s a strong real-world basis to this surreal aesthetic. A 2017 study by the American Working Conditions Survey found that 20% of Americans faced hostile, threatening environments at work. A recent poll by Metro easily summoned a list of fifty things people hate about going to the office. Whether enlivening the office space through comedy or skewing capitalism through satire and horror motifs, both The Office and Severance point to the ubiquity of working in soul-sucking locations with little regard for individuality and expression. With a huge number of former office-dwellers working from home either part or all their workweek post-pandemic, maybe it’s time we finally let go of the office. Would anyone, except TV set designers, miss it if it died?