As workers return to their cubicles, is it any wonder that our current crop of workplace comedies are boasting a new, darker edge?
Audiences — or at least the heads of programming —seemingly can’t get enough stories about terrible places to work. But the comedies are also probing deeper into work culture, and the ways in which it bleeds into personal lives.
“Mythic Quest” investigates the company behind a successful multi-player game, digging into the thorny issue of mentorship amid the laughs in a way “30 Rock” never quite did. On fellow Apple TV+ series “Severance,” employees at Lumen agree to have a chip implanted in their brains that keep their work and personal lives completely separate.
Even HBO Max’s pirate comedy, “Our Flag Means Death,” boasts employees who spend an awful lot of time discussing whether or not they should murder their boss, Gentleman Pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby). They’re the usual motley crew we associate with a workplace comedy, all with conflicting desires and personalities. But despite their makeshift work family trapped in a floating office, there’s always the threat of violence hovering over the jokes. Like “Severance,” these are workers who could snap at any moment.
But perhaps the series most indicative of our current work culture is NBC’s “American Auto,” available to stream on Peacock. Justin Spizter’s followup to the beloved “Superstore” looks like a classic workplace comedy set in the set in the automobile industry. But this one is darker, filled with people in pursuit of the company’s best interests — usually at the expense of the greater good.
“I pitched ‘American Auto’ before ‘Superstore,’ and I’m really happy I did ‘Superstore’ first because in that, corporate was always the antagonist,” Spitzer said to IndieWire. “And the fun of [‘American Auto’] is these are the people making decisions, and sometimes a victory for them is not going to feel like a victory for other people.”
That’s putting it mildly for a show that reaches its creative and comedic peak in the March 8 season finale, in which CEO Katherine Hastings (Ana Gasteyer) discovers that a potentially lethal default in one of the company’s cars has been detected. The episode ends with Katherine walking into a meeting, collected and focused for the first time as she confronts the crisis head one. (All those years she spent in big pharma prepped her well for a deadly disaster.) As we cheer her competence and her team’s new united front, we’re brought up short. Are we really rooting for a CEO to wriggle the company out of this kind of error? One that they were aware of earlier, and chose to ignore in the hopes that it would turn out to be a false alarm?
“Comedy comes from conflict and from contrasting characters with differing perspectives and different values being forced to be together,” Spitzer noted. “And you get that more than anything in a workplace. It’s a stressful environment spent with people we don’t necessarily want to be around.”
That’s always been true of workplace comedies, but in the midst of our current cultural reckoning with issues ranging from lack of diversity to emotionally abusive bosses, shows are now willing to grapple with thornier issues. Nowhere is this better represented than in the “American Auto” episode about filming a car commercial, in which the perennially reactive employees try to troubleshoot all the ways in which the casting — Are the actors too white? Too straight-presenting? — comes under such scrutiny that in the end, they’re unable to film anything usable.
The ways in which we work and measure success have changed drastically since the last great wave of workplace series. Now, TV is starting to examine the potential in our shifting views on offices and their potential for both personal fulfillment and professional missteps. And if the laughs sometimes come with a wince of recognition, well, too often so do our own nine to fives.