How ‘The Office’ Provided ‘Catharsis’ During the Financial Crisis of 2008

The Office followed the employees of Dunder Mifflin, a mid-size paper company struggling to compete with big-box retailers in the working-class town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. When the financial crisis of 2008 struck, the show had no choice but to comment on the state of affairs in the business world. Here’s how they made viewers feel better, despite the recession that harped over the nation.

Steve Carell as Michael Scott
Steve Carell | Mitch Haddad/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 

In 2008, the state of finances in the United States was a mess. Banks were taking excessive risks. The housing bubble burst, causing security values to plummet. Lehman Brothers, one of the largest global financial firms, went bankrupt. Suddenly, the United States was in a recession, and businesses big and small were feeling the impact. 

‘The Office’ couldn’t ignore what was happening to the business world

Greg Daniels had a set of principles that he wanted to honor in creating The Office. He wanted the show to be realistic, relatable, and observational. In following those principles, The Office would always be able to comment on what was going on in the world around it.

In 2008, that meant the financial crisis. Brent Forrester said the crisis was always in the DNA of the show.

“Scranton was a working-class town, paper [was] an obsolete industry — for sure, we were aware of the recession,” Forrester explained on Office acto Brian Baumgartner’s podcast, An Oral History of The Office. But for him, Scranton had already existed in this “economically precarious place.” That made the show easier to write when the financial crisis struck.

‘The Office’ made real-world financial issues comical

From the get-go, The Office focused on a paper company that was always threatening to downsize. The thought of losing their job loomed over Dunder Mifflin Scranton’s employees, but thanks to Michael Scott (Steve Carell), they always managed to come out on top. 

The Office wasn’t just about the threat of a company downsizing, though. For some viewers, The Office made real-world issues like juggling multiple jobs or even declaring bankruptcy laughable — at least, for 30 minutes.

By including stories about real-world problems everyday people had to deal with, The Office became all the more relatable to its audience. 

Showrunners were always thinking about the ways they could have Michael Scott address what was going on, especially when it came to the financial crisis. One of the best ways they did that was removing Michael from Dunder Mifflin altogether so he could start the Michael Scott Paper Company. 

Pam Beesly, Ryan Howard, and Michael Scott went rogue 

During season 5, Pam (Jenna Fischer), Ryan (B.J. Novak), and Michael left Dunder Mifflin to start their own paper company. Frustrated by the crushing presence of Charles Miner (Idris Elba), Michael sought to bring the personal touch back to the paper business — yet another commentary on the hit small businesses took in 2008.

Fans will recall how, despite their best efforts, the Michael Scott Paper company didn’t last long. However, their business venture did have a positive impact on the way things were at Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch. 

This moment was cathartic for some viewers who were struggling to find a job or make ends meet after 2008. It felt like a win for the little guy — which is exactly what showrunners were going for.

‘The Office’s David Wallace was a real finance guy 

Andy Buckley played David Wallace in The Office. He was also a real-life stockbroker working for Merrill Lynch. His background in finance helped the show stay authentic to the themes of economic crisis, especially after 2008.

Buckley remembered fielding calls from his financial coworkers in between takes of the season 5 episode “Broke.” In the episode, Michael Scott was trying to negotiate with Dunder Mifflin, who wanted to buy out the Michael Scott Paper Company. In reality, Lehman Brothers was going bankrupt.

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Despite the Michael Scott Paper Company being worth nothing monetarily, Michael Scott made it clear that he would stop at nothing to get his employees the pay and benefits they deserved — something people were desperate for in 2008. 

Again, it came down to showcasing wins on behalf of the little guy. For some, The Office served as a sort of band-aid to the messy status of the financial crisis.