While workplace comedies abound in American film and television, comedies about corporate life, or about the daily workings of a corporation, are less common. No doubt, the corporation is – inevitably – a key presence and process in any film or television series that touches on the American workplace, but its machinations and power structure don’t typically form the main focus of comedies. Sometimes, as in the case of The Office, we’re presented with workers who are at a remove from the executive echelon, with the big decision makers only appearing from time to time in a cameo role. Sometimes, as in the case of Office Christmas Party, we’re presented with a break from corporate oversight, or the fantasy of a break from corporate oversight. And sometimes, as in the Horrible Bosses franchise, corporate leadership is subsumed back into a more expansive and broader notion of the workplace, one that claims not to be anchored in the corporation in particular. While all of these different workplace comedies are contoured by the corporation, as both an idea and an institution, they are rarely if ever able – or willing – to turn corporate procedure into an object of comedy in and of itself, just as most mainstream Hollywood films about corporate life tend to be dejected, downbeat and melancholy in register; tragedies at heart.
In that respect, Comedy Central’s Corporate possibly reflects a new generation of workplace comedies, pairing its humour with a bleakness and nihilism that I have only seen in NBC’s Superstore, and even then nowhere near as relentlessly as it is promulgated here. In essence, the subject matter of Corporate is the workplace comedy itself, and the inability of the workplace comedy to sequester workers from corporate procedure in the way that it once did. In that respect, the wave of workplace comedies ushered in by The Office fulfilled a consolatory function, providing a space where human narrative could play out amongst workers employed by a corporation without having to be contoured by the corporation at every turn. While Dunder Mifflin had the power to shape its employees’ lives at every moment, and sometimes made decisions that had very dramatic ramifications for some or all of them, there was still a sense that some part of their personal and professional lives was left to their own devices – the part that constituted the series. In retrospect, Michael Scott’s charisma and persona was effectively the insistence that this modicum of privacy still existed, even if it took a fairly caricatured and hyperbolised figure to insist on its existence.
By contrast, Corporate presents a pair of characters – Matt (Matt Ingebretson) and Jake (Jake Weisman) – who appear to have been raised on precisely this earlier wave of workplace comedies, which they use as a point of reference for trying to negotiate their lives as low-level workers at Hampton DeVille, a mega-corporation headed by one Christian Deville (Lance Reddick) that seems to have cornered the market for everything, from furniture to food to digital devices. Time and again, however, Matt and Jake realise that this distance from their corporate overlords is false, just as any narrative that they try to build away from their bosses, and any line of flight that they try to seek out for themselves, tends to be curtailed and contained by the demands of their workplace. On the face of it that might not sound much like a comedy, and in some ways Corporate isn’t a comedy in a traditional sense. Instead, the mission of the series seems to be to refrain from tragedy, rather than promote comedy per se, since showrunners Ingrebrstson, Weisman and Pat Bishop seem anxious, above all, to avoid the kinds of melancholy that typically characterize depictions of the corporate world, and the types of ennui and boredom that it perpetuates.
In fact, watching Corporate makes it clear that corporate melancholy – and corporate tragedy – is a register typically reserved for those who are empowered by the corporate world. It’s no coincidence that this melancholy peaked in the wake of the GFC, when films like The Company Men found a kind of affective compensation for rapid downward mobility with a narrative of tragic decline that at least imbued the executive victims of the stock market crash with some semblance of dignity and gravity. Corporate seems prescient that this melancholy and even tragic register is therefore complicit in the corporation’s self-regard even when it appears to be used to articulate the concerns of workers, explaining why it is the most powerful members of Hampton Deville who typically break from the series’ inane tonality to register melancholy or sadness – a privilege that is just not available to those working on the lower rungs. Put more bluntly, Corporate resorts to comedy only because every iteration of tragic gravity has already been absorbed into the corporation, and sequestered from its employees as a legitimate way of making sense of their workplace.
Yet comedy has also been partly absorbed by Hampton Deville, as evinced in the upbeat, wisecracking, always-smiling register of the workplace as a whole. At moments, that plays a bit like Michael Scott has been generalised to a broader corporate ambience, but it also clarifies that part of Scott’s project, and The Office’s project, was to promulgate a brand of comedy that was just a little bit too edgy, juvenile and unpredictable to be fully absorbed by the corporation. Ten years later, however, Hampton DeVille has gathered everything Scott had to offer, sequestering both comedy and tragedy into its own affective economy so as to leave its workers with no consistent or coherent way to articulate their sense of exploitation and injustice. The result, then, is an a kind of intensified comic brinksmanship in which Matt, Jake and the series are continually looking for ever more inane and absurd ways to articulate their inability to articulate their world, producing an anarchic and offbeat sense of humour that is all the more powerful when it does land for all the times that it doesn’t. Where The Office was clearly keen to craft a comic orientation that was particular and idiosyncratic enough to stay one step ahead of the workplaces it was critiquing, Corporate seems aware that the corporation will always catch up to whatever comic mode it chooses, requiring it to oscillate vertiginously from one inane and bizarre comic scenario to the next.
Rather than being consistently funny – although it is often hilarious – Corporate instead brims with a comic restlessness that frequently feels like the last horizon before Hampton DeVille takes over the characters’ lives, and the series itself becomes yet another Hampton DeVille-sponsored release. In fact, it often is unclear whether the characters are acting on their own behalf or Hampton DeVille’s behalf, as their efforts to carve out a sequestered space of their own within the corporation are continually offset by a schizoid spatial scheme that introjects them into the heart of the corporation whenever they think they have gained some critical distance. While films about corporations typically focus on a hierarchical distribution of space and time, then, Corporate seems aware that this model allows for a spatial and temporal sequestration of workers that doesn’t really exist, instead opting for a science-fictional space-time in which any situation with Matt and Jake can instantaneously and unexpectedly become porous with the boardroom where most of the main decisions in the corporation are made. Rather than being presented as metaphorically central, this board room is metonymically omnipotent, always continguous to the events taking place in the series, no matter how remote from or irrelevant to Hampton DeVille they might appear.
Beyond a certain point, that turns Hampton DeVille into a synecdoche for the world as a whole, although it never quite replaces the world, or internalizes the world. Instead, it allows the world to continue as if everything is normal, only to mediate the world through its boardroom at unexpected and disorienting moments, imbuing even the most minute details of Matt and Jake’s lives with an existential intensity that’s a bit like seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to make sense of a world in which Hamlet never existed. Rather than offering comedy or tragedy, corporate realism here means refraining from both tragedy and comedy in terms of the inane lines of flight that constitute the series, and eschewing spatial continuity for the strange science-fictional metonymies that displace the action from any stable distinction between workplace and world. At times, that makes the series feel like it is yearning for another medium, so thoroughly has Hampton DeVille co-opted how the characters can mediate themselves, which is perhaps why Corporate often seems to draw on the language of silent cinema, and especially King Vidor’s The Crowd, one of the silent films that most yearns for the language of sound. Yet that yearning for a new medium also makes it feel as if the showrunners have produced a better episode of Black Mirror than Black Mirror has yet produced – they get to the heart of its off-realism perfectly – in one of the most grim and irreverent series ever to be distributed by Comedy Central.