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Adapting the 10/40/70 Experiment to TV (The Office – “Business School”) March 27, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Adapted 10/40/70 Experiment, Television.
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One of my favorite critical blogging experiments is Nicolas Rombes’s 10/40/70 experiment to film criticism.  He suggests that to create a subjective form of film analysis, we as scholars should freeze a film at predetermined arbitrary time codes (he suggests 10 minutes, 40 minutes, and 70 minutes) and then analyze the mise-en-scène of these images.  The times Rombes suggests are important to a film’s structure, as we normally have a good idea of the hero’s conflict by the 10 minutes mark, finish the first act by 40 minutes, and have the hero reach his lowest point by 70 minutes.  What I would like to do is adapt Rombes’s formula to the television medium and see if the same arbitrary analysis can work for a different form.

Of course, since TV shows are a lot shorter than the traditional 90-120 minutes for a film, the time codes must be changed as well.  To maintain the 10-40-70 relationship, there are two formulas from which we can choose to adapt it to a 30-minute sitcom.  First, since a 30-minute show is ¼ the length of the standard feature, we can divide the 10-40-70 numbers by 4 to result in times of 2:30-10-17:30.  Of course, a 30-minute TV show does not actually time out to 30 minutes exactly since there are commercials during the broadcast.  In fact, a show like The Office runs for about 22 minutes, allowing for 8 minutes of commercials (yes, over 25% of what you watch during a single timeslot is commercials).  Thus, if we want to maintain the same dramatic high points like in Rombes’s original proposition, we need to create a variable formula for television which results in (x/120)*22, in which x stands for either 10, 40, or 70.  With this formula, we get time codes of 1:50, 7:20, and 12:50 for the 22 minutes of story content.  In order to show the differences between these time slots and the effect they have on analyzing the story, I’ll take a look at both sets of numbers.

For my first experiment, I’m going to look at one of my favorite episodes from the American version of The Office called “Business School.”  In true Office fashion, there are two storylines in the episode: the main one following Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) as he is invited to be a guest speaker in his employee Ryan Howard’s (B.J. Novak) emerging enterprises class, while the B-story follows the rest of the Dunder Mifflin employees after Dwight (Rainn Wilson) finds a bat in the ceiling and accidentally lets him loose in the workspace.  A minor story running concurrently follows the receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) as she tries to get her co-workers to attend her art class’s art show.

Analysis #1:  2:30-10-17:30

The first frame follows Michael and Ryan as they are driving to Ryan’s class.  The mockumentary style camera sits in the backseat and films them from behind as they begin their journey.  This shot is particularly noticeable since the production crew had introduced lipstick cameras in the employees’ cars in the earlier episode “Traveling Salesman,” meaning that this particular camera angle must contain distinct meaning.  Two things stand out about this shot.  First, the camera is positioned perfectly to see Ryan’s reactions to Michael’s random comments in the rearview mirror.  Although Ryan is driving and is starting out of the front window (as he should be!), the audience can still see his eye movements and facial expressions in the reflection.  Second, the empty road ahead of the car brings to mind the “long road” ahead of Ryan.  He will have to endure Michael’s idiocy among his peers and has to make it through this long, empty road in order to survive the experience.

The second frame follows the B (or actually the C) storyline, when Pam is trying to recruit H.R. representative Toby Flenderson (Paul Lieberstein) to go to her art show.  He can’t make it since his daughter is performing in a school play, but he maintains that he will show up “in order to support local art, since what they [his daughter’s school] do is not art” in a vain attempt to flirt with her.  Most interestingly, this image is a solo shot of Pam, despite her ongoing conversation with Toby.  The framing of this shot, with the doorframe and wall cutting Toby out of the picture, shows Pam’s isolation from her co-workers.  Many of them have shown only polite faint interest and, by this point, Pam is starting to get the idea that nobody from the office is going to show up.  Although at first glance this would seem to be a throwaway transition shot, the mise-en-scène actually implies Pam’s deeper feelings of separation and isolation.

Another intriguing shot, since this one once again focuses on Pam, even though she is the lowest of the three storylines.  In this shot, she is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Roy (David Denman) after he is leaving her art show.  The most he can say is “Your art was the prettiest art out of all the art,” demonstrating that he doesn’t seem to “get” Pam’s artistic outlet.  While he shows up to support her, there is a divide between the couple.  This shot emphasizes Pam’s artistic enlightenment since she is bathed in the overhead light, while Roy is covered by shadows, a sign that he is “in the dark” when it comes to art.  There is also a pole that dissects the frame with Pam and Roy on opposite sides of it.  The shot implies a disconnect between them which culminates in their breakup in the very next episode “Cocktails.”

Analysis #2:  1:50-7:20-12:50

Using the variable formula, the first shot begins earlier in the episode when Dwight is giving his “talking head” interview to the camera explaining the best advice Michael ever gave him – “don’t be an idiot.”  The mise-en-scène is fairly standard, with the mock interview being set up in the way a documentary would follow a subject.  The focus, therefore, doesn’t seem to be on the image but on what Dwight is saying.  The initial joke seems to be at Dwight’s expense, in which the viewer laughs at Dwight for taking the colloquial phrase “don’t be an idiot” so seriously.  However, we also have to ask ourselves whether this advice is the best Michael has to offer.  And if it is, then what is he going to say to Ryan’s class?

This shot is taken from Michael’s presentation, when he takes a student’s book and rips out the pages, suggesting to “replace [them] with life lessons.”  Although Michael dominates the frame, he appears to be out of focus in this shot, suggesting that he may be out of his element in front of a classroom.  The frame also shows the high volume of laptop computers in the room, which becomes a sticking point between Michael (the manager of a paper company) and the younger generation who is accustomed to using electronics.

The third frame catches the beginning of a tilt-up that ends on Michael’s face after he has heard that Ryan feels the company is heading downhill due to the rise of electronics and the lack of a need for paper.  The shot begins on Michael’s feet as he walks over the pages of the business book that he ripped out in the previous frame.  The trampling of these pages is fairly significant and something that I had missed on previous viewings.  The book pages espouse the traditional way of business, something which Michael – on many occasions – doesn’t seem to follow at all.  They are also representative of collegiate business education, which Michael never had, and whose structure Michael is currently fighting against.  After all, the students like Ryan have learned that the world is becoming increasingly paperless and that paper companies like Dunder Mifflin are subsequently becoming obsolete.  The shot emphasizes Michael’s feelings to either walk on or trample the educational system that is suggesting Michael’s existential meaninglessness.


The dichotomy between the two sets of time codes is fairly interesting as each tells a different story.  The first group seems to follow Pam more than Michael, whereas the second series follows Michael’s story completely.  In fact, the second set tells a mini-story as we question Michael’s advice, see him giving fairly inconsequential and abstract advice, and then his irate reaction to hearing about the students’ negative, fatalistic view of his company’s prospects.  The first set uncovers the importance of Pam to both the episode and to the season in general.  In an episode where she should be a supporting character, the three frames suggest a dominance over the episode’s story that would otherwise be unnoticed.  Overall, I feel as if the second group (the variable formula) gives a greater narrative coherence to the episode’s story structure.  However, as I continue doing this analysis in future blog posts, I will continue to look at both sets of frames since each group provides distinct insight into the episode.