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The new work ethic: From left, Clark (Brandon Firla), Sam (Fabrizio Filippo), Robin (Jennifer Baxter) and Stu (Dov Tiefenbach) play layabout lawyers in Billable Hours. Photo Showcase/Alliance Atlantis. (Photo Showcase/Alliance Atlantis.)

Showcase’s new comedy, Billable Hours, is a child of its time. Conceived and co-written by Fab Filippo and Adam Till, Billable Hours wears its influences like a garish tie — that is, loudly. From its salty dialogue to its disdain for authority, the show is clearly influenced by The Office, the pioneering BBC comedy.

Although set in a Toronto law firm, Billable Hours could just as easily take place in an accounting office, an insurance company or, for that matter, a florist shop. Where it takes place is largely irrelevant — no one’s really working anyway. Junior lawyers Sam Caponelli (Filippo) and Clark Claxton (Brandon Firla) seem more consumed with petty intrigues like taunting fellow employees, pursuing status-defining perks (like parking spots) and churning the office rumour mill.

Workplace comedies are nothing new; just cast your mind back to shows like Alice (set in a diner), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (TV station), Barney Miller (police precinct), Night Court (self-explanatory) or Taxi (ditto). What’s changed, however, is the tone. The gentle sparring of shows like Alice has calcified into the hard cynicism of the American version of The Office, where a creepy boss goes to desperate lengths to win employee approval.

While amusing, Billable Hours lacks the satirical bite of Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999), a rare film comedy that’s both witty and wise. The plot concerns disenchanted techies at a Houston software company who decide to swindle their employer out of a large sum of money. In the film’s most memorable scene, the dissidents bring a notoriously ill-tempered printer to an empty field and thrash it like mafiosi trouncing a snitch. Undeniably hilarious (all the more so for its gangsta-rap soundtrack), the scene would have been seen as deviant, anarchic, possibly unpatriotic during The Honeymoonersera.

Where did all this anger come from? While many comedies seem blithely ignorant of reality, the sitcom landscape can’t help but be informed by greater economic trends. Back in postwar America, there were lots of jobs to be had, and workers could largely count on having theirs for life. The average labourer still had to contend with power struggles and minor squabbles, but his job security filled him with pride and loyalty. He believed in the product. He respected his boss. He wouldn’t think to miss the company picnic. Even as popular books like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Organization Man revealed a growing discontent with corporate culture, television comedies like Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) and Bewitched (1964-1972) perpetuated the era’s buoyant mood. Beaver’s dad, Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont), was an accountant, Bewitched’s Darrin Stephens (Dick York/Dick Sargent), an ad exec. “Work” involved a well-appointed office, a perky secretary and a bit of paper shuffling. The era produced few office comedies, presumably because the workplace was a source of stability, not laughs.

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The tyranny of time: Mary Tyler Moore as TV journalist Mary Richards in the hit '70s comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Photo CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images. (Photo CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images.)

By the ’70s, comedies had become increasingly cagey about work. Ironically, that unease wasn’t nearly as palpable in workplace comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) as in domestic series like All in the Family (1971-79). Known for addressing hot-button issues like feminism and civil rights, the storylines of All in the Family often circled back to the tenuousness of the job market. A dockworker who often moonlighted as a cab driver, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) frequently bemoaned the family’s finances. From the comfort of his armchair, Archie liked to blame blacks, Hispanics and Jews for his woes, but ultimately, he knew his problems were caused by the increasing automation of labour and inflation resulting from the 1973 oil crisis. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter as U.S. president. Reagan drastically reduced taxes and government spending; despite a mounting federal debt, the U.S. economy grew. Reagan also espoused a new conservatism, which included a return to family values. This may explain the increase in family-based sitcoms, and why so many featured parents who worked from home. Think of Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show, an obstetrician with an office in the basement; Alan Thicke on Growing Pains, a psychiatrist working out of his den; Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James on Kate and Allie, who ran a catering business from their New York apartment. 

At the tail end of the ’80s came a humbling recession. It was around then that Scott Adams launched the comic strip Dilbert. Inspired, Adams has said, by “16 years of cubicle hell” (he did stints at banks and technology firms), Dilbert satirized automation, clueless managers and the emerging business speak. It was the first pop-culture entity to lampoon not only work, but the culture of work, a source of mordant humour in the era of downsizing.

But in the ’90s, the U.S. economy surged, largely buoyed by the potential of the World Wide Web. Remember those days? The promises were so hyperbolic, even the most outlandish business ideas got eager backing. I worked at a digital culture magazine back then, and managers would bombard us with reminders that “e-commerce was coming,” as though it were some divine benediction. While I wondered why we would want to sell anything more than subscriptions, the higher-ups were eager to retail hats and other ephemera on the magazine’s website. Such was the euphoria of the time; everyone thought they’d get rich on the web. This collective fantasy proved false in late 2000, when an overdue market correction bankrupted many companies and ruined many investors.

Owing to the early ’90s recession and the dot bomb, the labour market now seems more volatile than ever. People bounce around from job to job. Forget about having one for life; it’s difficult enough getting one you like. The result has been a profound lack of company loyalty and optimism. Dilbert still cracks wise about bumbling bosses, but the strip has ceased to be the most penetrating satire of the working life. That mantle now belongs to television’s Office franchise, which despite being a comedy, manages to distil the pessimism of the contemporary workplace.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original BBC production was framed as a documentary about the day-to-day operations at Wernham Hogg, a paper manufacturer located in the British city of Slough. The workplace was depicted as a thoroughly listless environment — which may explain why regional manager David Brent (Gervais) felt duty-bound to entertain everyone. (That and his irrepressible need to be liked.) While Brent’s attempts at team-building were the greatest source of larfs, one of the most telling subplots involved sales clerk Tim (Martin Freeman), who pondered going back to school, only to accept a promotion to senior sales clerk instead — simply because it was the less risky choice. The lack of enthusiasm with which Tim accepted his new role demonstrated the anti-careerism inherent in the new slate of workplace comedies.

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Worst. Boss. Ever: David Brent (Ricky Gervais) in the BBC production The Office. Photo Adrian Rogers/BBC Canada/Alliance Atlantis. (Photo Adrian Rogers/BBC Canada/Alliance Atlantis.)

Billable Hours isn’t nearly as poignant, but it has its moments. In episode two, Clark asks an office caretaker to take part in a mock fire drill. After a legal intern douses the fellow in water, Clark instructs the drenched caretaker to fetch a mop to clean up the mess. The guy looks at Clark with abject humiliation and says, “I have an engineering degree.” It’s hard to imagine a better encapsulation of the new work ethic.

Billable Hours airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. (EST) on Showcase.

Andre Mayer writes about the arts for CBC.ca.