I‘ve always had this odd fascination with infomercials. I almost never want the ridiculous product pitched on Saturday-afternoon television, yet I find myself watching a decent amount of them out of curiosity anyway. Before I realize it, I usually end up blowing an hour of my day watching a demo of some poor-quality “super” blender that I have no use for.

Christopher Zbrozek
Michael Passman

But my all-time favorite infomercial doesn’t run in the typical Saturday afternoon/late-night timeslot. It’s a clever little serial infomercial that’s on every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

A joint collaboration between a few corporations, this next-generation infomercial doesn’t involve cooking small birds in a rotisserie oven in front of a live studio audience; instead, it’s a faux documentary about the drudgery of office life in a suburban setting where the co-workers at the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company use sponsored computers, have outings at various national food chains and name-drop a multitude of other goods at strategic times. The infomercial is called “The Office,” and it’s so good it won last year’s Emmy for Best Comedy Series, despite being a 22-minute commercial.

Unfortunately, this past week was a rerun, but the last new episode featured a recently fired Dunder Mifflin employee named Dwight Schrute who takes a job at an office supply retailer that happens to be one of the show’s biggest sponsors. I’m not going to name the store – let’s just say that they sell staples – but it was heavily featured in the episode and has been mentioned numerous times before this season. The store also happened to be stocked strictly with products from a computer manufacturer who sells, um, Hewlett-Packards. Thankfully though, the Dunder Mifflin expatriate was offered his job back at the end of the episode.

Despite its shamelessness, I like “The Office” because it has emerged as the most consistently funny half-hour of network TV since the death of “Arrested Development.” But I can’t help but wonder what the infomercial would be like if it was an actual show. By making sponsored products such an integral part of “The Office,” a limit is placed on the amount of material available to satirize. For instance, when Dwight is offered back his job at Dunder Mifflin, he’s asked about his experience in retail, to which he gives a tame answer about how he couldn’t wear his cool ties and had an unfunny boss. Now, if this was an unsponsored store, the writers could have given Dwight a funnier, more biting response.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that not all the sponsors get off completely scot-free. A number of fast-food chains have been featured in the show where either the impossibly uncool boss, Michael Scott (Steve Carell, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”), or another co-worker gets too excited about some chain restaurant that’s degraded by association. The problem here is twofold. First, a fictional chain allows for the same joke (see Chochkies in “Office Space”) sans annoying sponsorship. Second, “The Office” places the joke on the overt lameness of the characters – not the chains themselves.

It’s interesting to note that “30 Rock” – “The Office”‘s 9:30 p.m. counterpart in NBC’s “Night of Comedy” – has its fair share of corporate sponsors, too. They even did an episode about product placement earlier this season. The difference is “30 Rock” makes its corporate ties abundantly clear in a humorous manner. When Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) talks about NBC parent company GE, it’s always satirizing corporate culture. But when “The Office” centers oversized HP logos in the frame, there’s no laughing.

In truth, if sponsors don’t overpower a show, product placement isn’t a terrible thing. There are obvious benefits for the networks, and as long as the show can’t be confused with a high-budget Superbowl ad, there’s little harm in it. But when corporate ties become a central feature of a show, limit potential content and blur the line between art and advertising, the art suffers for it. In real life, people drink Coke, not generic cola, so as long as logos aren’t centered and episode content doesn’t revolve around a product someone’s trying to sell, it’s OK.

But “The Office” has gone too far. While the show/infomercial has improved immensely since its first season, it’s also sold out and shoved it in it’s audience’s faces. How a series with such intelligent humor could tarnish its reputation with an increasing barrage of blatant plugs is puzzling.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get in my Ford and drive to Best Buy to pick up a new Sony Blu-ray player so I can watch “Superman Returns” on my Pioneer HDTV.

– Passman is constantly looking for bigger and better swords. E-mail him at mpass@umich.edu.

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