Sunday, October 11, 2009
Weekly Rant: The Office, Season 6
If there’s been a better comedy than The Office on American television over the past five years, I haven’t seen it. Then again, that says as much about me as it does about the show. The Office is the only comedy I even attempt to follow on network TV or cable. 30 Rock? I couldn’t get into it. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Family Guy, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Weeds? I know them only by their advertisements and Emmy Awards hype; I haven’t watched so much as a scene. Not that I’m complaining. The Office hasn’t been immune to unavoidable peaks and valleys, but on the whole it has proved as dependable as my other all-time favorite comedies, Cheers and Seinfeld, albeit over a shorter period. I never miss an episode and I always leave at least mostly fulfilled. Until this season.
Four episodes in – including the two-part Pam & Jim wedding called “Niagara” – The Office’s sixth season hasn’t just been underwhelming, it’s been downright problematic. It’s one thing to come up short of expectations while following the model that created those lofty standards, but it’s another thing to fail while abandoning the very formula that made the show a smash success in the first place. Unless these recent episodes prove to be the exception to the rule, The Office is smack dab in the middle of a mid-life identity crisis, and for the first time I’m skeptical that the show’s talented writing staff can climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. It might still be a bit soon to sound the alarm, but here are two big reasons that fans of The Office should have their fingers hovered over the panic button.
1. Jim as Co-manager
Beyond suggesting that the writers have run out of ideas within the show’s original framework, this seemingly small plot twist upsets almost everything we’ve come to expect from The Office. Until now the show has relied upon two “us vs. them” models for dramatic and comedic tension: the first pits “us” the exasperated workers against “them” the clueless management; the second pits “us” the relatively sane against “them” the workplace crazies. According to both models, Jim has always been our most reliable audience surrogate, rolling his eyes on behalf of “us” at each impropriety committed by “them.” But now that Jim has a management position, he’s less of an “us” and more of a “them,” because his newfound authority allows him to act on the inappropriate behavior that he used to have to suffer quietly.
Within the world The Office has created over five full seasons, this doesn’t work. There’s no joy in watching Jim bungle his management role, because it subverts our principal understanding of Dunder Mifflin, which is that it’s a business so straightforward even an idiot could manage it (as Michael Scott repeatedly proves). If Jim can’t handle the job, it suggests that we can’t. If Jim is as inept as Michael, it suggests that we are. If being the boss is tougher than we think, it means we’ve been wrong all those times we laughed at Michael and wondered why he couldn’t see the obvious. In other words, it takes away the fun of laughing at “them,” because the line between them and us blurs.
In addition, Jim’s leadership position makes some scenes involving Pam difficult to read. In the intro to “Niagara,” for example, Jim stands by his pregnant almost-wife’s side as they request that their coworkers go out of their way to avoid triggering Pam’s nausea with odoriferous foods and fragrances. Does this request come from Jim the supportive partner, or does it come from Jim the boss? The former would make sense and play true to the Jim we know and love, but the latter would make Jim a lot like Michael in one of those moments when he uses his position of authority to issue an all-about-me demand that makes us shake our heads. Scenes like that one reveal that for The Office to work, Jim needs to be the Jim he’s always been – ever sensible, normal and relatable. We must be shaking our heads with him, not at him. Otherwise he’s just another crazy creature in the Dunder Mifflin zoo, and there are plenty of those already.
2) The YouTube Wedding
If you were unfamiliar with the popular YouTube clip of a wedding party dancing down the aisles to Chris Brown’s “Forever,” the booty-shaking escapades at Jim and Pam’s wedding couldn’t have made much sense. Alas, if you had seen the YouTube clip, the climactic moment of “Niagara” was disappointingly familiar. That the talented writers of The Office drew inspiration from viral video isn’t what’s disturbing. The problem is that this creative staff essentially quoted the scene verbatim, and in doing so sent the Dunder Mifflin employees into an alternate universe in which they all work well together and get along. The dance sequence of “Niagara” is a love fest for a group that otherwise spends the majority of its time bickering with one another, not to mention that it’s a successful covert-op for a group that rarely gets the simplest things right. It doesn’t make sense within the established Dunder Mifflin world.
If The Office writers had their heads on straight, the YouTube allusion (and it would have only been an allusion) would have been constructed so that Michael, in his desperate attempt to be the star, pressed play on his own personal stereo just before Pam was ready to walk down the aisle. Painfully alone, Michael would have danced down the aisle to “Forever,” perhaps even recording his dance moves with a video camera in the hopes of being a YouTube sensation himself. Per usual, Michael would fully expect to be embraced for his performance but would instead draw horrified stares. At that point Jim or Pam, whose hearts have always been too big to watch Michael crash and burn, would have rushed to Michael’s side and joined in the dancing, sacrificing their own dignity to save his.
From there, if the writers wished, “Niagara” could have climaxed with an all-in dance exhibition that stayed true to the spirit of the characters. Michael would have been reinforced as criminally naïve but well intending, Jim and Pam would have been reinforced as caring and good-natured and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin crew could have done what they always do and followed their lead. That approach would have been both funny and honest. Instead, the wedding dance-off isn’t as entertaining as the YouTube clip it rips off (minus Dwight’s accidental kick to the face, of course), and Jim and Pam are forced to the margins in their big moment, smiling back and forth at one another as the camera struggles to give everyone a closeup.
Thankfully, the cutaways to Jim and Pam’s private nuptials at Niagara Falls save the episode from being an almost complete flop, but it’s hardly an episode to cherish. By my count, The Office has gone for laughs with dance sequences three times now in the past two years. It’s as if the writers are so desperate to find new laughs that they’ve abandoned the formula that’s gotten them here. Righting the ship shouldn’t be a huge problem for The Office, which has bounced back from other not-so-great ideas (Ryan as drug-addicted big-shot) and avoided forcing the typical bullshit relationship drama on Jim and Pam (a functional sitcom couple? what a concept!). But The Office needs to get back to basics and quit trying to reinvent itself.
Addendum: I already had this written when I noticed that friend-of-The Cooler Craig of The Man from Porlock has a kinder view of The Office's sixth season. Check it out.