July 20, 2010
The Office: a show for our times
I know I don't usually write about TV - in fact, I'm not sure I ever have - but, um, there's a first time for everything!
Obviously "The Office" is in the off-season right now, but it's been on people's minds lately because Steve Carrell has announced that this upcoming season will be his last. Many are calling for his exit to signal an end to the show, but they'll probably just beat it into the ground unless enough key castmembers leave. The general consensus is that it jumped the shark long ago, and has been limping towards death ever since. I agree to an extent, but that doesn't mean I'm not emotionally invested in the characters and still chuckle a fair amount during each episode. I'm seeing this thing through to the finish. But with the end ostensibly in sight, I don't think it's too early to start eulogizing, analyzing what the show has meant and represented. And honestly, the more I think about it, this show has been goddamn revolutionary - not really in content or style, but message. And the message is this: the world doesn't give a shit about you and doesn't owe you anything.
What is this crazy lady talking about? It's just a funny show where Steve Carrell acts silly, right? Well, let me explain.
Every scripted television show I can ever think of has had it one of two ways: the show itself cared about its characters, or it just made them caricatures and didn't (and in both cases, it makes the audience agree). The former category covers all dramas and almost any sitcom made before the 90s - when something bad happens to the characters, either the other characters come to their aid or the music swells and the God of that show's universe seems to say, "I may not be able to help you right now, but I feel your pain." The latter category is much more rare, but a good example would be something like "Arrested Development" or even "30 Rock" at times, where the tone is just sheer absurdism and "feelings" don't really factor into the equation. "The Office," however, does have it both ways - the show doesn't care about the characters, but the audience does. What results from this is a veritable manual for coping in the modern age, a guide to finding values and priorities in a mediocre life.
When I say that a show doesn't care about its characters, I mean that the characters have misfortunes that are presented in a fairly serious light, but not resolved. A good example of this is Michael's loneliness and sense of failure in his personal life. In the Season 2 episode "Take your Daughter to Work Day," Michael excitedly shows the employees' kids a video of when he was on a children's show as a boy. On the show, young Michael says he wants to "get married and have 100 kids, so I can have 100 friends, and no one can say 'no' to being my friend." This clearly never happened in real life, and Michael is visibly upset. This becomes a theme that runs through the seasons, and while he will almost certainly be granted a happy ending, he's been miserable trying to get there.
The the real emotional hooks of the show, however, are Jim and Pam, and their evolution is closer to the average American life than anything else right now, on TV or beyond. It's unglamorous, painfully realistic, and has been teaching the audience to focus on what's important. Let's take a look at the two key episodes here. Even if you've seen them already, it might be worth a refresher, and these synopses aren't exhaustive but hit the major points for my argument.
- "Niagara." This is the episode where Jim and Pam get married. She is already pregnant, a fact she is trying to conceal from her conservative grandmother. Her grandmother eventually finds out and we actually never see them reconcile - for all we know, she doesn't attend the wedding at all. The night before, Andy tears his scrotum (!) and Pam is the only one sober enough to take him to the hospital. Right before the ceremony, Pam rips her veil and starts crying because her wedding isn't anything like she thought it would be. Jim cuts his tie in a show of solidarity; cue my tears. They realize that all these people they wanted at their wedding are just ruining it with their selfishness, so they run off and get married on a ferry that goes through Niagara Falls (and then return to the church to get married again in front of everyone). The newlyweds can't even get a moment's peace on their honeymoon - in the next episode, they have to deal with Kevin accidentally canceling Jim's credit card.
- "The Delivery." Three guesses as to what this one's about...Pam goes into labor but tries to postpone her admittance to the hospital until after midnight so their insurance plan gives them an extra day. Her contractions get closer together and she and Jim start fighting about what's best for her. Suddenly the contractions are very close together and she has no choice but to go. After the delivery, the staff is extremely terse with her - after all, she's just another patient to them. She has trouble getting the baby to breastfeed, so she requests a coach, who turns out to be male, causing great discomfort with Jim. It still doesn't work, and the two have a restless night. They are promptly kicked out the next day, and Pam finally gets the baby to breastfeed.
Here's the revelation: "The Office" dismantles the myth that anyone on earth other than you gives a damn about the most important moments in your life. Now, perhaps that's being a bit harsh, as surely close friends and family share your joy. But you are surrounded by others, from caterers to nurses, for whom this is just another day. The world doesn't stop for them. Compare Pam's delivery with the baby-having episode of "Friends" (which I guess I caught in syndication, even though I never watched the show otherwise), where the entire hospital appears to be at our heroes' disposal. Rachel has some trouble getting the baby to nurse, but this is quickly resolved and the whole scenario is played out mostly for Joey's humorous reactions. Really, having a baby just seems like a goofy good time and Rachel is still the center of the universe. On "Sex and the City," Charlotte's wedding to Harry is a disaster, but throughout it they just kind of chuckle and shrug and it never appears to be a real tragedy. Compared to these and other shows, the treatment of these milestones on "The Office" is pretty bleak.
The real message here, however, is just that you have to distill these moments in your life to what really matters. Will your remember your wedding day because of the perfect floral arrangements and bridesmaids' meticulously identical outfits? No, you'll remember being in love and being happy, and that's what Pam and Jim realize on the ferry even when everything else is falling apart. Is the birth of your first child supposed to be a thoroughly radiant experience from start to finish? No, nothing is guaranteed and every small accomplishment is a huge success (like when Pam finally gets her baby to nurse at the end). In this time of economic failure and an uncertain future, many people are readjusting their priorities - letting go of superficial things and learning to just be thankful for their loved ones and basic necessities.
For those of you whose response to this is "duh," well, good for you - but some people still don't get it. I remember reading an article (which, unfortunately, I can no longer find) about a family of four who couldn't afford to buy a house due the recession. It had the potential to be tragic, but I read on and discovered that they were not consequently homeless or even jammed into a tiny apartment. They were renting a large apartment (or maybe even a small house) and both parents had jobs, but they still considered themselves victims that were simply annihilated by the recession. The article even quoted the oft-repeated mournful cry of their young daughter: "Mommy, when can we buy a house?!" These people are still fixated on home ownership as some God-given right, completely ignoring the fact that their own neighbors might be facing eviction or poverty. These are people who need to hear what "The Office" is preaching.
I read an article last year that called the show "the most depressing on television," and while the author makes good points I disagree that you have to interpret the data negatively. She says it's depressing that Jim and Pam will never escape their dead-end jobs which they're not even that good at, and that they don't have any friends. Well, there are plenty of people like that - perfectly nice people with mundane lives and small social circles. Hell, I count myself among them. So what should those people do, jump off a bridge? Can't it instead be heartening to show that they can still find happiness with each other? Homer and Marge Simpson have been doing it for decades, and I don't see anyone complaining about that.
Now, obviously "The Office" isn't the first show to tackle serious facts of life. "Scrubs" is a good example of a funny show (not necessarily a sitcom, though) that masterfully deals with topics like ethics and dying. But what other show has really confronted mediocrity head-on? "The Office" shows viewers that if even people in a sitcom can't lead an easy life, then you sure as hell can't. Jim and Pam work a crappy job with a crazy boss, live in an ugly house, are exhausted from raising their baby, and have probably never shared a single Kodak moment. That sucks, and they know it and convey it. But they also have a happy family, and they celebrate their small victories. And in the end, that's what it's all about.
What do you think? Am I over-analyzing, or does "The Office" tap into a raw and critical part of the zeitgeist?