The slow and sad demise of The Office
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How a show based on workplace awkwardness lost its way and became awkwardly unwatchable...
To fall in love, as everyone comes to realize sooner or later, is to leave one's self vulnerable to heartbreak. Just as this is true in real life, so can it be true in our daydreams and pastimes. This can even apply, whether reasonably or not, to something as benign and relatively-unimportant as a television series. For why would a typical viewer decide to watch a program if he or she did not care about the people involved, or what they did, or who they did it with? Such emotional investment in a mere television show, however, can be a dangerous thing. Once a particular program gains traction among television enthusiasts, the stakes are raised, the pressure is on, and the show's writers and stars find themselves besieged by the expectations of millions of viewers. Success, it often turns out, can be the worst thing to happen to a program's cast and crew.
I tend to be characteristically "late to the party" when it comes to shows that hit it big, but that isn't to say that I'm wholly a television imbecile. It's just that I don't have the time to keep up on most new shows. Often, I haven't latched on to an example of great television until after it has ceased broadcasting. I'm a fan of many older shows, mostly comedies, ranging from I Love Lucy to Roseanne, with many stops in between. I also have a huge soft spot for long-retired British comedies - shows like Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers, Keeping Up Appearances, and all four series of Black Adder. I missed those particular selections when first broadcast only because of my (comparatively) young age, not because of disinterested malaise. Regardless, I have always tried to keep abreast of programs across the pond that have managed to spread via word of mouth to the States. That's how I heard about The Office.
If you're reading this article, the chances are good that the decision on my part to launch into a detailed retrospective of Ricky Gervais' outstanding mockumentary would waste both your time and mine. Suffice it to say that in only two seasons, the original British version of The Office became one of the most legendary comedy series in UK history. A 2004 BBC poll pegged it at #25 in its list of Britain's best sitcoms ever. To be fair, though, it did have a bit of an edge on most of its contemporaries - the great majority of its viewers could, and can, directly relate to it.
I have never held a job that could be precisely described as taking place in a "cubicle farm", but I worked in customer service for roughly 12 years before the birth of my daughter and my subsequent stay-at-home dad 'career' that has followed. So whether or not I have labored in the same exact atmosphere as the characters in The Office is beside the point. I know all too well the crushing boredom and mindless repetition of the white collar drone. There's a pretty fair chance that you know it, too. In only 14 episodes, Gervais and Stephen Merchant created a hopeless work atmosphere in fictional Wernham-Hogg's Slough branch, complete with unlikeable suck-ups, unrequited love, an irritating and perpetually clueless boss, pointless regulations, and all the drivel that comes with being forced into business relationships with people whom you would never dream of knowing in your personal life. Nearly all of us have been there. The Office merely let us laugh at other people forced to endure it for a change. But only for 14 episodes. That's all they needed.
If you live in the United States, are fairly unversed in the 'British way' of creating TV sitcoms, and you perused the aforementioned 2004 BBC poll of Britain's Best Sitcoms, you might be quite struck by something. The quality of their programs, it would seem, are given much more attention than the quantity of their episodes. Of the 100 top sitcoms chosen, only five ever reached the 100 episode milestone. Of the series I mentioned above, Keeping Up Appearances saw a 44 episode run and Are You Being Served? was practically a workhorse, churning out 69 episodes before its end. On the lower end, Black Adder managed 24 episodes and Fawlty Towers only 12. (12!!!) So The Office's catalog of 14 episodes is hardly newsworthy in Great Britain.
This brings me, finally and in a rather roundabout way, to the average American's viewing habits. In no way, shape, or form would a comedy series halted after 14 episodes ever be considered a success in the United States. The pressure to churn out a large output of new material within successful series in this country is constant and unyielding. And it is this constant 'American' need for new material and new stimulation that has doomed our adaptation of The Office.
The American adaptation of The Office is now in its eighth season. On December 8th, its most recent episode, titled "Christmas Wishes", was broadcast, the 162nd episode of the series. The exploits of Pennsylvania paper company Dunder-Mifflin has now run over 10 times longer than its original Wernham-Hogg forebears. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a recipe for disaster, but Gervais and Merchant, to put it directly, knew when to stop. Greg Daniels and NBC have, to put it directly, not. Worse, and for the sake of the almighty dollar and the advertising power of The Office, it has evidently been decided that flogging Dunder-Mifflin's office staff to the point of caricaturist buffoonery is not only acceptable, but commendable. And the show's earliest backers have suffered the most for it.
Perhaps no other program in recent television history has seen its life stretched out ad nauseum and for slighter reasons than The Office. Imagine, if you will, that a fledgling series bases nearly its entire emotional core around a single relationship. Two people work at the same office, have feelings for each other, but cannot (for whatever reason) be together. The series is ostensibly about the soul-crushing office environment and the interactions between its broken-down occupants, but what it's really about is the heartbreaking longing between two people who may never be together, a sweet and fragile love story hiding inside an amusing look at the monotonous drudgery of corporate life. Will love be strong enough to overcome the various obstacles blocking its way? Or will these two tragic figures hopelessly pine for one another forever? In the original version of the show, Wernham-Hogg's Tim and Dawn ultimately do surmount said obstacles at the end of the second season and share a kiss, ushering in a long-awaited romance. It is then that the British series thinks it best to sign off, allowing its fans to mentally envision the distant future of the show themselves. In the American version of the show, interestingly, Tim & Dawn's counterparts (Jim & Pam) also share a kiss at the end of the second season. Is this finally love as well? Is our wish of seeing Pam kick Roy, her oafish, sexist, mindnumbing caveman of a fiance, to the curb granted, much as Dawn did to her fiance Lee? In short, do we Americans get our happy ending, too?
Not hardly. At the onset of the show's third season, Pam explained to Jim that her wedding to Roy would go forward as planned. And The Office signaled its intention of staying around for the long haul, beginning a bizarre decline that is six years (and counting) in the making. Oh, Pam does eventually dump Roy in Season 3, after becoming fed up with his boorish behavior, but not before Jim has transferred to the Stamford branch of Dunder-Mifflin, escaping from his heartache. Eventually, Jim and his new girlfriend Karen are transferred back to Scranton, creating an awkward love triangle. This potentially-interesting situation fizzles out at the end of the third season and, by the onset of season 4, Jim and Pam are officially in love and happily dating. They have been together ever since and, as of the middle of season 8, are married and expecting their second child. The event that we hoped to witness, the reason that we started watching in the first place, happened years ago. And yet the show has churned on, searching in greater and greater desperation for inspired stories. Where The Office once had the feel of a mockumentary, it has transformed into something not unlike one of the United States' aged and melodramatic soap operas, running for what feels like decades of perpetuity and with no end in sight.
To even conceive of such a thing happening in the program's British version is bordering on blasphemous. But that is far from its' only problem. As viewers lost interest in the Jim & Pam characters after their dreams came true, their boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) slowly replaced them as the show's main attraction. Brilliantly played by Carell, Scott is less vicious than Ricky Gervais' David Brent. He certainly never did anything as mean-spirited as pretending to fire his receptionist for the purpose of ill-advised humor, as Brent did to Dawn Tinsley in the British version's first episode. But Scott is at least as petulant, and probably more so, than Brent ever was, once ordering Jim to "take Christmas away from Stanley" after being dumped by girlfriend Carol.
Many of Michael's actions provoked shocked laughter in the show's early days, but they took on a meaner air in its latter run as the writers endeavored to one-up Michael's earlier antics. In fact, several late series episodes' main plot points are kickstarted purely due to decisions made by Scott motivated by simple jealousy or dissembling spite. As amusing as the Michael Scott character was, and as wonderfully as Carell portrayed him, the show's writers once again found themselves unable to leave well enough alone. Immersed in a series originally borne of the idea that workplace environments are so dreadfully dull and pedantic that a veritable gold mine of ironic humor is lying in wait, the show's comic atmosphere was subsequently turned on its head by the decision to gradually make Michael Scott the 'Rain Man' of sitcom protagonists. Depending on a specific episode's situation, Scott is either a clever and calculating genius who saves the day or a shockingly immature and grudge-holding man-child who purposely throws his branch into chaos for ridiculous non-reasons. The number of times I watched a scene and said "if anyone did that in real life, they'd be fired in a millisecond" could credibly be listed in the dozens. As more and more episodes were ordered by NBC, more and more ridiculous scenarios were explored, until the program's absurdist realism slowly morphed into a cartoonish cacophony of stupidity.
Am I being too hard on the show? No, I'm not. Remember that the entire premise of The Office is the toleration of office politics and relationships. The very reason for the show's conception is the ability of so many of us to relate to the people within the program. Unlike so many other sitcoms, it has consistently marketed itself via this thread of backbreaking realism. Short of winning the lottery or landing an inheritance, nearly all of us have been made to suffer through at least one nightmarish job populated by oddballs, freaks, and Napoleonic middle managers. The Office owes its very existence to this widespread commonness between work environments. Thanks to the remarkable staying power of the show, however, character arcs were eventually created that went entirely against its original approach; events that would never, and could never, happen in real life...
Ryan (BJ Novak) begins the show as a temp at Dunder-Mifflin, works his way up the ladder to an upper level management position, is fired due to drug use and fixing the company's books, and ends up back at the Scranton branch as a temp again. Somewhat funny on paper, impossible in practice. Dwight (the incomparable Rainn Wilson) attempts on several occasions to seize managerial power from Michael only to be thwarted with no serious repercussions. Upon feeling threatened by a new boss, Michael quits and creates a rival 'paper company' which operates out of a supply closet. Even though his new company is an utter failure and complete non-entity, Dunder-Mifflin upper management somehow decides the new Michael Scott Paper Company is a danger to their bottom line. They not only buy Michael off with a handsome offer, but they also give him his old job back and fire his boss, per his demands. Oh, if only real life worked that way. Despite The Office's desperate attempts to emulate realism, very little of it has made rational sense of late. As such, very little of it has been funny.
But make no mistake - the worst affront to the program's original intent is the character arc of Jim & Pam. It is difficult to describe unless you've seen it; if you have, you already know what I'm talking about. Everybody knows that couple that they used to be acquainted with, even friends with, long ago; the nice couple in love who were just starting out, looking to buy a house and start a family. Do you remember when you saw them again five years later and you barely recalled why you even wanted to know them in the first place, because they were completely insufferable husks of their former selves? Jim & Pam Halpert, everybody.
Nothing is as nauseating and head-shakingly unexplainable in the whole of Office trivia as the utter decimation of these two characters. Over the course of eight years, Jim has slowly morphed from an easygoing, jokey slacker into a corporate stooge, a tense and angry dickhead, and an overwhelmed and miserable father and husband. Meaning to turn a meek and shy Pam into a strong woman, the writers rowed too hard to the other side, instead transforming her into a pushy, loudmouthed shrew who has spent the good portion of The Office's latter half in a state of constant pregnancy, hormonal imbalance, and vying with husband Jim for the title of 'Biggest & Smarmiest Asshole in the World'. To say that the bottom of the barrel has been scraped clean of domestic jokes is an understatement. While the first two seasons left the viewer pining for Jim and Pam to find true happiness, it would seem that they found reality instead.
Marriage, a house, kids, arguments, bills, fights. While the writers have allowed their surrounding work environment to become unrealistically campy and ridiculous, Jim and Pam's relationship is so 'real' as to strip all of its earlier magic away entirely to make room for more 'fat Pam' jokes. Oh, the hilarity. Nobody cares about these people anymore. Nobody should. I used to think that the worst the show's writers could do would be to make me think the show just wasn't that funny anymore. I never dreamed that they'd be so misguided in their approach as to make me hate Jim and Pam. Have I misunderstood a slowly-evolving character study? Is the underlying idea behind the bastardization of "Jam" that their jobs and babies and overall life directions have turned the couple into what they have always tried hardest to avoid? I can entertain that possibility. But it's not comedy. And if it's supposed to be, it's really not working. I whooped and hollered with friends when Jim and Pam kissed on "Casino Night" at the end of Season 2. Now they could be crushed by a falling piano and I'd barely care about it.
No matter what criticisms I lob at the burned-out hulk of the show that used to be The Office, I doubt I can fully quantify its precipitous fall from grace. It's hardly anything I can relay here in its entirety. Only if you saw it as it was, and what it has now become, could you fully understand. As the show now slogs through its eighth season, the show is enduring its worst ratings since Season 1, albeit still among NBC's highest (which is all that matters, evidently). Michael Scott is gone, Steve Carell having left the show at the end of his seven-season contract. The 'search' for his replacement at the end of Carell's run created a cliched opportunity to feature celebrity one-offs (often one of a flagging series' many death knells) from such well-known actors as Jim Carrey and Ray Romano. Andy Bernard, the third-season add-on of Ed Helms, ultimately became the new Scranton branch manager, and is nothing if not a one-note, one trick pony of incredibly misplaced optimism and ineptness. No wonder Dunder-Mifflin has barely managed to survive. Anyone placed in a position of power within the company eventually turns insane and/or unexplainably moronic, regardless of their previous personality traits. Show me a single example of it not happening. I dare you.
The secondary office characters long ago receded into the background as the thinnest of characterizations; though with Carell gone, it has been hinted that they will finally be given their long awaited and proper due in The Office's declining years. Kevin is fat and stupid, Angela is bitchy and loves cats, Meredith is a drunk, Erin is annoyingly cheerful, Oscar is gay, Stanley is a lethargic grouch, Creed is a creepy old eccentric, etc. It's hardly possible to add many brush strokes to these characterizations after eight years. What's done is done. I can only wonder if the cast and crew of The Office ever wished they worked in an environment conducive to going 'out on top', as did their British counterparts. Unfortunately, that ship has long since sailed.
Realist humor only works when the joke is based on something real. Absurdist humor only works when it contains a kernel of truth. These are the comedic foundations upon which the original show was built upon and which the American version borrowed heavily from in its infancy. In the years that have followed, however, watered down plots, oversaturation, the ratings chase, and a rather-uniquely American need for more, more, MORE installments of a series have crumbled those foundations and reduced it to what you see today, a mere shadow of its former self. A three or four season run would have been more than sufficient to give the characters of The Office all the visibility they could possibly need and to allow them to ride off into the sunset on top, a la Arrested Development. But instead, exhausted and disappointed viewers have left in droves, with the remaining diehards forced to witness the dismal decline of what used to be a fiercely satirical and brilliant program.
There have been bright spots amongst the gloom, surely. Occasionally, the old magic has been all too briefly captured. Jim and Pam's wedding was a happy occasion, despite my grumblings about their characters. In particular, Michael's departure was a bittersweet, and perfectly done, sendoff to one of television's greatest modern age characters. But these moments have been far too uncommon and the drab doldrums in between have thrust into even starker relief the fact that the show is sadly inferior to its earlier, sharper days. I used to love The Office. At one point, I considered it my favorite current television program. Now it is just another show, successful only via its remembered residual popularity and its feverish race to the bottom and common-man mediocrity. It has now come to the point that one hopes the series will just be put out of its misery soon, before it gets any worse. The Office, to put it bluntly, has just become too long and hard to take. That's what she said.
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