On Loving Things Beyond Their Prime.

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The thing with a lot of beloved shows–and I’m not talking about those critical darlings that get canceled after a season or two, I’m talking about the shows you live with, that settle into the warm wet caverns of your heart–is that they tend to outstay their welcome. Every show is going to come up empty someday, it’ll run out of story or its universe will expand past a manageable point or the comedy that once danced across the screen en pointe will broaden until it’s thudding about in combat boots. But because they’re beloved, they often keep going past the point where they should be let go. 

Over my life of watching really quite a lot of television, I’ve seen this happen to a lot of shows. Gilmore Girls, The OC, Scrubs, Friends, and The West Wing, to name a few, and more recently The Office. It’s not always a drastic decline (the later seasons of Friends are still good, still funny, but they aren’t memorable the way those early seasons are. There’s no “The One With the Embryos,” no “The One Where Everybody Finds Out”), nor is it always permanent. The eighth season of Scrubs is actually kind of delightful (and I’ll come down in favor of season 9, too, though only when I think of it as a loopier spin-off), and The West Wing eventually figured out how to be a version of itself without Aaron Sorkin at the helm. The fourth season of The OC may actually be better than the first, though that might just be my feelings for Taylor Townsend talking.

One of the perks of being a completist such as myself (look, I’m the girl that watched all nine seasons of One Tree Hill. I still watch Glee.) is that, while you do see the descents into mediocrity, you’re also around for the final inning turn-around (is this a thing? Like a sports metaphor thing?). There’s something about a show with the finish line in sight that can bring about a creative resurgence. Maybe it has to do with the potential for rest once everything’s finished–I suspect that’s what’s brought about Tina Fey’s general aura of calm on 30 Rock this season–or maybe it’s having a goal to work toward, but time and again I’ve seen shows that are officially on their way out stick their landing, even after stumbling mid-routine. (Seriously, what’s with the sports metaphors?)

And though I’m hesitant to say it, for fear of a jinx or at least that I’ll be proved wrong, I think that may well be happening with The Office.

You know what I said above, about shows you live with? Well, The Office is a show I live with. I came in in the spring of 2006, during a spring break spent huddled beneath my comforter with my laptop and the painful love story of Jim and Pam. I’m the girl that gets defensive when you say The Office isn’t as good as it used to be. Even when I know you’re right. (And I’ve got nothing on my roommate, the die hard. When I say The Office is like a religion in our apartment, and that’s something I say a lot, I’m not kidding.)

But okay, The Office isn’t as good as it used to be. The cast has grown unwieldy, introducing new characters without saying goodbye to many old ones, and trying to service each of them in equal measure, with mixed results. Andy’s character seems to vary depending on what’s needed that week, and I hold by my opinion that Darryl should have taken over as Dunder Mifflin Scranton’s regional manager when Michael departed, though I do feel that he’s one of the few secondary characters that has been well-serviced in these later years, used sparingly enough to still have comedic impact, and maintaining the hopeful sadness that made The Office so good in the first place. The feeling that pervaded those first few seasons, that these were people stuck together trying to make it through each day on whatever joy they could find, that hasn’t really been a part of the show in awhile.

While there are specific things about these last few seasons that I flat-out love (Pam’s developing confidence manifesting as out-and-out dorkiness, the season-to-season evolution of Ryan Howard, the love story of Jim and Dwight, every single damn thing about Erin, also Gabe), I do miss the way The Office used to make me ache. The romanticized disappointment, the way everything from Jim’s pranks to the central conflict of any given episode seemed to exist on a smaller, more personal scale. There’s an episode in season 2 where everyone tries to cheer Kevin up while he waits for biopsy results, another episode where we get to see how each character responds to Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Back then everyone had bad hair, they talked about their weekend plans, they loved the receptionist from the other side of her desk. These were the people you might pass in the grocery store, and they happened to be followed around by a camera crew.

Especially so late in the show’s run, I think it’s easy to forget the importance of the documentary format to The Office. In the early seasons, the show took its format very seriously, and adhered to strict rules when it came to the way they filmed. These days those rules have relaxed a bit, and we’re also more used to the format, with shows like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family embracing mockumentary story-telling, and Community and Leverage mocking it fondly. The filmmakers on The Office are characters, too. We may not hear them speak, but they’re behind the story. When Jim flashes a look at the camera, or Pam asks for help with a spy mission, they are interacting with a person. Unless the camera is actively hidden from its subject(s), and there have been some notable occasions over the years when this was the case, any time a character is on screen, they have an awareness that the camera is there. Its presence helps to prescribe their actions. And any time any character sits down for a talking head interview, there’s another unseen character controlling the narrative–asking the questions and choosing how the answers are portrayed. I could probably count on one hand the number of times The Office has acknowledged those characters, though.

Which is maybe why it was so exciting to finally hear from one of the cameramen in this year’s premiere, to step back from a talking head to hear Pam and Jim interact with a man they see almost every day. And to get an answer as to why exactly the cameras are still there 9 years later. Of course Jim and Pam have always been the heart of the series, though they’ve been shifted off to the side since the whole wedding/baby thing (check out the deleted scenes from seasons 7 and 8. There are entire plot-lines of Jim/Pam stuff that got dropped along the way), but having someone behind the narrative announce that their story is what’s keeping the cameras around–that’s given The Office a center to cling to as it winds down this year.

We talk a lot about how reality tv is only loosely related to the actual real world, how it’s scripted and edited to heighten drama at the expense of actual events. I think you have to view The Office similarly. As someone who has spent probably too many hours pondering whether the whole Jim/Pam love story might have been crafted out of skilled editing–you know, before they became an actual couple, back when it was all longing looks and careful smiles (there’s a really charming web series called Dorm Life that did precisely that with it’s will-they-or-won’t-they romance)–I’m intrigued by this angle. Like any reality show, The Office‘s story is told in the editor’s booth.

So now that the filmmakers have essentially announced that they’re handing the narrative over to Jim and Pam, this season has a center that season 8, as it scrambled to make up for the loss of Michael Scott, never managed. With an end in sight, they can finally write Jim and Pam toward a long-overdue departure from Dunder Mifflin without having to worry about losing their actors, and they can give them a meaty story with actual stakes for the characters, both separately and together. And they can also use Jim and Pam as the foundation to tell stories about the rest of the office.

Over the last few seasons, The Office has tried really hard to make new couples work as the next Jim and Pam. They tried with Michael and Holly and they tried with Andy and Erin, and while both pairings had their charms, they never quite captured the combination of quiet angst and chemistry that made Jim and Pam so captivating, especially in those early seasons.

This season, though, as they bring the overall narrative full circle, they’ve introduced the idea that Andy may not be Erin’s Jim so much as her Roy. Erin’s become an increasingly nuanced character over the last few seasons, as they’ve fleshed out her backstory as a foster kid and pulled her past the dumb, earnest cliché to show how she’s growing up, how her emotional intelligence may be more developed than her book smarts, and how many of her decisions are motivated by a desire for love and family. Especially since the Florida arc last season, she’s grown into an actual person, rather than just another character around the office.

I said that The Office has suffered from its constantly expanding cast, but in introducing Pete and Clark this season, they’ve figured out how to reflect mirror images back at Jim and Dwight. Clark’s resemblance to Dwight is more physical than philosophical, but Pete–or Plop–doesn’t just look like Jim. From his work-related apathy to his sartorial style to his developing crush on the receptionist, Pete is a glimpse at the guy Jim used to be, back before he got the girl.

Thursday night’s episode, “The Boat,” was one of the best the show has turned out in awhile. The prank on Dwight was on the larger scale of these later seasons, but it was a nice show-case for Catherine Tate’s talents, used Darryl perfectly, and was ultimately not as mean-spirited as it could have been. The resolution of Dwight’s phone-call, with the entire office applauding him for saving the day, brought to mind the end of “Office Olympics,” in season 2, and Michael’s gold medal in condo-closing.

The Oscar-Kevin-Angela plot actively used the documentary format, played with the dynamics that have always existed in Dunder Mifflin’s accounting department, employed just the right amount of Toby’s sad-sack comedy, and ended in a fantastic talking head from Kevin. His sobbing laughter as he realized that Angela’s entire life was a sham was as dark as The Office has ever been.

But it was the episode’s tag that really got me. The conversation between Erin and Pete at the reception desk could have literally been a lost Jim/Pam scene from the early seasons, in fact it closely resembles a conversation that they had in the pilot where Jim invited Pam out to happy hour. And this idea that history is repeating itself kind of nails what The Office used to be about–the monotonous daily grind, the way life keeps pushing forward, and the way you find the small things that make you happy so you can make it through the day.

I don’t know what The Office will do with these final 16 episodes, but I do know that I’m excited by the show for the first time in awhile. I’m excited to see how the developing conflict between Jim and Pam plays out, to see what Oscar’s affair does to his relationship with Angela, to see if the writers can figure out what they’re doing with Andy, and to see what happens with Erin and Pete. I’ve been invested in this story since 2006, I want to see how it ends, and if it keeps going the way it’s been going, I have some pretty high hopes.

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2 comments

  1. jessicaevekennedy

    I really agree that The Boat was the strongest in a very long time. I actually laughed out loud, and they finally made use of Catherine Tate. The prank, just in that it was so warm and silly in nature, was just what I loved when I first started the show and would love to see more of. As someone who has never been a fan of Erin, as well, I’m starting to warm up to her – and like the idea of her and Pete a lot. While I’m very giddy with excitement over the pleasing direction the season has taken, the number one best thing about the show right now is that it is funny again! Really, properly funny.

  2. Ari

    This is one of my favorite of your posts, I think; it’s like opening a window on a common ~issue for shows that helps me to see them in better light: it genuinely makes me want to watch the closing season of The Office even though I stopped watching earlier after Season 5, makes me excited about the storyline as a whole, all eight seasons even though they’re not done, makes me curious. It’s almost as if I’m having a better reaction to taking a show’s run and analyzing it in my head a little more like a book, with weaknesses and strengths, but still wanting to finish it… in the past few years I’ve rarely been watching anything that’s not complete already (Parks and Rec is the one exception; HIMYM I guess is in there too although I feel it is increasingly disappointing but I’ll be interested to see what it’s like when it ends) and I’m glad for the completists whose opinions I trust.

    “they can give them a meaty story with actual stakes for the characters, both separately and together. And they can also use Jim and Pam as the foundation to tell stories about the rest of the office.” I am excited about this! I’m also excited to hear this about Erin and pleased that they’ve done right by some of these characters I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to know, and to see how they’re accepting these Roles in the office and playing on them, that’s neat to hear as a lapsed watcher, too. “these were people stuck together trying to make it through each day on whatever joy they could find” is something I haven’t heard precisely in so many words in reference to this show, all that much (not that I read about it much either, but even so), but on reading it I know that’s what I loved about it most.

    I also just fyi think this post is another really good example of your being brilliant at talking about television. This is seriously good criticism that brings out the positive in these shows (mostly ‘this show’) you love (…you’re the reason I watched The Office in the first place!), it feels completely worth it to stick by the story. [I’ve felt the same, rewatching later episodes of Gilmore Girls and thinking about later reflections on it.] You are fantastic at this.

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