History Comes Out of a Hat

The Office

(WARNING: Spoilers Below)

The Office finale poster

It took me a while to get into the American remake of The Office. It’s hard to compare anything to the crushing desperation and awkwardness of the original with Ricky Gervais. When I first started watching the remake I couldn’t help thinking it was cheap slapstick. But as the American version went on it developed its own style, and the length of the show has given it the chance to create far more intricate characters than the original. I would be hard-pressed to pin any themes on the original. It is a beautiful, rambling, themeless slice of depression and self-loathing, to be enjoyed like a shot of particularly nasty liqueur. That’s not the case with the American version. Americans demand a story, but the script-writers here have been surprisingly clever. The story they gave us isn’t the one we expected.

The Office gives the impression it’s about the success of star-crossed love. It isn’t. Let’s start with Pam Beesly and Jim Halpert, the love story that drives the first three seasons. Pam is perpetually engaged to Roy, her inadequate boyfriend, while Jim pines away for her. It’s a beautiful love story. Our two lovers are together physically, but oceans apart emotionally. The tension is riveting, and our reaction when they finally get together is exuberant. It is a long-delayed and much deserved victory for the good guys.

But is it destiny? Was it always going to happen? No. People are fallible, and in the ninth season Jim began to drift away and mistreat Pam as badly as Roy did. My own suspicion is that they only work as a couple when they’re united by adversity. When they’re both drudges at Dunder Mifflin they’re partners in crime. But separate them from their jobs and the love dies. And who steps in? In a stroke of genius, the writers reveal a second Jim who has been pining away for Pam for nine whole years without ever saying a word. We were never even aware he existed, although he was there in every episode — Brian, the boom guy. His passion for Pam is painfully obvious and just as frustrated as Jim’s ever was. Because the world isn’t full of pefect couples — it’s full of replacements.

All of a sudden we’re surrounded by Jims — the victims of frustrated crushes. What Jim and Pam have is not so special, so much so that their exact love story begins to play out again, not just reflected in Brian the sound guy but also in Pete and Erin, Darryl and Val, Michael and Holly, and Kelly and Ryan. Erin’s love story is deliciously similar. She is the receptionist, like Pam was, and is in a relationship with the neglectful Andy. Pete is an office worker who pines away with love for Erin that he can’t express, until Erin comes to her senses and leaves Andy. The other couples follow similar courses, although they do get less screen time. Jim/Pam weren’t the original star-crossed couple, the archetype on which the whole nine-year series was built. In a brilliant cross-over, season seven gave us Michael Scott meeting David Brent, the boss from the U.K. version of The Office. This implies that we’re not really watching a remake — we’re seeing two offices that exist in the same world. If that is the case, then Jim and Pam from Dunder Mifflin are really just retreading the footsteps of Tim and Dawn from Wernham Hogg. They are not even the originals in their own story.

Jim and Pam’s faltering owes its existence to the fact that Steve Carell is no longer on the scene. Carell is a fine actor who did a bang-up job as Michael Scott. But with a movie star like Carell and a narcissistic attention-hog like Scott, he was always going to dominate the show. Carell is too big not to use and Scott is too narcissistic not to make himself the center of attention in every scene. Carell made a difficult but inspired decision to leave when he did, because in his absence the show has blossomed into something far cleverer. It’s like when a big tree falls down in the forest, suddenly all the smaller plants have enough sunlight to grow. The turmoil between Jim and Pam has only been possible because they can have more screen time. Dwight, always the best character of the show, has flourished into a bigger and more brilliant and more bizarre comic creation.

Dwight is actually the gift that keeps on giving. You can color in more and more of Dwight’s background, and like a fractal it only grows. He’s a painting that is never finished, and every new flourish to his character is insane and hilarious. You can put Dwight in absolutely any situation and get instant comedy. Jim, by comparison, was painted into a corner. His relationship with Pam demanded so much screen time that there wasn’t been enough time to let him do anything else. As a result, he is a rather boring character. Yes, he’s funny and in love, which gave him an instant likeability at the start, but nine years later that shtick wore thin. It is no mistake that Rainn Wilson gets top billing (and pride of place in the advertising). If The Office has a protagonist, it’s Dwight Schrute.

As The Office prepared to shut its doors, they pulled out some interesting stops. Aside from the Jim/Pam problems, the documentary itself has finally become part of the show. We always knew the central conceit in The Office was that we were watching a documentary — hence all the looks to camera and talking heads. But then Brian the boom guy crossed over from being behind the camera to being a subject in his own show. Then the documentary was completed and ready to air. It’s been a pleasure to see it unfold because it’s never been given much attention until now. In fact it’s been given so little attention that there are very obviously staged shots that no real fly-on-the-wall crew could have taken (e.g. when a camera appears in a closed elevator that didn’t have a cameraman in it when the doors shut.) It’s the same twist of post-modernism that has allowed Tim and Dawn’s relationship to be mirrored in Jim/Pam and Erin/Pete.

Now that the series has wrapped, the question is how well did they handle the ending? It’s hard to say. For a start I was uncomfortable with how Jim and Pam made up. Their big resolution happened off-camera between episodes, giving us a couple on the verge of breaking up one minute and suddenly happy again the next. This is an unsatisfying turn for something we’ve been following for so long. To make it really mean something, Jim and Pam really had to be dragged across the coals. That never happened, and the perfect vehicle for coal-dragging, Brian the boom guy, was completely forgotten.

Then there’s also the long end of the finale, in which every character gets to say a few poignant words to camera. I can’t help feeling that too much talking spoils the mood. There’s a very handy direct comparison here with the ending of the U.K. Office, which is by contrast almost wordless. The final lines from Tim are ambiguous and the final lines from Brent are waffle, like everything else he’s ever said. Instead those speeches get drowned out by the emotion of the final scene in which Tim and Dawn are reunited to the tune of Yazoo’s “Only You”. The snatches of dialog that we do catch are banal. Life goes on as it always has but, miraculously, something has finally begun to change.

The crushing oppression relieved by a tiny glimmer of light is an experience far more exciting and genuine than the happily-ever-after of the American version. But I can’t let a clunky ending upset nine years of solid programming, no more than I can hold its clunky start against it. In the middle, sandwiched between two slightly ugly book-ends, are nine years’ worth of gems.

This entry was posted in Literature, Television.

2 Comments

  1. Fauntleroy

    Posted | Permalink

    This blog post ended up being better than either of the two shows! Bravo!

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