Spoilers for last night’s The Office below:
Well, things got real there awfully quick.
By “real” I’m not referring to the reality-TV element of The Office, or rather, the sudden crash through the fourth wall at the end of “Customer Loyalty” to bring in the film crew. But in the last few, tough-to-watch minutes of the episode, the sitcom showed the stakes behind its characters’ paper-pushing lives in a way it hasn’t since Michael Scott left Scranton.
After Steve Carell left, I thought that The Office might have had an opportunity in making Jim Michael’s replacement as boss, which would push him to face a conflict the show introduced early on: does he really want Dunder-Mifflin to be his life, rather than just a job? Is this all he is?
The show decided not to go in that direction–it had toyed with it earlier when it made Jim the temporary boss, then seemed to back off from the potential darkness of that story. Instead, Andy was boss, and then (essentially) no one was boss, and The Office became less of a poignant comedy/light-drama and more of a wacky ensemble show.
That hasn’t necessarily been awful; I actually think the show had been on a decent roll this season, and mini-arcs like last season’s Florida trip showed off the deep bench the show has established. The Office could still be good, but it was only ever great when it acknowledged that all its characters, however funny, were real people with problems that mattered and dreams that they might have to recognize would not be fulfilled.
For most of the half-hour, “Customer Loyalty” was the wacky ensemble show. But in that final, terrific phone fight between Jim and Pam, you could all but hear the old machinery waking up and sliding into place. This was one of the more naturalistic marital fights I’ve seen on TV in a while: it started with a piece of news, got sidetracked by a small conflict, then derailed and turned into a showdown about everything. It was believable in its arc and its parameters; even as they each lose patience with each other, Jim and Pam aren’t the yelling type–and yet that “We’ll talk tomorrow” was somehow more devastating than an explosive hangup would have been.
Jim and Pam each want something different, and making those things compatible is not going to be easy. The Office has left Pam’s art ambitions aside for a long time, but it turns out it hasn’t forgotten them. And having her start to realize her ambition exactly in time to have it be completely subordinated to Jim’s business dream is devastating. She can’t share the good news about the mural with him; when she does, it’s probably going to conflict with his plan to move the family to Philly. Even getting the phone call she’s been waiting for ends up marking her as a bad mother in the eyes of the other parents in the audience.
Pam’s been busting her ass to keep it together, and in the end, it’s not enough. What she’s dealing with, really, is not just a fight with Jim or even the pressure of being a part-time solo parent. It’s the implicit demand that she negate herself—that her job is to keep the home fires burning and get the recital recorded and her art career? Well, she already had her shot, didn’t she? “You agreed to this,” Jim says, which is maybe technically true but ignores the way he sprang some of the details of the Philly arrangement on her.
(Jim’s side of the argument is also well modulated: he’s being a bit of a dick, but you can see that he’s feeling understandable pressure, and he does want the best for his family, and it kills him to miss Cece’s recital, and you can see him trying to keep it together here, and yet, yeah—still being kind of a dick. Update: Incidentally, watching the episode again, there’s also a retroactive poignance to the hilarious cold-open, in which Dwight comes upon a prank left for him years ago by a younger Jim—the same Jim who would have greeted Pam’s good news with an excited, “Beasley!” “I would have expected more from you, young Halpert” indeed.)
Now, how does this go forward? I like the idea of bringing in the fact of the documentary as a factor in the show, acknowledging its presence and effects on the characters. I don’t know if I’m going to like the idea of making Brian an actual player in the events, if indeed that’s where the show is going. (Should Jim be worried about another man’s boom mic?) Not because I don’t want Pam and Jim to have marriage troubles–again, if that’s where this is going–but because, with the show already having nine years’ worth of character and story amassed, I worry it will undermine the story arc to have it depend heavily on somebody we just learned existed.
But I’d rather be worried about The Office in this way than be comfortable with it. NBC is giving us an example right now, in 30 Rock, of a sitcom ending a long run strong by returning to its roots. Here’s hoping The Office does too. It’s a show about work, but it’s also a show about dreams. Pursuing your dreams isn’t always comfortable. And neither—when it’s at its best—is watching The Office.