Tuned In

The Office Watch: Lowering the Boom Mic

Well, things got real there awfully quick.

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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.

10 comments
MyCah
MyCah

My thought is that the writers are juxtaposing the very evident relationship troubles of Andy and Erin to the covered up, unspoken trouble that Jim and Pam are in. This is sad, but could the new character play a Pete role in which both Erin and Pam will have to choose between two people? I hope not, because the show has been building on this relationship for the entire series, so to see it jeopardized in the last episodes would be disappointing. You cannot help but notice, though, how Pam immediately turns to the new character for his support. It's obviously something she has discussed with him before.

At any rate, this episode was by far one of the best this season and one of the better ones in the entire series. If the writers can end the show on this type of high, they will have done their fans proud.


blacksailscoord
blacksailscoord

Really well put and thank you.  I was hoping someone would call attention to what a momentous and thoughtful episode of television this was...  No matter how stupid it was to put Andy in charge as boss a couple years ago, I am back to believing the writers of the Office are exceptionally clever.  Wondering if Gervais and Merchant had any of these ideas to begin with?

At any rate, it was SO nice.  Such a great example of emotionally charged but subtle acting on Jenna's part.  Bravo Office.

thesleepingcobra
thesleepingcobra

I just thought it cracked the spirit of the show to have the people behind the fourth wall be in-shape, young, hip people (even if that's actually the real camera people or whatever).  Hip, diet-style LA types with cropped beards wouldn't be shooting this thing in the first place (in a realistic mythology, which is what they are trying to create).  Wrong move, Office.

KatieKate
KatieKate

This is EXACTLY how I felt watching this episode.  Thanks so much for putting it into a clear perspective for me. 

I have been thinking Jim's move to a new company would be a perfect way to do a spin-off, especially since Darryl is following him.  But I wondered about how Pam would fit.  Seems like this might bring another dimension to that.  The writers and Pam did a terrific job.

LacyM
LacyM

I have had very similar arguments with my husband, and I have also tried so hard not to cry just like that. Jenna really nailed it.

BabetteCanton
BabetteCanton

The best part of The Office has always been how the characters have so much heart for each other.  That has been sorely lacking in the past few seasons.  Michael may have been an idiot because he was completely immature, but a lot of his foolishness came from his desire to be part of a family, which he put on all of them.  Pam and Jim used to be people we rooted for not just because of their burgeoning romance, but because they would take personal hits on behalf of others and know when to step in for support.  

Tonight we got to see two instances of humanity: First Nellie stepping in to save Erin and Andy's relationship, and then her going backwards after Toby pointed out that Andy hasn't been there for Erin and trying to put Erin and Pete together.  That was kind of beautiful since Nellie has been something of a psychopath and it's good to see her chill out during this season.  The other instance was Jim and Pam's fight ending up in Pam having no one to turn to but the crew, and Brian stepping up to protect her.  

Of course this is going to cause problems in that I think that Brian was played by Chris Diamantopoulos, and you're not going to get that guy to play a role like that unless something is going to come of it.  When she started breaking down, she looked specifically toward him and asked, "What am I doing wrong, Brian?"  Clearly over the years she has gotten to know the crew and somewhere along the way she started confiding in Brian.  

Maybe he's the crew member particularly close to Jim and Pam and it's all innocent, but emotional affairs can occur when you become too friendly with someone of the opposite sex who is not your husband.  Pam needs to tread lightly, but I think this is where the show is going.  It's hard to see, but it's brilliant television. Kudos writers for being brave enough to tread these waters.  It's been a long time since The Office has done something so risky and in this last season, it is sorely needed.

unwiredben
unwiredben like.author.displayName 1 Like

I actually paused this on the Tivo in the middle of the argument and wondered aloud to my wife about the doc crew -- couldn't Pam ask them for a copy of Cici's performance, since they'd been shooting her.  Then, to have the whole scene suddenly involve them was so surreal -- I almost thought they were going to volunteer to help, but I'm glad for the direction.

BabetteCanton
BabetteCanton

@unwiredben I thought the same thing too.  We saw the camera swing around to catch the performance and Cece's dance.  I thought, "Uh Jim, call the heck down. Just ask Pam to ask the crew to upload it. That would be nothing to them."

ripvansabre
ripvansabre

I laughed out loud at the Dunder Code and the pull-back reveal of the worker with 'the grail'. 

The phone argument was 'too real/uncomfortable' - especially the wordless reaction Pam gave Brian before he was on-screen. Very well played and - based on the reaction on social media - very effective at shaking people's faith in Jim and Pam's marriage.