When the American version of The Office first aired what feels now like fifty years ago, it was a charming little show. It wasn’t groundbreaking, Anglophiles and film students kept reminding us, it was only a faded copy of the greatness that the Ricky Gervais’ The Office had been, but to the viewers of network TV comedy it was a bemused reflection of the ordinary dramas of an ordinary workplace. The boss was an idiot, but whose boss isn’t? Dwight, the weird guy who grew beets and was obsessed with self defense was a variation of that weird guy in the office most of us have come into contact with at one point or another. The “will they or won’t they” romance between Pam, the receptionist and Jim, a paper salesman was sweet and hopeful. All the ordinary people expressing their subtle or not so subtle strangeness was delicate and mild, like a vanilla latte.
And then the years dragged on and on and on..and on. What had been a bunch of wacky young or youngish people became a group of older people in a place they didn’t care about surrounded by coworkers they didn’t really respect, led by a man who craved their love more than the success of the company. The Michael Scott of season one was quirky and aggravating, but the odd selection of replacements that has followed (James Spader, Catherine Tate, Ed Helms) have cranked the quirk level up as the subtlety of the show has decreased. It never was a great show, but somewhere around the time Jim and Pam finally got together, it became the sitcom it always pretended it wasn’t - a relationship comedy in the vein of Friends or Two and A Half Men.
Yes, I said it. I invoked Two and a Half Men, but the show really has gotten that depressing. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a comedy set in the workplace of a not very successful paper company during a recession. Jim and Pam, rather than being just a boring couple like Ross and Rachel, have become emblematic of a tight fearful economic time, when taking risks and expecting big rewards seems like an unwise path. Jim never respected his job or the people around him because he knew he could do more. Picking on Dwight and romancing Pam away from her fiance was his way of reminding himself he was smarter than this, better than this, and that soon this office and everything in it would be a distant memory. In one particular episode Pam and Jim compare movies they love and Pam says Fargo is one of her favorites. Fargo? The timid receptionist loves Coen Brothers movies? She was striving to be more, went to art school, and then, in a move that made me give up on the show, quit and moved home to marry Jim. The Office has been on so long was have watched John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer go from young actors reveling in the first blush of success to lifers waiting out the series. Once they got married there was nothing else for the characters of Jim and Pam to do, but struggle with the contradiction of being the coolest people in the office who “totally get it” and being trapped in a boring life they backed into by talking themselves out of everything else. Ultimately, they weren’t too cool to try, they were too scared to try. Of course, the show required that these characters stay at Dunder Mifflin, we couldn’t follow their characters anymore if they didn’t, but how sadly does this mirror the lives of so many people. In what might be a brilliant move of sad editorializing, Jim and Pam’s ever diminishing opportunities to be interesting characters reflect may just reflect the diminishing opportunities of people in American cities like Scranton, OH. It does appear that Jim and Pam will finally be released to internet start-up success by the deus ex machina that is the series finale, but that’s TV for you. The car went over the cliff, but somehow Jim and Pam and the whole Office gang are going to drive off into the sunset to live out their dreams.