Few things on TV are as heartening as signs of life in a show that seemed creatively dead. The Office is this year’s surprise resurrectee. No, it hasn’t become a great sitcom again; it hasn’t been one since season five, though it continued to have its moments until the finale of season seven, including the one in which Steve Carell’s Michael Scott took off his body mike at an airport security checkpoint to share an inaudible, private good-bye with Jenna Fischer’s Pam. This year, though, The Office has taken the spirit of that moment and built the back half of its final season around it.
The change was signaled by a twist so unexpected that it seemed less a moment than a rupture. It happened at the end of episode twelve, “Customer Loyalty”: Jim (John Krasinski), mostly AWOL from husband and dad duties while managing a start-up in Philadelphia, chews Pam out on the phone for failing to tape a school recital. After they hang up, the camera lingers on Pam’s tears for a cruel moment; then a handsome boom operator named Brian, initially heard offscreen like a guardian angel, tells the crew to stop shooting so he can comfort Pam, kicking off a crush story line that hastens the decay of Pam and Jim’s once rock-solid marriage. More significant than Brian’s Galahad moment is the slow pan away from him and Pam, showing the camera crew that’s been invisible until now.
That shot signals The Office’s last-minute transformation from a joke sitcom about a perpetually unfinished documentary (the updated version of Murphy Brown’s never-quite-painted apartment) to a show about what it means to film and be filmed, and see reality transformed into entertainment. Like Ricky Gervais’s original, British version of The Office, NBC’s remake is a fake documentary, with whipsaw handheld cinematography and straight-into-the-camera confessions and riffs. And like the original—and other mock docs, such as NBC’s Parks and Recreation and ABC’s Modern Family—it traded on those documentary tics without every entirely committing to them. In theory, when we watched The Office, we were seeing selected footage from a work-in-progress, a nonfiction film about a boring regional division of Dunder Mifflin. But the crew just kept taping and taping and taping. As one season became six became nine, the notion that The Office’s onscreen action was “real” became a shared put-on between the show and the audience—an existential joke that made the characters seem like inmates in an earthbound purgatory or, as the dimwitted Kevin put it, “specimens in a human zoo.” Jim, Pam, Andy, Erin, Dwight, and the gang were theoretically miked up at all times, even at home, constantly surrounded by cameras and boom operators. The exercise seemed to have no end and no point. The unspoken conditions of Dunder Mifflin’s daily existence were ludicrous, amusing, and sad, and lent what might otherwise
have been another worn-out NBC comedy a lingering gravitas.
This Pirandello-esque flourish, though, is something else entirely. There are times when a boom pole is just a boom pole, but this isn’t one of those times. When a warehouse worker saw Pam avenging his vandalism of her mural by painting a “trail of poops” on his truck, he charged at her in a rage, and Brian’s boom pole was pressed into service as a knightly lance. The dashing crewman got fired for stepping over the unspoken filmmaker-subject boundary—like an earthly version of the non-interfering angel of Wings of Desire joining the mortals for love’s sake. In future episodes, Pam visited him at home (the camera peering through his windows, Peeping Tom–style) and even joined Brian for an awkward lunch with Jim. The latter was supposed to be a double date, but Brian’s girlfriend ditched him, obviously because he was becoming obsessed with a married camera subject; Jim picked up on their chemistry and tearfully confronted his wife in the parking lot, one of many instances of white-bread-Cassavetes domestic drama cutting through the show’s standard miasma of cute.
Even more unnerving was when the workers gathered around a computer to watch the first promos of a show they never thought they’d see and expressed alarm that private interactions had been caught on camera, then cut down to punchy tidbits. These moments gave a once light show an undertow of panic. When it wasn’t clowning around with office pranks or laboriously introducing the cast of the since-aborted spinoff, The Farm, The Office found something fresh to say about voyeurism and the culture of continuous surveillance: Now we’re so used to being continuously taped and tracked that we’ve stopped thinking about it and started acting naturally, or “naturally.” We’re comfortable because we believe the data and footage will never be used for anything; if it’s all going into a void, we can still shape the narrative of our lives, or at least our self-serving version of the narrative, without encountering a rebuttal.
Now, suddenly, everyone on The Office is dealing with a counter-narrative. “Wait,” Phyllis asks in alarm, “so they were filming all the time, even when we didn’t know it?” The horrible realization that their lives have become entertainment makes them self-conscious in a way they haven’t been since (one imagines, vainly applying logic) the first time a crew member miked them for sound. “It would be a good idea for you not to trust in your own reality, the one you breathe and feel today within yourself,” wrote Pirandello in Six Characters in Search of an Author, “because—like that of yesterday—it is destined to reveal itself as an illusion tomorrow.”
The Office. Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. NBC.
*This article originally appeared in the May 13, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.