Friday Night Lights and The Office have a surprising number of surface similarities given that one’s an hour-long sports drama and the other a half-hour sitcom. Both debuted on NBC and each painted a portrait of small-town America. Both played with form — The Office through its internal documentary conceit and FNL with its cinema verité shooting style. Both have a seemingly unimpeachable marriage as their foundation, though The Office’s wasn’t introduced until six seasons in. And like FNL, The Office is creating a rift between its central couple as part of its final season story arc. (It was announced today that the show will air its finale on May 16.)
This is not unprecedented for a show in its last season — Mad About You tried it out in the nineties and people weren’t particularly mad about it — but The Office’s conflict is nearly identical to FNL’s: What if one of the spouses got a dream job opportunity in Philadelphia? In FNL, Tami Taylor is (somewhat implausibly) asked to be the dean of admissions at Braemore College; on The Office, Jim Halpert is (somewhat implausibly) asked to co-found a sports marketing company. Their more stuck-in-their-ways spouses — Coach and Pam, respectively — want to stay in the small towns where they built their families’ lives. We’re definitely not suggesting The Office cribbed this story from FNL; both shows just needed to drum up tension for their final runs, and what more relatable conflict is there than one involving a marriage?
There is one major difference, and it is why FNL nailed its ending and The Office is continuing to trip over itself on its way to the finish line. On FNL, the pressure for Eric to stay is symbolized by the opportunity to coach the Dillon Panthers again; on The Office, it’s symbolized by a handsome boom-mike operator we’ve just met. FNL’s fight was more complex. It was not a broad battle between right and wrong, but a subtle exploration of gender roles and the complicated balance between compromise and resentment that comes with adult relationships. The Office, on the other hand, has dumbed it down to just another potential love triangle. It’s been nine years, and fans aren’t buying it: Pam wouldn’t cheat on Jim, Jim wouldn’t care this much about work, a nosey documentary filmmaker wouldn’t fail to mention that their camera crew obviously filmed Cece’s dance recital. (Sorry, that isn’t a Jim and Pam thing, but come on!)
The Office has seven episodes left and there are two directions it can go with the Jim and Pam story: The big, overblown route, in which Brian and Pam kiss or almost kiss, or the small, honest route where Brian is just a red herring for something more systemic about their relationship. Either way, it will probably work out great and we will all cry regardless of whether Pam says, “Will you take me to Philadelphia with you, please?” or Jim says, “Will you take me back to Scranton with you, please?”