One of the things I admire most about The Office was the way that, after a few seasons of fraught courtship, the show’s writers were content to just let Jim and Pam be a couple. There was no “we were on a break” plot machinations à la Friends or near constant relationship status reversals like on Cheers, just two crazy kids in love making it work. The writers sometimes struggled to find material for these two outside of the relationship (it really should have committed to the Jim becomes the New Michael plot point it used to continually walk up to before scurrying in the other direction, though I guess this complaint is a few seasons old), but the show’s refusal to accept the inherent idea that married people can’t be funny or dramatically interesting was refreshing.
So if I appreciated the way the show left Pam and Jim alone, why am I praising the way it’s now picking apart their relationship? For one thing, I just admire Greg Daniels and company’s guts. We’ve seen Pam and Jim awkwardly flirt; we’ve seen Jim get shot down and Pam pine for him; we’ve seen them finally get together and get married and have kids. To a generation of young television viewers, they’re almost a sacred text of a relationship. Sure, it’s ultimately just a show and a couple of telegenic actors reading lines, but as an audience we’ve grown up along with these characters, and the bond feels real. Even though it might be an act of desperation to bring attention to a show on its last legs, it still takes courage for the writers to portray the Halperts not as an idealized version of a relationship, but as a realistic one, with all the tensions, miscommunications, and rough patches that every couple faces.
The other reason I admire this plotline is because I continually find myself surprised that The Office has this level of verisimilitude in it at this late stage. The slow disintegration of their relationship because of lack of communication and inability to tell each other how they really feel, and Jim feeling he deserves to be successful but poorly balancing his home and work life … it all feels very real. Not just fancy-cable-drama real, but real-life real. The scene at the beginning of this episode saw Pam and Jim going through the motions on their latest long-distance call; Jim was barely even trying with that “let’s not let that happen” retort to the idea of his daughters calling him by his proper name. The strained, awkward silences and utterances of “what was I going to say” were clear indicators that this is a couple that doesn’t know how to talk to each other. Which is sad, but also realistic. And contextually shocking.
I should point out here that The Office is also a comedy in addition to currently being a portrait of a wounded marriage, and this episode was quite funny, even if it ultimately felt like a run-up to the final arc of this series. I’m also deducting points for the throwaway Dwight plotline, in which Dwight worries his new girlfriend, Esther, is only dating him so he’ll go halfsies on a new tractor with her dad. I wish this plot had stayed on “The Farm” where it belonged, though at least Clark got to say “auger” a lot, which is a fun word. And if Angela’s self-satisfied horse-teeth jokes about Esther are any indication, the producers think the show still has one more good love triangle in it before packing it away. You gotta admire that kind of late-stage chutzpah.
Promos for The Office: An American Workplace have begun airing, and everyone is gathering around Oscar’s desk to watch them together with a collective excitement normally reserved for superhero trailers. Kevin goes to the bathroom for 45 minutes, and when he comes back he’s about to be a TV star. Everyone is excited for the fame and impending documentary groupies (Toby hopes it will boost sales of his latest Chad Flenderman novel The Small Screen. I had forgotten that this was a thing this character does), and Oscar gets so excited he shows everyone a Danish version of the promo. Everyone gets fun Danish nicknames in this preview, with Kevin’s roughly translating to “Dumpster Man” and Angela’s translating to “3 p.m. Girl.” Much to her horror, it turns out that the camera crew taped her and Dwight straightening their clothes post-quickie.
After close to a decade, it finally dawns on everyone that the camera crew has caught their every move at work, not just the ones they wanted them to see. Why the characters wouldn’t realize this until now can be explained away as vanity or the tendency for people surrounded by cameras to forget about their presence after they adapt to them, or it can be viewed as one of those questions that are better off not examined too closely lest the entire concept of the show falls apart.
Meredith is pissed off, because she only wants to flash boobsauce on her own terms. Stanley is worried his wife and his mistress will discover his other mistress. Andy is blissfully unconcerned about all of their concerns and is just happy that people on the Internet are digging his sweet banjo-playing skills. (Of course this is the only thing he cares about, because he just wants people to like him above all else.) Pam is sent to talk to Handsome Brian the Boom-Mike Guy, who confirms that, yep, they caught pretty much everything. This is not good news for Oscar, who confesses to Angela that the camera crew caught him making out with the Senator. While he was dressed as Ronald Reagan, no less. (He kissed more like a Kennedy, for the record.) This leads to the episode’s highlight, wherein Oscar and Angela leave him a voice mail telling him, “I get the sense you’re going to be outed as gay,” and, “I cheated on you with Dwight; it looks like they got it on film. I didn’t tell you about it.” But at least he looks presidential in the promos.
This was a quietly great episode for performances. Ed Helms was remarkably committed to Andy’s freak-out over negative YouTube reactions (poor guy seemed really upset that TexasPoonTappa a.k.a. Nellie didn’t find him hawt), and guest star Ryan Howard was remarkably smooth while pitching Jim and Daryl on his biopic-slash-superhero-pic idea The Big Piece. (“Mild-mannered professional ballplayer Ryan Howard hits a home run into outer space.”) I’m not a sports dude, so I don’t know if Howard had a reputation for being nutty or if the producers couldn’t resist the allusion, but his ability to never come off like he was aware of how insane his ideas sounded is a sign of a natural talent. I won’t be surprised at all if he starts making the TV-guest-star rounds soon. But this was once again an episode where Jenna Fischer quietly stole the show the way she’s stolen most of this season.
From a storytelling angle, the best reason to launch the faux documentary is to force the characters to grapple with how much they’ve changed. Or how much they’ve not changed, if the sight of Stanley enjoying a pretzel is to be believed. (There’s not really much in the way of long-running plotlines that the producers can play off of with Stanley, but that was still a nice bit of fan service.) Seeing footage of her and floppy hair Jim (back the fuck off on my man’s shag, Clark) rocking out to Travis on the roof so many years ago is nice “remember when” for old fans, but watching Pam watch that footage was near Junebug-level devastating. Fischer did such a good job registering her character’s mix of joy and her current realization that it seemed superfluous when she later asked Brian, “We were in love when we didn’t know we were in love … but do you think Jim’s changed?”
The smart bet is that things will continue to get worse for Jim and Pam until the documentary airs and it reminds them of what they have, and they start trying to fix things. But that is such an expected outcome that I suspect Daniels and company will play against that expectation somehow. Which means I truly don’t know what will happen with Jim and Pam next, which is not something I would have expected to say a year ago, nor would I have expected it to be such a good move for the show. Sometimes the best move for a TV series is to break its own rules.