We Fear Change: “The Office” and American Complacency

Kevin Nguyen reflects on the inconsistency of The Office, and finds parallels in the American tendency towards corporate mediocrity.

I‘ve been watching the American remake of The Office since its premiere in 2005. Some shows benefit from a short lifespan; others take time to find their strength. Whereas Ricky Gervais’s BBC series ran for a scant twelve episodes, plus a concluding Christmas special, NBC has drawn the show out for five inconsistent seasons so far.

The first season-and-a-half is a cheap rip-off of Gervais’s work (though he has writing credits for the American version). The writers took enough care to move the setting from Slough, England to Scranton, Pennsylvania, but neglected to localize anything else. Many of the jokes and situations are taken exactly from the British version, and a failure to rewrite the English humor of Gervais’s uncomfortable, awkward confrontations leaves Steve Carrell floundering.

But luckily, it gets better from there.

The Office finds a solid footing of its own by shifting its attention to the tantalizing romance between Jim and Pam. While they closely parallel Tim and Dawn of the BBC’s version, Gervais is the focal point of the British Office; in the American version, Jim and Pam, as the show’s only relatable characters, do a great deal of the lifting. They’re the only people who recognize the monotony of the workplace and the absurdity of their coworkers. They shoot bewildered glances at the camera. They represent the brilliant irony of the show: employees who recognize that they are better than their workplace, but don’t do anything about it. Anyone who’s ever worked in an office environment can sympathize with their circumstances, and somewhere in this connection to these characters, NBC’s take on The Office finally becomes, well, funny.

The show doesn’t offer brilliant drama or anything, but Jim and Pam are so goddamn likable that you’re determined to see them together. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Pam is already engaged to Roy, who works in the warehouse below the office. In the finale of the second season, Jim finally makes a move on Pam anyway, but she turns him down (gasp!). Embarrassed, he takes a job at a different branch in Stamford, Connecticut and starts dating someone else, while Pam, realizing too late that she loves Jim, breaks off her engagement and remains in Scranton.

With Jim and Pam in separate places for most of the third season, The Office starts moving in a surprising direction. New characters and locales offer new comedic scenarios, and even the show’s most established themes are refreshed. Jim tires of his complacency and actually starts asserting himself at work. He interviews for a big promotion that would move him permanently to New York, but turns down the job. In the last scene of season three, Jim bursts into the room while Pam is being interviewed and asks her out. True to the show’s nature, the scene is effective in its understatement as it quietly breaks down the fourth wall. It’s probably one of the best moments I’ve seen on television, but maybe I just didn’t expect The Office to pull off such a triumphant resolution.

But with the romantic tension between Jim and Pam mostly settled, the show stumbles through a dismal, plotless fourth season. Some critics blamed last year’s Writers Guild of America strike, but really, I think the lack of a compelling plot line fails to set up anything comic.

Now in its fifth year, The Office has recovered by introducing a new love triangle between the show’s most exaggerated characters: Dwight, Angela, and Andy. This romance is meaner, stranger, and funnier, and it escalates in “The Duel,” arguably one of the series’ best episodes to date.

Still, this scenario is just a copy of the Jim-Pam-Roy triangle from the first two seasons.

The fifth season also confronts Pam’s artistic aspirations, but with unusually different results from the British version. With BBC’s The Office “Christmas Special,” we’re left with the hope that the characters may someday break out of their dead-end jobs. Dawn’s love for drawing is mentioned frequently throughout the series, but is often put down by her fiancée Lee. In a Secret Santa gift, Tim gives Dawn an oil painting set with a note that says “Never give up.” This is the moment when Dawn realizes that her talents and dreams are greater than the workplace, bigger than her lifestyle. She (finally) dumps Lee, returns to the party, and kisses Tim.

In the premiere episode of the American Office‘s fifth season, Pam announces that she’ll be leaving for New York City to attend the Pratt Institute, an art and design school. This somewhat artificially sets Jim and Pam apart, but the tension it places on their relationship sets up some of the most compelling episodes since the third season.

But it takes a strange turn. In “Business Trip,” Pam reveals that she’s failed one of her classes, and having to re-take the course means another three months in Manhattan, away from Jim. He’s disappointed but supportive, and tells her she should only return to Scranton “the right way.” At the end of the episode, Jim finds Pam waiting for him in the parking lot of office building. She acknowledges that she’s come back “the wrong way.” The scene is heartwarming, perhaps a little sentimental, but the audience gets to see their favorite couple reunited.

Still, what’s really happened here is that the show’s only relatable, realistic characters have doomed themselves to the tedious lifestyle that they’re so clearly better than. Pam returns to her secretarial position and gives up any ambition she has to be an artist. Though it defies many of sitcom conventions of the mid-’90s, the show does surrender itself to television’s golden rule: never change.

Though season three flirts with a departure from its own conventions, The Office‘s return to form reaffirms network television as a condescending medium. NBC ordered 28 episodes for the fifth season—longer than a usual order of twenty—and plans for a spin-off series will ensure that the show becomes painfully unfunny and irrelevant before it’s canceled.

But maybe a stubbornness against change, even to the point of collapse, is an American trait after all.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.