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Something’s Rotten in the Thursday Night Lineup: How to Fix The Office

April 10, 2010

NBC has a problem. It’s not a terrible problem — yet — but it’s getting there.

First off, I’d like to point out that I’m an NBC fan, despite their recent face-slap to Conan O’Brien and their repeated refusals to give me any sort of press access to their NBC/Universal empire (or “village” as they so quaintly call it). While yes, I have teed off in the past concerning Leno and The Sing-Off, I’d also like to point out that I’ve long heralded Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (which keeps getting better) and even retracted my snark about Sing-Off after becoming somewhat inexplicably hooked on it myself (though I’ll watch anything involving the phenomenal Ben Folds).

See, NBC? We can be friends too. I’m just a friend who’s not afraid to tell you what’s up.

That said, I’m here to tell you what’s up, NBC. But first, the good news. As we here at TBTS have long known and our own T. Stump has championed,  you have some gangbuster sitcoms in the Thursday night lineup. Community seems to be growing on everyone (it seems to get better each week), Parks & Rec is a 100% better show this season than last (consistently solid with great characters) and 30 Rock, even though I’m terrified that you’re going to pull the plug on it, is for my money the funniest show currently on television. That’s the good news.

The bad news — and oh, how I loathe saying this — is that The Office seems to be on its last legs. I was always afraid this might happen, because aside from the obvious pitfalls (the UK Office was only two seasons long, after all), and the inherent problems with trying to mimic some storylines from the overseas version that doomed the canon from the beginning if they were to play out over many seasons, the U.S. Office has been very, very funny.

In a stellar Thursday night lineup now, however, The Office is decomposing right in the center of must-see TV, and as a result is starting to stink up the two-hour block. It’s still doing quite well ratings-wise, but I’ve yet to meet a fellow Office watcher who doesn’t agree that the show seems to be on life support. As a result, it’s in danger of tainting the shows on either side of it. And let’s be honest, NBC needs to hang onto its sluggers right now, especially with precious little solid ten o’clock programming.

The problem with The Office seems to be that, in order to keep a “storyline” rolling (something Gervais’ incarnation never completely bought into doing), the show has seemed to paint itself into a corner that it may not be able to reverse. The natural trajectory of the subplots established in the first couple of seasons has twisted to fit several times, and done so successfully, but it may be out of road. Here, then, are a few thoughts on the show currently and some suggestions on how to fix things — if indeed it’s not too late.

1. You’ve reached the limit of what you can do with Jim and Pam, just let it go. Face the facts: after Jim and Pam had a baby, there’s no more relationship material to be mined from this that’s not detrimental to the show, so just move on. The will-they-or-won’t-they storyline worked in the same way Tim and Dawn’s flirting worked in the UK Office, and you breathed new life into the dynamic by bringing Rashida Jones’ character from the Hartford branch, but Jim and Pam are together now, and they have a kid. You can’t bring any more conflict into this (after the “we’re so tired because the baby keeps us up” jokes you’ve yet to mine) without some deeper, scarier undertones — if Jim and Pam have any troubles from here, it’s just a downer because they have a child together now. We had the wedding episode and the baby episode — both episodes which in the life of a sitcom are  traditionally the ratings-grabbers over time — in the span of one year. You shot off all your artillery, so face that and just forge ahead. Nothing more to see here.

2. Michael Scott can be an idiot without being cruel or ridiculously over the top. The beauty of Gervais’ David Brent was that while he was ridiculously clueless and self-delusional on a social level, he wasn’t stupid. The always-funny Steve Carrell has intermittently in the past had to sell Scott as so stupid he can’t tell between what’s socially acceptable and what’s not, but now he’s asked to do that more than ever. Do I believe Michael Scott would have a problem with Jim’s hierarchy equality and try to humorously undermine him? Yes. Do I believe he’d be so stupid he’d drive his automobile into a lake because the Garmin said to do so? Not for a second. Ditto with Scott’s occasional forays into malevolence, taking back Christmas gifts or blatantly telling children he’s not going to pay for their higher educations as he promised. This is Steve Carrell, one of the most likeable comics working today — why would you want to make him mean-spirited? David Brent was great because he just didn’t know when to shut up. Michael Scott is quickly becoming, alternately, Buddy Lembeck from the late seasons of Charles in Charge or the show’s character “you love to hate.” He should be neither. Bring him back to earth.

3. You’ve made Jim and Pam unlikeable snobs. Over the past few seasons, the device of making Jim and Pam “the only people in the office who seem to have any sense” has become “Jim and Pam think they’re so much better than these people they work with that they’re insufferable assholes.” The couple now is not the couple you’d love to hang out with, but the couple who’d make fun of you when you walk out of the room. In the beginning stages of this process, it worked because it was tempered with “we still love these people even if they’re kind of crazy,” but having Jim deliberately take Michael out of a meeting by sneakily pushing him into a koi pond isn’t funny; it’s mean and uncalled for. The duo’s mugging at the camera used to be cute, but now it seems to whisper “I’m so glad I’m not as stupid as my co-workers.” That detracts from the show. If Jim and Pam are so great, and this place is so beneath them, they should both find someplace else to work.

4. You’re squandering a season-saver in Erin and Andy. The always-reliable Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard has emerged as one of the show’s richest characters, and his pursuits of new secretary Erin have been sweet, funny and believable. But saddling the adorable Erin with a roommate/foster brother with whom she seems to have an oddly creepy relationship and having them have their first kiss in a landfill for no real reason is just ridiculous. You have a great opportunity with these two, if you keep it real and rooted it could pay off really well.

5. Dwight has become a caricature of himself. Short and sweet: Rainn Wilson is a delight as Dwight. Don’t make him absurd. He’s funny enough without becoming a cartoon. Have faith that we’ll stay on board with Dwight. Don’t feel the need to push it.

6. A clip show? Really? This isn’t Wings. You’re better than this.

7. The staffers aren’t real people anymore. What used to be a cast of everymen, “these are your co-workers” supporting players has become a very odd, strangely acting group of people who aren’t at all like the people in your own office. By feeling the need to saddle each with some unbelievable quirk has hurt the cast. We believe that Kevin plays in a Police cover band called Scrantonicity, and that’s hilarious. I don’t believe that Angela licks her cats. That’s too much.

The Office can be saved. It just needs to dial things back a little. By bringing the cast and storylines back to a reality it’s currently ignoring would not only help the cause immensely, but perhaps give the story new places to explore. Until its showrunners realize that a healthy dose of reality will actually help this show, it’s just going to keep becoming more unbelievable, less real, and continue to wilt. 30 Rock established up front that the cast lives and works in a world that’s unbelievably silly and caricatured, but The Office chose to anchor its humor to real things. Now it seems like they’re watching Parks & Rec and 30 Rock and thinking “wow, they’re having a lot of fun, let’s make our show crazy like that.”  Strangely enough, however, those real, mundane things we all dread and hate so much in our own lives — and came to appreciate in the early seasons of the show — may just be the only things that can bring The Office back to greatness.

  1. April 10, 2010 1:34 pm

    Right on! I hope you send this to NBC. I knew something was going bad, but could not have pinpointed it so accurately. I’m especially unhappy with Michael as demon, like telling the kids he couldn’t keep his promise to send them to college. These things are just a downer. M. needs to be socially inept but still lovable.

  2. T. Stump permalink
    April 16, 2010 2:42 am

    “David Brent was great because he just didn’t know when to shut up. Michael Scott is quickly becoming, alternately, Buddy Lembeck from the late seasons of Charles in Charge or the show’s character “you love to hate.” He should be neither. Bring him back to earth.”

    Wow. I was unable to explain the exact reason why I’m nostalgic for the first few seasons, and you freaking NAIL it.
    You hit a lot of other legit points, too – but the show depends upon our (at least occasional) sympathy with Michael. When he impressed the head honchos a season ago, after the whole Michael Scott Paper Company demise, I was rooting for him.
    Where is that guy?


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