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The Office’s Apocalypse Now, Redux

April 11, 2010

Ed. Note: If you haven’t read yesterday’s smashing C.M. Tomlin piece on The Office, go check it out now. What follows is a reaction from yet another viewer who cares enough about The Office, Parks and Recreation, and good comedy to spend time thinking and writing about such things.

Cheers to you, Tomlin, for taking on the recent poor quality of The Office from the perspective of loving the show at one time and wanting to see it be good again. Like you, to an extent that’s fitting to feel genuine concern when there are obviously other pressing matters to occupy our thoughts, I am troubled by the borderline dreadfulness of this season of The Office for several reasons.

If I may, I’d like to add a few thoughts to yours and take issue with one or two of your finer points. But overall I’m quite confident that we’re identifying the same general problems (and thrusting in their direction).

I should say up front that I have a selfish reason why I’m bothered by The Office’s recent mediocrity. Many times, I’ve defended the American version against the criticism that it’s a lazy ripoff of the British version. At several parties, for the 10-12 seconds before people would say “There he goes again” and start walking away from me, I’ve made the argument that the first couple of episodes were a bad predictor of how good The Office would become. It occurred to me earlier this season that if somebody who’d heard me spouting off in my inimitably obnoxious way finally decided to give the American version another chance, he or she would probably say after 10 minutes, “THIS is what Lloyd was going on about?!?”

That’s an unfortunate outcome because a) it’s another shot across the bow of my credibility, which is already a tad leaky, and b) when The Office was on its game, man, it was ON. I’d say Seasons 2 & 3 were almost uniformly brilliant, and the second, post-writers’ strike half of Season 4 was nearly as good. Even Season 5 (aired 2008-09) had many strong moments. If you’ve never seen much of the show and really want to give it a chance, rent or buy Seasons 2 & 3 and see it when it was at its best.

To go with yours, Tomlin, I’d like to offer my own observations about The Office’s flaws and compare them to parallel dynamics in another Thursday night show that you mentioned—Parks and Recreation. The big things that I see The Office getting wrong week after week, Parks and Rec is getting them oh-so-right. I think the master could  stand to learn a few things from the apprentice.

1. We pretty much agree, Tomlin, that The Office’s central characters have become unlikable, one-dimensional, and/or caricatures of their former selves. I agree that Jim and Pam are now mostly insufferable, but I’d have to argue that they’ve been on that trajectory ever since Jim asked Pam out for dinner at the end of Season 3. In fact, it could be argued that Jim has been largely unlikable—like the middle-school “bully” who picks on the “geeks”—for a lot longer than that. Yes, it was impossible not to root for him during the prolonged period in which his feelings for Pam remained unrequited. But, in his interactions with pretty much everyone else, Jim quite often has been a smug jackass with an unwarranted sense of superiority to a much greater extent than the British version’s Tim ever was. In other words, we agree that Jim and Pam’s usefulness in driving the narrative has certainly ended by now, but I’d say that decline started a while ago, and The Office has been flailing ever since because it’s insisted on keeping them at or near the center of attention. And I think you’ve also nailed what’s wrong with Michael and Dwight these days.

Contrast this with Parks and Recreation, which spreads out the responsibility for driving the narrative across many characters who are, to a person, more well-rounded, human, and relatable than the central Office characters. The Parks and Rec cast is a truer ensemble, in that Leslie, Ron, Andy, April, Tom, Ann, Mark, and even less well-developed players such as Jerry have all taken center stage in certain episodes. I’d argue that each of those characters has thus far had an easily identifiable arc, has been imbued with consistent traits, and has been given space in the narrative for growth and development.

2. On a related note, The Office sorely lacks this type of internal coherence, especially with its secondary characters. Things just seem to happen to the Office characters, or they just seem to do things, and we never quite know why (other than the writers’ need for some reason for this or that bit player to be on screen). I’ll offer a bit of anecdotal evidence: in a season 5 episode, Andy and Oscar accompanied Michael on a business trip to Canada. While Michael was off being Michael, Andy and Oscar got drunk together, had a long talk about numerous topics, including Angela’s unwillingness to return Andy’s affections, and even drunk-dialed Angela. In one of Andy’s asides the next day, he says that he had never gotten to know Oscar until this trip. In a really great moment of humanizing Andy and making him useful for something other than anger management-related punchlines, he says quite sincerely of Oscar, “He’s delightful!” And then The Office did absolutely nothing to develop this new friendship that could have been a totally believable and useful secondary narrative element.

Parks and Recreation, on the other hand, does much better with internal consistency. Another piece of anecdotal evidence—how about the genuine professional respect that we’ve seen Ron Swanson develop for Leslie Knope? It began when Ron observed that it literally took everyone else in the department (plus volunteers) to do Leslie’s job, and it’s been alluded to several times since then. Parks and Rec has successfully showed us the evolution of a complex, true-to-life, non-romantic relationship between two adults—a working relationship between ideological opposites that’s grounded in mutual respect. I fear that The Office wouldn’t even know where to begin in attempting such a thing.

3. This is a symptom of another underlying ailment with The Office—in terms of interactions between characters, the show no longer has any idea what to do with most of them except romantically pairing them off. I agree that the Andy-Erin romance has thus far been pretty sweet, but I’ve also found it utterly predictable and therefore somewhat unrewarding from the beginning. Simply put, there are far too many former and current paired-off couples in the relatively tiny Dunder-Mifflin universe, and the “will they or won’t they?” cupboard is now pretty much bare.

Parks and Rec has done quite a bit of this too, but they’ve smartly allowed some unsatisfying storylines of this type to fade away. I’m glad they didn’t go all that far with making Leslie harbor ongoing unrequited feelings for Mark. They also chose the most interesting pair with which to do the “will they or won’t they” slow burn—Andy and April (rather than Mark and Ann, who just quietly started dating). I like how the show has handled April’s feelings for Andy because her crush has actually sparked some interesting character developments for her. She has largely abandoned her once-constant posture of ironic detachment and started to see that looking down on people all the time isn’t really all that much fun. She broke up with her bitchy gay boyfriend (and his boyfriend) when she began to see these things. Simply put, her life has changed as a result of her feelings for Andy. I find myself wanting to see the successful culmination of this storyline all the more because of this deft storytelling touch.

4. And finally, I’ll briefly go back to Tomlin’s point about Michael Scott. Again, I think you’re correct that his characterization is inconsistent. I’ll illustrate that further by highlighting how thoroughly Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope character has transcended the “female Michael Scott” tag. She has her quirks and even delusions, certainly, but they’re grounded in a few consistent traits—her ambition, her belief in the importance of government and civic responsibility, her steady optimism, and her desire to get things done. The sense of why Michael does the things he does is far less consistent.

So again, Tomlin, I think we’re on the same page in saying that The Office needs to make some changes fast if it wants to regain its former momentum. I’d sum up my suggestions by saying that The Office would do well to take some cues from Parks and Rec. However, I disagree that in the process The Office would become more, as you say, “crazy.” The Parks and Rec that I’ve grown to love isn’t, from my perspective, anywhere near as “crazy,” random, or farcical as 30 Rock (a good version of that kind of storytelling) or what The Office has become (an increasingly bad version of that kind of storytelling). In my view, The Office would become more true, human, and relatable, not less, by following Parks and Rec’s lead.

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