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At Least Leave Them Their Dignity: Why I’m Spending Less Time at The Office These Days

November 6, 2010

Friends and fellow (historically) avid fans of NBC’s The Office, I have dreary and ominous news for you. The following is the actual description for next week’s episode of the program:

Erin and Gabe host a “Glee” viewing party.

There is so much disappointing about this sentence, and I very well fear that this very depressing epitaph may be written on The Office’s tombstone. This makes me sad in many ways, and in not the ways you might think. Though I have been, in the past, hard on Fox’s Glee, I fully recognize that there’s a massive draw for the show and it’s quickly becoming a favorite of America, despite the fact that I admittedly seem to lack — although I do, in fact, enjoy music and occasionally a good musical — the Glee-enjoying gene. My fault is not with the Glee tie-in, though I do find it curious that NBC would spend one of its most-watched half-hours of the week referencing a show that’s only growing bigger and bigger every day.  That, to me, is a little odd. But I guess this makes more sense, in a comedy setting, than “Gabe and Erin host a The Event viewing party,” even though that show could probably use the extra push right now.

The problem, the way I see it, is that The Office shouldn’t be at a Glee viewing party with Gabe and Erin in the first place. For that matter, they probably also have translation agency as business being at Andy’s production of Sweeney Todd or the christening of Jim’s-and-Pam’s new baby — two locales for this season’s episodes thus far — because they have nothing to do with The Office. I don’t want to play the “British Office” card, because really, it’s season seven, the American version has taken on its own existence, and that ship has sailed — but the beauty of the BBC version (and, quite honestly, the first several seasons of the stateside version) was that the action took place inside the workplace, and largely centered around the goings-on of the workplace.

A similar construct can be found in Cheers, where — aside from the rare and fun departure episode, reserved for particular storylines and episodes — an expansive universe was created within the bar’s setting. If everyone went to see Woody in a play, we didn’t see them at Woody’s play, we saw them talking about it afterward, or the next day. If Cliff was chased by a dog during his route, we didn’t see it, we learned about it through the same avenues as the other characters in the show. There was a fairly general rule of Cheers wherein if the action went off-premises, it almost always featured two or more characters from inside the bar together. One would never see Rebecca’s date with Robin Colcord, or Carla’s harrowing outing with her hooligan family. A bar, where stories are told and ribbings doled out, was the common ground. We, as the audience, became patrons of Cheers. And it worked. For a really, really long time.

Gervais’ Office worked in a similar way. It would ruin the illusion to ever see Gareth’s apartment, because in real life, we don’t often see the homes and apartments of our own similarly annoying co-workers. And we didn’t need to, because the entire gag was that we’re stuck with this guy for eight hours a day. Then we go home. That’s the schtick. These are the people we barely know, and yet we know them all too well.

Not so with the current cast of NBC’s Office. Even though these people can’t seem to stand each other, they do everything together, all the time. Given curmudgeon Stanley’s constant frustration with everyone around him, it would make no sense that he would want to do anything with these people, yet he’s there as the cast goes to Dave and Buster’s. Creed seems to live in an entirely different universe than his co-workers, and the entire joke is that he doesn’t have anything in common with them. He’d have no interest in Andy Bernard’s play. But if Stanley doesn’t go to Dave and Buster’s, or if Creed doesn’t go to Andy’s play, we can’t have them be funny in those foreign settings.

What the writers don’t seem to realize is that we don’t need to see the entire cast in these scenes. It seems more like they’re out of ideas concerning storylines which make sense within the Office’s original universe — now it’s become “what can we have Kevin doing at the wedding? Or “what thing can Meredith be doing at the cookout/party/trip?” This last episode, which took place entirely at the church for the christening of Jim-and-Pam’s baby, seemed to be an exercise in “putting the cast in a “hilarious new scenario,” and it just seemed ridiculous. Did we need Creed and Darryl comically asleep on top of one another during the service, or Ryan playing the parodical anti-religion role, spewing the same rhetoric you’d think his hipster character would spew? No. It seemed ridiculous, forced and, quite frankly, rude. These people may be eccentric, but they still have to live in a contemporary society, where you don’t diss religion and surf your iPad in church and you don’t fall asleep on another person.

Exhibit A

I guess the whole Glee tie-in makes sense, since the cast seems to wish they were in that show instead of the show they’re in anyway. Just look to the painfully out-of-place opening lip-sync of season seven, or a whole episode with Sweeney Todd as a centerpiece, or Andy’s attempts to write a hit song and collaborate with his “band.” I’m guessing the Glee episode will feature a similar amount of  singing and dancing and everyone “performing.” It’s as if the creative staff behind The Office is tired of what they’ve been hired to do, and would much rather hold talent shows for themselves.

And that’s really sad, frankly, because the entire Office operation is an enterprise of very funny people. Steve Carell, Ed Helms and Rainn Wilson are all fantastic, deft comedic actors. John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer will easily have film careers after the The Office ends; both are built to power romantic comedies. BJ Novak and Mindy Kaling, who are writer-producers as well as portraying ditsy Kelly Kapoor and too-cool-for-school Ryan Howard, have navigated this show to great heights through great creative direction and development. The rest of the cast rounds out to a very impressive pool of able utility men and women who prop up the proccedings in great supporting ways. There’s no real reason for this show to be faltering except that it seems to be completely out of ideas. And when that happens, it’s time to pull the plug. These people will all be fine. None of them need The Office anymore. Let’s let them move on. They’ve earned a dignified exit, no?

I’ve made some disparaging remarks toward the current state of The Office before, and I don’t like doing it. Honestly, I don’t. When this show was succeeding, it was very funny and very sharp. I’d love to see it fixed, but I’m afraid it may be beyond repair. I don’t say this because I’m a critic who likes tearing great things down, because I don’t. I don’t say this because NBC/Universal still refuses at all costs to credential TBTS despite our repeated championing of Sharktopus and other fantastic SyFy original movies like Gatoroid and Mega-Python, because that’s neither here nor there. I just think leaving the Office on is simply driving the stock down of everyone involved.  It had a great run, it really did. But Steve Carell is leaving after this season, and the producers are already seeking his replacement when they should be reconsidering the show’s future altogether. I only kid because I love.

There may be a way to find hope for The Office. But I’m pretty sure “at a Glee viewing party hosted by Gabe and Erin” isn’t where the fresh coat of paint is going to be found, no matter how much fun it will probably be for the cast to shoot. There’s still gold to be mined, perhaps, but The Office isn’t looking hard enough.

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