08 April 2010

Because it was on TV: The Office is the Most Depressing Show on Television

I was watching The Office on NBC last week for some reason in lieu of their usual excellent programming block on Thursday nights. Something important dawned on me - this show is horrible. It's not horrible in its writing or humour really, but really the lives of its characters are terribly depressing.

Now before we get into this here I'm going to point you over to a very well-written article that basically covers this identical subject with much more depth and focus. Apparently, this was written months ago and people have realised this for a few years. The writer even chose a pretty similar title. Okay, an identical title. I don't care, going through with my take full throttle baby, let's do this:

Much of the rut The Office is currently spinning its gears in seems to come from the central couple, Jim and Pam. I praise the show for making some bold strokes with its characters at times, but it always seems that folks get back where they started (more for the stability and dynamic of the show rather than allowing organic character growth is my conspiracy theory). We saw this first with the departure ("Goodbye Toby" S4;E19) and then return ("Frame Toby" S5;E9) of Toby to basically no plot growth and then a similar, much more depressing arc for Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer).

Most of the latter part of Season 3 and 4 developed Pam's dreams of becoming an artist, particularly "Business School" (S3;E17) and "Job Fair" (S4;E17). Her lack of confidence but high dreams stand out especially in "Business School" when most of her co-workers fail to show up to her art show and all of them heavily criticise her piece save Michael Scott who is genuinely kind to her. As her dreams develop though, she ultimately fails and returns to her dead-end receptionist job in "Business Trip" (S5;E8). She sells out because of her love for Jim, but more powerful than that is her love of this shitty, insane office and small-town politics over the pressures of living a dream in New York City. Her progress in the Michael Scott Paper Company and subsequent sales position have been a dramatic shift in character, but her office dynamic remains similar, if not actually lessened from her original role as Jim's snickering partner.

Some of the boldest changes in the show have come from restructuring the management of the company, namely Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Michael Scott. As Meghan Keane points out in her above article, throughout the first few seasons of the show we are meant to side with Jim as the only sane, rational individual in an office full of nutjobs and others following an easy dead-end career path. We're always led to the fact that Jim is one of the best salesmen in the company and has a lot of leadership calibre (see "Beach Games" [S3;E23] and "The Job" [S3;E25]). When he finally gets his chance at real leadership, however, he is at first neutered as Co-Manager ("The Promotion" [S6;E3]), then continually proves that he basically sucks as both a boss and a human ("Koi Pond" [S6;E8] and "Murder" [S6;E10]). The creators need to understand that Jim is the only one in the office that audience is still cheering for, making him guff and stumble is painful. We have Dwight and Andy for these things. Jim was supposed to be our cool cat. As the boomarang plots of the show continue, however, Jim stepped down from his manager position in "Manager and Salesman" (S6;E16) and is no thoroughly regulated to a dead-end career like everyone else in the office. You still get the feeling that Jim is better than this.

The final other major character that has been recycled and regulated for the favour of the stale progression of the show is Michael Scott (Steve Carell). It was thrilling to see Michael strike out on his own in Season 5 ("Two Weeks" [S5;E21]), but he too ultimately ends up through coincidence and good timing back where he started in "Casual Friday" (S5;E26). This emblematic of a lot of "what-the-fuck-was-the-point-of-that" moments in the past two seasons. In general too, the slow revelation of Michael's defunct hopes and dreams (see "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" [S2;E18] and  "Scott's Tots" [S6;E12] among just about anything else) is also growing to be monumentally depressing rather than hilarious.

Now I want to take a moment here and discuss another show that has mades some really bold strokes with its characters in the past season and did not rescind its decisions. I'm talking about The Venture Bros. They managed to shift the flow of the show by taking out, growing and shifting all of its main characters, but always to a positive effect. It also had the confidence to carry out its character shifts and says with courage, "This was the story we wanted to tell at this point and now we're moving on." The Office doesn't have that. It's like they still want salesman Jim vs. Dwight jokes and are afraid of the potential for Upper Management Michael jokes. Venture was brave enough to use probably their most popular character for their fan base, Brock Sampson in only two of last year's eight episodes, and you never really noticed it or missed him because their other ideas were so fresh and organic. But enough of that.

Besides the legitimate life stalls and spinning wheels of the three most major characters, The Office has shown with some of its B-Characters. Andy Bernard, "helmed" (oh ho ho) by the growing talent Ed Helms still has a lot of potential both with his budding relationship with Erin (Ellie Kemper) and for providing a lot of the show's humour through a less-evil but equally stupid version of Dwight. Another character who has had some growth is Darryl Philbin (Craig Robinson) who was recently promoted, although has already shown signs of lamenting his blue collar warehouse job. I don't believe it's a coincidence that Ed Helms and Craig Robinson are the only non-Steve Carell characters with good film careers right now. They're the funniest fucks in the show. On mentioning Dwight (Rainn Wilson), his increase in evilhood over mischief and as well as his shifting role as specifically Jim's nemesis instead of just a diehard employee speaks to the show's mired and murky decline.

So while I will contend that the character interactions and writing the past two seasons have remained crisp and original (favourites include "New Boss" [S5;E20], "Cafe Disco" [S5;E27] and "The Meeting" [S6;E2]), the plot arcs, especially when taken in the context of a real office (a criticism I wouldn't give to this program if not for their extreme attempts at realism through its use of diagetic music, documentary premise and contemporary connection to real events and people) have grown increasingly depressing. Maybe that's why Ricky Gervais ended his version so soon. You can watch for yourself tonight at 9:00 pm, or just about every fucking day on TBS the Superstation.

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