by Linda Holmes
Are you familiar with shippers? Or, technically, 'shippers? A shipper is a person who self-identifies as a fan of a show based on a rooting interest in a particular romantic relationship ('shipper, get it?).
In most places where television is discussed, the most devoted shippers are, frankly, the bane of everyone else's existence, because there is not an episode, a scene, a shot, or a camera angle that doesn't somehow relate to whether or not there will be kissing.
Will there be kissing? When? Where? What music will be playing? What will everyone be wearing? Will this episode contain kissing? How about next week's? How about in the season finale? Do you think the "dramatic development" in TV Guide is about kissing? Did you see that screenshot that one guy posted from that one episode where there seems to be smudged lipstick on that one actress? I wonder if it's because she was just busy kissing. KISSING KISSING KISSING, and have I mentioned...kissing?
Truly single-minded shippers are not fans of the show: they are just turning the crank and waiting for Jack to spring out of the box. All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel... You may know them by the twee, mashed-together names they invent for couples. You don't "ship" Lost's Sawyer and Kate: you ship "Skate."
Shows run into trouble when there is so much pressure built up for so long about the kissing or not kissing that it obscures every other dramatic element, so when Jack does pop out of the box, nobody knows what to do next. You get an explosion of excitement, but then what? This is why shows like Grey's Anatomy are stuck breaking everybody up and putting them back together, again and again. If all you've got is Jack in the box, then once he comes out, you'd better...put him back.
And while it seemed to be a comedy, I'm not sure I've ever seen a show more imperiled by shippers than The Office. And against all odds, it's defeated them and become far more romantic, as a story, than it was when they were exchanging all those pained, tense stares.
How the kissing enthusiasts were overcome, after the jump...
From the beginning, while Steve Carell was the biggest star and Michael Scott the central figure, The Office pulled enormous emotional heft from the romantic tale of Jim and Pam. Colleagues and dear pals, they pulled pranks together and -- most notably in the fantastic second-season episode Office Olympics -- kept each other afloat in a very mundane environment. But of course, they were secretly in love.
Their shipper community boomed. Early in the fourth season, the show had Kevin refer to the couple as "PB&J" for "Pam Beesly and Jim," a not-so-subtle bow to (or dig at, depending on your perspective) the fans who had dubbed them..."Jam."
And a good number of the "Jam" people did not care about 90 percent of the writing, and did not care about the plausible development of a relationship involving a woman who was, after all, engaged to someone else when the story began. No, the cry went up: "What do we want? Kissing! When do we want it? Now!" And "now"? "Now" was every week.
It happened eventually. They did kiss. And they did agonize. They did miss each other several times in that horrible dance of bad timing that so often happens in real life. But then they got together, and they got engaged, and they've been mostly happy now for almost two seasons.
And the show, quite honestly, is not only more romantic than it has ever been; it is the most winningly romantic thing on television, despite the fact that there hasn't been a crank turning in almost two years.
Last night's episode, "Blood Drive," seems to have been bumped forward from Valentine's Day, around which the story was set. While Jim and Pam went out with Phyllis and her husband Bob Vance (Vance Refrigeration), Michael met a woman donating blood and spent the rest of the day trying to find her again.
Watch how much there is happening here that genuinely respects the idea of romantic love. Jim and Pam are a couple now; they are a team in a way they could not be a team when she was engaged to someone else. Since they got together, they've both become visibly happier, more confident, and, particularly with regard to Pam, sharper of wit. The relationship has been a life-alteringly great experience for both characters, which is a lot sexier than staring achingly at each other wondering who's going to crack first.
Michael's story was lovely as well. Even though he's the buffooniest buffoon to ever buffoon, Michael is a good-hearted person, and his brief romance with Holly, brilliantly played by Amy Ryan, whose return the story increasingly aches for, freshened his entire personality. It seemed to take a layer of smarm off of him like a going-over with sandpaper, so that while he's still socially awkward to a painful degree, he has been given an infusion of hope that has totally changed the way he sees the world.
Even the little C-story of Kevin's encounter with the redhead was perfectly executed, from awkward meeting to -- indeed -- that little ray of hope at the end, which Brian Baumgartner played brilliantly.
The shipper-oriented vision of romance, in which it's all nothing-nothing-nothing-BOOM! KISSING! has a tendency to devalue actually being happy in favor of being constantly stimulated by drama. What's been so satisfying about the way The Office has handled its romances is that you actually see a logical connection between being in love and being happy, which -- if you think about it -- is weirdly lacking in far too many conventional love stories.