NPR logo 'The Office' Takes Its Politics In A New And Unwelcome Direction


'The Office' Takes Its Politics In A New And Unwelcome Direction

Michael Scott (Steve Carell) looks a little down in the dumps here. He has reason to feel that way. Justin Lubin/NBC hide caption

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Justin Lubin/NBC

I don't like Co-Manager Jim.

What seemed like an intriguing shake-up of the office politics of The Office has not turned out well at all. And last night's episode cemented it.

Managerial hijinks, after the jump.

For some, last night's episode was too hard to watch because of the A story, in which Michael had to own up to the fact that he had promised ten years ago to pay the college tuitions of a class full of third-graders, and he is now completely unable to deliver on that promise. I agree that that story seemed off, with Michael more amoral and cruel than he is in the show's better episodes, and that the balance between cringing and laughing tipped too far toward the former in that storyline.

But my bigger concern was back at Dunder Mifflin, where Co-Manager Jim was being sabotaged by Dwight.

I'm completely on board with playing with the dynamics of Jim's likability — and Pam's, as well. But at this point, the show has actually done almost this exact storyline, several times. When Jim tried to consolidate birthday parties in the Season Four episode "Survivor Man," when he got everybody locked out of the building in that same season's "Night Out," and in several episodes since he became co-manager with Michael, Jim has found that his co-workers can easily turn on him. At this point, we know that, so that, in and of itself, is neither particularly surprising nor particularly funny to me.

Contrast this with the arrival last season of Idris Elba as "New Boss" Charles Minor, who disliked Jim immediately. There was a lot of great humor mined from making the show's most relatable character the boss's fall guy instead of the boss's favorite. And, in fact, the first time the show did this in "Survivor Man," it worked. Jim's glimpse at just how hard it would be to run the office even if one were competent was a great flip of the dynamic. There's nothing wrong with turning the tables on a generally sympathetic character, especially on a dark-humored show.

But the way things are going now, with Jim as a co-manager and Pam as a salesperson, the dynamic that worked so well in old episodes like "Office Olympics," where little green shoots of happiness were able to push up through the drudgery of a dull job, seems to be gone. Jim seems to have lost his sense of humor as a result of his promotion, and he's lost all sense of playfulness, as has Pam.

Essentially, they've both seen the stakes of their employment raised considerably. They both have more responsibilities. They both seem to have become ambitious about Dunder Mifflin, which — and this sounds like an exaggeration, but I don't think it is — removes the entire point of the show.

The entire point of the show, for me, in addition to the joke-making, has been, "How do you have a meaningful life when your work is not meaningful?" This is the character question; this is the pain the makes the comedy. Michael's awfulness is largely a manifestation of the fact that he wants to connect meaningfully through work. He wants his work to be meaningful and important, and he wants to love and touch the lives of his employees by doing things like handing out free ice-cream sandwiches.

But the comedy of Jim and Pam — and some of the non-comedic elements for him in particular — have always arisen from the fact that he doesn't care particularly about his job, but it's his job, and he does it, because that's how a lot of people's lives work. I never got the impression he was a great sales guy or a terrible sales guy; he's a sales guy, and he searches where he can for those little green shoots .

If Dwight and Jim both want the same thing, which is advancement at Dunder Mifflin, then I don't really care what's going on between them. What made Dwight and Jim's wars so funny, to me, was that Dwight was so serious about everything and Jim was resolutely not. (In a real office setting: bad. In this office setting: understandable.) Now, they're both serious. And so is Pam.

When this show has delighted me, it's been because it's actually been about mining comedy from people's various, often thwarted, often twisted, often dark, often grotesque searches for happiness. Dwight wants to get it from power, Jim wants to get it from love, Michael wants to get it from Hooters waitresses, Angela wants to get it from having people respect her cats.

I've always loved the way the show used work to illuminate things that aren't really about work. (That's why the company itself, and the jobs everybody is doing, are sort of devoid of meaning for them.) Now, everybody just seems to be having petty arguments that are actually about work. I'm not quite as disheartened as this piece in The Awl, but I definitely understand where it's coming from.