Monday, March 12, 2012

What's Wrong with THE OFFICE? (And How to Fix It)...

I don't watch as much TV as I used to; mainly because I don't have as much time and also because I don't care about the endless barrage of shitty celebrity reality series and repetitive cop and thriller dramas that litter the airwaves.

There are a few sit-coms (remember those wonderful things many of us grew up on in the 1980s?) that I have come to enjoy like The Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the U.S. version of The Office. Admittedly, I was a latecomer to The Office as I wasn't particularly excited by the original U.K. version and saw that the first NBC season resembled deadpan attempts at British humor but in an American context.

That rarely - if ever - succeeds.

I had discovered The Office on Netflix and streamed every single episode from season 1 through 4. I watched them repeatedly and memorized entire blocks of dialogue. Steve Carrell was an absolute joy to watch, his comedic timing and general line delivery choices as an actor were as close to perfect as you could get. As the show moved away from the tone and tenor of the U.K. version, the U.S. Office developed it's own unique spin on the core love story of Jim and Pam.

I started watching the show regularly at the beginning of the 5th season. This year marked an interesting turn as Michael Scott would quit Dunder-Mifflin and form his own competing paper company in the bowels of the office park. While there are a few gems from the 5th season, the cracks in the creative identity of the series become glaringly apparent. The reality-grounded world of Scranton, PA became a weird cartoon version of itself.

And this leads to my main problem with The Office:

The humor of the show was derived by the "real world" reaction to Michael Scott's antics - if every other character on the show becomes zany and wacky, there's nothing to compare Michael Scott with - and the entire series turns from an off-the-wall examination of a boss at an obscure paper company into a slapstick free-for-all featuring a staff who each pretend to be a different member of the Three Stooges.

At the onset of the show, Jim is shown to be an everyman stuck in a meaningless job who dreams of a sports journalism career in a big city. The "twist" with his character was that he was in love with a co-worker who was already engaged to be married. So far, so good. As time went on, Jim turned from a lovesick schmoe into a calculating prankster ultimately interested in taking Michael's job. He wound up getting the girl and in the process destroyed the pathos that made his character endearing in the first place.

I've said it for the last couple of years, but I believe the series finale should have been the wedding of Jim and Pam in season 6. Everything that could have been done with those characters had been accomplished.

It was a natural ending for the show: Jim got Pam, and by extension, Michael gets the "family" that he always wanted. If you recall, during the end credits sequence, there is a scene that shows Pam's mother pulling Michael into her hotel room, presumably to have sex. That ending was perfect because it leaves us with much speculation about what happens next in Jim and Pam's life.

Side note: I can't remember the last time a TV sitcom managed to be so funny and so romantic simultaneously.

This ending leaves the franchise open for a possible series of one-shot TV specials or even a big movie version further exploring the world of Dunder-Mifflin, Scranton Branch.

Want another example of a character who was changed far too much: Oscar.

In the early years, Oscar was a very normal man who occasionally injected bits of logic and intelligence into office conversations whenever Michael started going on a ridiculous tangent about a ludicrous brainstorm. Then the writers made him incredibly interesting by slowly teasing his homosexuality. In one of the best reveals of a TV character's sexual preference, Oscar is shown living with his boyfriend and then is outed by Michael in one of the greatest episodes of comedy I've ever seen in my life ("Gay Witch Hunt," Season 3, Episode 1).

Compare the Oscar haunted by his desire for privacy at work with the preening, self-righteous know-it-all he's become now. Oscar's character is defined by his desire to be the smartest guy in the room, everybody's feelings be damned.

Angela was a cold-hearted cat lady who morphed into a jealous, bitter, manipulative, hyper conservative, borderline insane nutcase who uses sex as a weapon. It sounds cool on paper but in the end, Angela is less Bette Davis and more like Natasha from the "Rocky & Bullwinkle" cartoons.

Darryl had tremendous potential as the down-to-earth warehouse foreman who was held back by Michael's strange racist paternalism but then was given an opportunity to move up in the company by the new owner. By the time the writers got a handle on the new Darryl, he then changed into an underachiever who would try to bully his friend Andy out of the Regional Manager position. Of course, Darryl worked best when he was pitted against Michael's foolishness as the voice of reason and common sense.

Now I know I've left out Dwight, Creed, Andy, Kelly, Meredith, Kevin (DO NOT CHANGE KEVIN, the dude is hilarious no matter what he does or says) and the rest. I could write an entire book about my issues with the show but I'm sure you've gotten the gist of my concerns.

Steve Carrell leaving did not harm the integrity or comic sensibilities of the series; making everyone a different version of Michael Scott has and that is what needs to be changed if the show is expected to continue (which is a shaky proposition since Mindy Kaling "Kelly" and Rainn Wilson "Dwight" have been offered development deals for other shows) then they need to make a few simple changes:

1) Have something bad happen to a couple of the side characters. I love Erin, but she could die a horrible death and that would get the show back to reality. Imagine how a lovesick Andy would behave after Erin's death and think of how the other characters would stop feeling sorry for him for having a jerky family that shuns him?

2) Get back to real office situations. So much of the humor was derived from the mind-numbing minutiae of office politics and they need to explore how technology and globalization effects the lives of 21st century workers.

3) Have real antagonism develop and have the staff draw battle lines. This is something that hasn't really been done on the show yet. A real office civil war.

4) Change the love-story dynamic. They've already done the "guy loves girl he can't have" thing with Jim & Pam, they did a twisted version with Dwight & Angela, they're doing it again with Andy & Erin and they're starting it with Darryl & Val (the new female foreman of the warehouse). ENOUGH! Find other, sexier, ways of getting people together other than the tired "Moonlighting" approach. And we saw what happened when Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd's characters got it on.

5) Consequences. Whatever happened to them? Michael learned the consequences of dating Jan, his former boss. Jim learned the consequences of being too close to Pam before she broke up with her fiancee. Stanley learned the consequences of not dealing with his feelings on top of his poor health and lousy diet. People can do just about anything on The Office and there isn't anything learned. When the characters stop learning, they stop growing, and they become less interesting.

So that's that.

Do you agree? Disagree?

Let me know what you think.