TV Backlog: The Office (Cracking the foundation of the happiest couple on television)

The final season of The Office is making me uncomfortable. The show has had a difficult time since Steve Carell left and I admit this season has been slightly less sloppy than the previous one, but the show’s occasional, unexpected shift in tone is leaving me with an uneasy feeling. (Contains spoilers up to and including S09E16 – Moving On)

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The problem with this season being less sloppy, though, is that The Office is taking some new and risky turns. Being the last season, it’s very clear all storytelling bets are off. The documentary crew is breaking the fourth wall and Jim and Pam are breaking our hearts.

From the start, I could tell this season would be something different. But different isn’t always good. Oscar’s affair with Angela’s husband leading to Angela entertaining the possibility of having Oscar murdered was a far cry from the days of “Office Olympics” or “Casino Night.” It’s a shift in tone that’s keeping my attention held but with the occasional intensity of a network drama instead of a sitcom.

That’s the root of my discomfort. There’s an emotional attachment that’s formed with sitcoms that’s stronger than with any other genre. Sitcoms help us escape our personal problems with 22 minutes of (mostly) laughter. A sitcom’s final season is a time to look back and celebrate the bond the audience has formed with the characters. That’s a feeling that this final season has been sorely missing.

Don’t get me wrong, though, this isn’t necessarily an indictment of the show’s talent behind the scenes. In between writing around Ed Helms’ film career and setting up a Dwight spinoff that (by the grace of the television gods) has already been shot down, the writers have produced some of the best post-Carell episodes yet. Maybe that’s due to their new freedom to break the show out of its comfort zone.

Let’s look at Jim and Pam. In the six seasons since they got together, the writers have defied normal sitcom convention by not straining for conflict. Jim and Pam had their happily ever after long ago and it felt right and true for both the characters and the show. Now that the end is near, however, the wheels are coming off and it feels wrong.

Things started to go haywire when Bryan, the beautifully bearded sound guy, rushed to comfort a distraught Pam following a brutal fight with Jim. It was the first time we’ve ever seen cracks in the fairy tale of Jim and Pam and that manifested itself with the crumbling of the long standing fourth wall. It was a very jarring way to end an episode and, for me, that feeling stuck around for a few days.

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A couple episodes later, after Bryan lost his job saving Pam from a disgruntled warehouse employee, Jim’s feelings seemed to mirror those of the audience. Jim was hurt upon learning he’d made Pam cry and his confusion stemmed from Pam not telling him about her moment with Bryan. All the while we, the audience, feel confused and maybe even violated at the idea of this stranger throwing a wrench in the couple we’ve followed and loved for nearly a decade.

The writers’ choice to throw the happiest couple on television through the wringer is what has, for me, rejuvenated an aging series. Maybe it’s always been planned to use the last season as an opportunity to test the strongest bond in the series. In that regard, the writers are succeeding to the point where it’s a little hard to watch.

Regardless of some lazy writing, the stage is being set for an emotional journey to the end. The most recent episode ended with a shot of an internet ad setting the premiere of the documentary for May. And, more ominously, the 13th episode of this season ended with a close up of Bryan staring longingly at Pam as Jim spoke about the closeness you feel to those you work near.

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What this might imply for the plot of the series finale is anyone’s guess. But it’s my hope that it will close the book in a satisfying way on what once was one of the best sitcoms on the air.

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