Friday, October 3, 2008
The Office: Intellectual nonsense gone not funny
Has anyone else noticed that The Office is in serious, serious, serious danger of not being funny anymore?
(And has been for awhile?)
Last week's season premiere was an embarrassment. The superclever writers of the show have decided that prodding the audience, instead of making it laugh, has become An End to the show. Not just the final scene, but in this case, yes, the final scene. Example: Toby, the sad-faced HR rep who ostensibly left the titular office last year to move to Costa Rica, makes his first appearance on the show as... a guy who may or may not have broken his neck in his first few days in Costa Rica. No punchline. That's it. Being paralyzed is funny! The Office has long explored the relationship between uneasiness and humor, and has made an art out of creating some of the least believable, most uncomfortable-to-watch scenes in television history. In the past, though, these were all in the service of eventual comedy. Comedy seems to have taken a back seat, on The Office, to the idea of being clever: it seems like one big, bad graduate school thesis for comedy writers. Where they see comedy plus romance plus uncomfortable situations plus a little bit o' pathos plus actual audience participation in the show (via the Interwebs) = a new, better breed of sitcom, I see a show that's just not all that funny anymore because the being funny is now 20 percent of the goal. While I'd, off the bat, concede that the traditional sitcom is usually cloying and plain bad, you don't need to look further than 30 Rock to see that it's not the format it's the problem, it's the individual shows themselves. If The Office is the graduate student who can't help spout/test all her zany theories in her first post-collegiate job, to the chagrin, resentment, and amazement of an identically-aged staffer who's actually been doing the job for 10 years already, Tina Fey is that staffer. Why not go for a laugh if you can go for a laugh?
Now, part of my problem with The Office is that I can no longer stand many of the main characters. If Jenna Fischer and Jon Krasinski could somehow act like they actually liked each other, instead of merely pretending to because it says they do in the script, that would be, like, super helpful (See where I'm going with that?). Also, I get that Dwight is crazy, and I don't care. It was funny the first 60 times between the British version and the American version. Can we flesh out the character a bit more? Why is it that the minor characters get their moments of development — Kevin saying, last year, that it was "good to win one" in his parking fight, which came after his breakup; Stanley's fist-raising gesture at losing 7 pounds in the season premiere — and the major characters remain stereotypes, more or less? Isn't this the exact opposite of what they should be trying to do? We know nothing more or less than we do about Jim, Pam or Dwight than we did after five episodes of the show in the first season. Jim loves Pam, and that's it. Pam gets sad and confused and wants to be an artist. Dwight is funny because he's quasi-Amish/overeager. That's it. We've seen evidence of this since then, but it's merely reinforced what we already know. There hasn't been a moment where Jim has been a complete dick, or Pam has acted supremely confident, or Dwight has acted like a normal human being. It's been one long, slow twisting of the knife.
Here's where I talk a little bit more about the British show, which, I'll admit, sounds like an elitist/overinformed tact (Though it might just be the Britishness, in the way that whenever people talk about original items from Japan and Britain they sound like snobs, while referencing art from everywhere else sounds informed) — but I assure you that it's not. Rather, the British (The) Office's main advantage was that it had a short run — two seasons and a special — that made its premise all that believable because if the characters were around each other any longer they would naturally fall into equilibrium. The American (The) Office was able, like its predecessor, to disregard this for its first two seasons because we, the viewers, were dropped straight into this situation that we knew nothing about. Dwight could be a dick, Jim could be sullen, Pam could be pathetic and the joy would be that we would get to watch this work itself out. Four years later, it hasn't, which seems like the writers' way of trying to drill into our heads that "People don't change," which is intellectual bullcrap that may be true on some fundamental level but it is not on a practical level, where people who even detest each other will find a way to work and live together in ways that could actually be funny, if the writers took the (unfathomably short) step of making them act like humans. We watch sitcoms to laugh and unlike the writers of The Office, we work in actual offices across the country and live actual lives and actually fall in love and have heartbreaking moments and we know what they look and feel like, and while these one-dimensional characters are nice for us to project our own hopes and dreams upon, they don't really look and feel like real people — looking and feeling like real people being, I would guess, being exactly what the show's writers think they look like. There are some characters who, while cartoonish, have human traits. Stanley looks like a real person because he gets angry. Kevin looks like a real person because he has an emotional side. Darryl looks like a real person because he's cleverly mischevious. But the three main supporting roles are shells of characters, and are totally unredeeming. I don't care what happens to them because they are boring and not real. Why would I watch a show where the characters aren't real?
Still, The Office is a bona fide phenomenon, one with too many dedicated webpages to count and the Water Cooler Show of record. It seems to me that the writers are taking the show's popularity for granted and pushing the show further and further into nonstandard unfunny sitcom territory, as in Toby's possible paralyzation described above, which has a negative humor quotient, a term I just made up, when they should be in fact going backward to the fundamental rule of sitcoms now that they're more popular than ever: be funny. The Simpsons warded off these demons for about a decade, but it's taken The Office only a few years to reach the point of being cloying; The Simpsons thrived because it was animated; if The Office was animated, it would be a lot funnier. In fact, a lot of their jokes may look great on paper, but they don't play well in real life. It's actually been like this for more than a year now, but I've continued watching with high expectations that have not once been rewarded mostly because I like having something to watch on Thursday night. The Office might be a lot like Barack Obama (and while I don't want to get political, I think this is a "fair and balanced" assessment): great premise at the start, pitch-perfect for its time, better than the alternatives, but with some glaring flaws that most people agree to overlook because the alternative is so bad. But just because The Office is better than According to Jim doesn't make it great, the same way after watching Bill Clinton talk for 10 minutes you realize how far Obama has yet to travel to become the best Democratic politician of the last 50 years. He'll be the signature politician, and The Office is the signature sitcom of this decade, but that's just because someone's gotta be on top at any given time. The Office gives everyone a little bit of something — a slight resemblance to their own office, the Web searcher a chance to submit a tip, a little moment of reflection, an absurdist laugh — without performing its essential function: be funny, all the time. I understand why it's so popular. But it won't be for long unless it gets back into the business of telling jokes.