I was compelled to write this after an uncommonly good two hours of NBC smartcoms last week, including a mostly passable episode of The Office (save the tag). Of those episodes, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation were the best, but The Office got me thinking about a theory I’ve had about the show’s farewell season for a while now.
Simply, that the show seems gearing up to end (and in fact should end) with the chaotic dissolution of Dunder Mifflin.
Now, I know there are some late-stage Office haters out there who probably agree with me that the show’s titular workplace and all of its selfish misanthropes should go down in flames, but there are probably fewer of you who agree that that’s how things should go. Observe, however, my points to the contrary.
1. Incompetency abounds
The idea that Dunder Mifflin’s employees are simply too bad at their jobs for the company to continue to exist is an argument you could make at virtually any point in the show’s run, but I think it’s at its worst right now. Against all odds, Andy Bernard has proven to be an even worse boss than Michael Scott, developing all of Michael’s ingratiating tendencies with none of the genuine care Michael sometimes expressed for other people. However, Andy’s only the rotten cherry on top of the increasingly melted and spoiled sundae that is The Office’s cast work ethic.
In the most recent episode, even the usually conscientious (but ineffective) Pam gets in on the terrible employee bandwagon, actively driving away business in order to be part of a time-wasting activity. Jim, who actually does care about his work, is switching to part-time, leaving by my estimation about three people (Dwight, Angela and Oscar) actually invested in their jobs.
With the amount of bad decision-making that goes on in every episode, the downfall of the company certainly seems possible. In fact, the show has toyed with this possibility in the past.
2. Interpersonal atrocities
Not only are The Office’s characters terrible employees, they are terrible people as well. Andy only cares about prestige and being liked, Angela is judgmental and catty, Kevin gloats over the misfortunes of others, Creed is an admitted scumbag and new addition Clark is a borderline sexual predator. These characters’ histories with each other are often deeply bitter, and the show’s most recent unpleasantness could easily serve as a catalyst for a collapse of Dunder Mifflin’s day-to-day operations.
The most recent unpleasantness, of course, is the revelation that Oscar is having an affair with Angela’s husband. Last week’s episode, “The Target,” revealed that Angela had discovered the affair and attempted to put out a contract on Oscar’s life (later downgraded to a good old-fashioned knee-capping). Neither Oscar nor Angela come off looking good at all in the story, which is somewhat surprising given the show’s typical affection for its characters at their most unsavory.
Other interpersonal powderkegs include Erin’s growing affections for Pete over Andy and Andy’s continued sadism toward Nellie.
3. Creative adjustment
“That’s all fine and good,” you might say, “but misanthropy and incompetence have always been hallmarks of The Office. The showrunners like the characters too much to do anything really bad to them.”
In the past, I might have agreed with you, but there’s a new factor to contend with this year: Greg Daniels, noted television producer of shows like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Parks and Recreation and, oh yeah, The Office.
Daniels ran The Office for its first three seasons, revered by many as the show’s golden age. After Office writer and actor Paul Lieberstein (Toby) ran the show from seasons four through eight, Daniels has stepped in to guide The Office to its conclusion.
The Office has changed in many ways since the end of Season Three, but perhaps the most notable difference between the pre- and post-Daniel years is the gradual shift from wicked office satire to broad, often slapstick comedy. The old Office could definitely do big comedy (think episodes like “The Fire”) but it was at its core a show about the drudgery and unfairness of working in a typical white collar office job. It had affection for its characters, but it also looked at them more honestly, calling out bad behavior for what it was and recognizing that people who work together aren’t always going to like or even tolerate each other.
So far this year, Daniels has taken the narrative threads left over from Season Eight and followed them to slightly more logical ends than I think the previous creative team would have been willing to go. Rather than trying to make Andy’s selfish behavior charming, Daniels is portraying it as ugly as it really is. Rather than trying to justify Oscar’s behavior or Angela’s reaction to it, Daniels portrays Oscar as selfish and self-justifying and Angela as petty and broken. Characters like Stanley are allowed to be fully apathetic about their jobs and about how they affect others, willing to make a coworker sweat (and drop hundreds of dollars on a lunch meeting) simply out of misplaced cruelty. We’re still allowed to laugh at these hapless Scrantonites, but we’re no longer being allowed to overlook their abject terribleness.
In short, The Office’s characters might soon see their actions catch up to them. Let’s hope the implosion is utter, deserved, and most important, funny.
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