comedy, tv

Why the critics are wrong about ‘The Office’

The Office, like Saturday Night Live or any other show with a history, has always been prey for cynics. Some say it was never as good as the UK version, some say it went downhill a few years ago, some say it’s been pointless since Steve Carell left.

I’m not one of those cynics, about SNL or The Office. I’ve seen almost every episode, and the show has rewarded me for my loyalty.

Until January. And the reason I’ve skimmed through or ignored the last few episodes illustrates a blind spot shared by many in the entertainment industry, even among otherwise brilliant and perceptive people.

The problem is Jim and Pam, the couple at the heart of the show. We’ve gone through a wonderful love story with them through the years. And while The Office is fundamentally a comedy, Jim and Pam’s drama has provided some of the show’s best moments. Casino Night, in which Jim confesses his feelings to Pam, is brilliant. So is The Job, the episode that brings them together. Those are the best episodes of this show, even if the funniest episode is the classic farce Dinner Party.

Producer Greg Daniels seems impressed with this season’s Jim-Pam story arc, which has culminated in a full-blown fight that moved the documentary crew to intervene. And many critics in Wikipedia’s exhaustive roundup agree.

– “This was one of the more naturalistic marital fights I’ve seen on TV in a while,” said Time’s James Poniewozik.

– “Even if you jumped ship from The Office the minute that Steve Carell did, last night’s episode was one worth tuning in for,” said Hollywood.com’s Aly Semigran.

– “It felt just like the kind of argument that two real people would have,” said the Boston Herald‘s Mark Perigard.

– “In a rare moment of real, grounded and almost painfully honest drama, The Office illustrated one of the things they have gotten absolutely right: the Pam and Jim relationship,” said IGN’s Roth Cornet.

The intrusion of the documentary crew doesn’t bother me.

– “(It’)s good, since those of us in the audience couldn’t jump through the screen to comfort Pam,” said Zap2It’s Rick Porter.

Agreed. I wanted to jump through the screen after any number of Pam-and-Roy incidents.

Here’s the problem:

– “Part of The Office died when Jim and Pam hooked up and started living their perfect little lives together,” said The Citizen’s David Wilcox.

That’s the bias, that’s the blind spot that separates a lot of the entertainment world from the real world.

Real couples can be happy. And funny. I’ve been married 13 years, and I’m still occasionally amusing. The circumstances around me are hilarious.

Sadly, I’m not able to comment on those circumstances as well as Jim and Pam (and the camera crews) do on The Office. Jim and Pam are our window into this mad world. We empathized as they dealt with the workplace, and we empathize as they deal with the work-life balance.

Sure, fights happen. But not always. It’s not “unrealistic” to have a couple go about its routine for years without a protracted shouting match.

The roots of this argument are not “realistic.” They’re contrived, and they’ve forced The Office to push Jim far out of character.

The Jim we’ve known for eight seasons wouldn’t make a risky investment without talking with Pam. He wouldn’t put his family down a path toward moving to Philadelphia without talking with Pam. He spent years lamenting Pam’s inability to stand up as Roy walked all over her, and now he’s going to walk all over her?

And then the Pam who has been devoted to Jim is suddenly going to be tempted by a guy who was presumably there all along, holding the boom mike?

Fortunately, the critics are drawing the line there (see Poniewozik). Let’s hope the producers draw the line there as well.

comedy, tv

Quick review: The Office, Season 9, Episode 2

The first episode this season was surprisingly good. Tonight, that momentum died instantly.

The Office is falling into the old sitcom cliche of a married couple running into trouble over some sort of misunderstanding. It’s a betrayal of the Jim and Pam characters.

Jim and Pam are supposed to our sane window into this crazy world. But we’ve gone back and forth after the past few seasons. First, Pam’s incompetent and hapless. Now that Pam is on top of things, as beautifully shown in the first episode’s rooftop scene with Dwight, Jim is a complete idiot. And a little creepy. Who starts a new company and keeps it secret from his spouse?

(Also: Could they be any more stereotypical, getting all bent of shape about failing to surprise each other? And that’s supposed to be stirred up by Roy’s surprising success? Roy’s still a scumbag, so who cares?)

Next week, apparently, Nellie exploits the mistrust to make Pam think Jim is having an affair. We have to hope Jim is forced to fess up so this story arc can die.

The best part of a bad story line: Oscar’s spit take when Angela says her husband can still surprise her.

The Dwight-Nellie story wasn’t bad, but they couldn’t figure out a way to end it. Darryl’s diversion worked, but it ended with “Am not/Are too”? Really?

New Jim, whose name I don’t recall, redeemed the Andy-Erin storyline.

journalism, tv

Come on, Lisa de Moraes — get off NBC’s back!

I’ll grant that The Office has been erratic this season. But the ratings for the other three shows — 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Community — aren’t so much a signal of NBC’s decline as they are a signal of the USA’s sheer bad taste.

(And the fact that, as many commenters note, the folks who watch quality show are increasingly likely to watch on Hulu or elsewhere online.)

NBC Thursday comedy block: how bad are things? – The TV Column – The Washington Post.

comedy, tv

Are sitcoms unfair to women?

A household theological discussion turned into some remembrances of Sports Night, the lamented Aaron Sorkin offering that lasted only two seasons. It’s not a stretch — in one scene, Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) frets that the Pope has questioned the existence of Hell, while Jeremy (Joshua Malina) insists that she did good things not to avoid a fiery afterlife but because she was a good person.

It’s a thoughtful scene, but there’s a problem. Jeremy is always the one to reason with Natalie. In their on-again, off-again relationship, Jeremy is always the rational one. Natalie, though apparently good at her job and too cute for words, drives Jeremy away at least once by being ridiculous.

The other women in the show aren’t any better. Dana (Felicity Huffman) is the producer in charge but is hapless in relationships. Sally (Brenda Strong) is basically an evil temptress.

That led me to one of several problems I have with the current season of The Office. Most of the characters on the show have quirks of some kind, and I can’t complain about tightly wound Angela. Jan’s latent psychopathic behavior was comedy gold. I’d be happy if Phyllis simply disappeared from the show, but that’s because I don’t find her funny, not because her personality traits are any worse than, say, Creed’s. Kelly has severe personality flaws but is a terrific character to have on the show.

One problem is Erin, the receptionist who veers between sweetly naive and stereotypically stupid. She gets a bit of a pass because she’s played by brilliant Princeton grad Ellie Kemper, but the writers have gone overboard in making her stupid. She’s basically a cute, single Peter Griffin.

The biggest problem is Pam. During her receptionist/budding artist years, we always sensed that she was capable of doing much more. Since then, she has been a failure. Flunked out of art school. Horrible at sales. Flailing as an office administrator. And she doesn’t even get as many witty lines as she used to.

The redeeming woman on The Office is Holly, who is leading Michael to a new life. Sure, she has quirks as well, but it is a comedy, after all.

Other sitcoms are more difficult to judge. Community sometimes explores relationships, but when everyone is involved in a paintball game that has turned into hard-core warfare at a community college, the absurdity level is too high to complain about how women are portrayed. (Besides, they held their own.) 30 Rock is cruel to Liz Lemon, which is one reason I haven’t fully gotten into it, but the men are mostly crazy.

And in any case, sitcom women are never as stupid as men in beer commercials.