The Office is closing up shop

maureen

May 9

I’ve watched The Office since it first aired. Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott was brilliantly awkward as was Rainn Wilson’s Dwight Schrute. These characters started out as comic oddballs, but at some point these bizarre guys became characters I didn’t just laugh at but rooted for and cared about.

The very skills and personality that make Michael Scott a wonderful salesman do not translate to managerial success. Michael is endlessly enthusiastic and impractical. He craves the limelight and manipulates situations to make himself the center of attention. Michael overreacts to almost every situation and has absolutely no filter. He’s ineffective and often petulant, but there is a sweetness about him, too. Michael is especially supportive of Pam as she challenges herself to pursue sales and art. Jim and Pam’s affection for Michael help the audience develop compassion and even respect for him before he leaves the series. Michael’s relationship with receptionist Erin is particularly endearing. He discovers that Erin was raised in foster care and senses her need for a father so he makes that part of the playful give and take between them. Michael Scott is a man without guile, an odd thing to find in a salesman. I’m looking forward to seeing Michael again for the finale.

Dwight is a different sort of awkward.  Dwight is serious about paper and rules. His authoritarian attitude, geek/redneck interests, and pseudo-amish family  background make him a spectacular foil for Jim. Yet, Dwight’s enthusiasm, dedication, and loyalty are endearing. Dwight reminds me of an odd relative. When he shows up at holidays he’ll always have a place at the table. When he says awkward, embarrassing things we smile and shrug because he belongs to us. We are used to him and we know all the hidden good about him that strangers don’t see. So when Dwight finally becomes manager of Dunder Mifflin, the Office is genuinely happy for him.  

 The mockumentary format worked so well for this show. The Office environment is filtered through each character’s direct reflections to the camera. Often Jim and Pam are the ones who provide perspective for the audience, sometimes confirming our suspicions and sometimes challenging our assumptions about other characters. Without them I would have laughed at Michael and Dwight but it is through the eyes of Jim and Pam that I’ve developed real affection for them.

Any member of the workforce can relate to Jim’s “surrounded by idiots” bemusement. Jim has higher aspirations for his life than Dunder Mifflin, considering his job, temporary. He says “if this were my career I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.” In spite of this, Jim is a competent salesman and demonstrates a big-picture understanding of the office environment. Yet his main enjoyment are the pranks he pulls and the knowing looks he and Pam exchange whenever someone in the office does or says something silly. Jim finds a fellow bemused observer in Pam.

Though Pam is engaged in the early seasons to one of the warehouse workers her friendship with Jim grows and a romantic tension develops in their relationship that both try to resist. Eventually it’s evident that they care about one another but the relationship takes a number of detours before the two finally get together. They marry and become parents, commuting together to work. Then Jim gets an opportunity for a dream job. He begins a part-time start up in Philadelphia with an old college friend and brings fellow office employee Darryl aboard as well. With Jim commuting between cities, the plan is for Pam to eventually move there when the business is stable and Jim and leave Dunder Mifflin for good. Problem is, Pam isn’t on board.

What I loved about this season was how honest their marriage struggles have been portrayed. Their efforts to follow the advice of the marriage counselor to affirm one another were so overtly deliberate that they led a co-worker to ask, “Are you high?” It was funny but it also made the point that marriage is work. It takes conscious effort. There are times when sacrifices and choices have to be made because, in spite of the hype, you can’t always have it all. I loved that Jim chose Pam over business opportunity. I love that Pam wants Jim to be happy in his work and recognizes the sacrifice he’s made for her. It will be interesting to see how the last episode resolves this tension. Hopefully his promotion to assistant to the manager won’t leave Jim feeling so entrenched he wants to throw himself under a train.

A dysfunctional workplace and uniquely human co-workers (and aren’t they all?) can make you feel like laughing and hitting the tracks at the same time. It’s been a joy to exchange knowing glances with a show that understands that.

 

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