Over at the Awl Meghan Keane has filed a story on why The Office is the most depressing show in prime time television. We’d first like to argue that a show like Intervention or Toddlers and Tiaras is infinitely more depressing (albeit in a more darkly enjoyable way). We’d also like to make it perfectly clear that we agree that The Office isn’t all that funny anymore. What we take issue with is that Keane places the blame on the straight man who we’ve always identified with.
She starts off by explaining that while Jim Halpert once had a promising future, he is now stuck living in the interminable present. Where we grew up, this was called reality. Yes, we’re all told as children that we have special talents and that if we study hard there’s some amazing career for us at the end of the journey. Remember when you wanted to be an astronaut? How many people did you go to high school with who are currently living out their childhood dreams? What if the “interminable present” is just the present?
It was always implied that Jim was overqualified for his job, and he only stuck it out at Dundler Mifflin because of his feelings for Pam. He’s not inspired by what he does, nor does he pretend to be. In fact, in the pilot episode he says, “If I advance any higher, this would be my career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.” And yet, we never really learn what he’d rather be doing. He’s not Pam sitting on some dream of becoming an artist. What if for Jim personal success isn’t measured by career? What if for him it’s having a life and family with Pam, and putting up with his “middling situation” is just a financial means to that end?
Keane is also bothered by Jim and Pam’s lack of social circle outside of the coworkers who they so regularly deride. “Jim and Pam getting married did more than give Michael and excuse to hook up with Pam’s mom. It expanded the lens of The Office wide enough to reveal a disturbing fact: Jim and Pam don’t have any real friends. Suddenly, a romance that seemed like the natural progression for two quietly charming people revealed itself to be much more depressing.”
This is The Office, not Friends. One of Pam’s bridesmaids was her dental hygienist best friend from Carbondale. The other was her sister. Jim had his practical joke-loving brothers, Tom and Pete by his side. (Random bit of trivia: Jim’s sister Larissa was once listed as his emergency contact at work.) We’ve known ever since Pam’s poorly-attended art show that her fellow employees are really the only people she has daily contact with. (There was also the fact that when Jim first declared his love to her she called her mom.) But why is that so weird? Can you really imagine either of them sitting in a coffee shop with a perfectly gender-balanced group making witty conversation? We’d find that depressing. These two quietly charming people are loners. That’s part of their quiet charm.
So is Jim really “a mediocre man who has already realized his full potential”? Pardon the Hallmark moment we’re about to have, but we’d argue that as an expectant father and a new husband, Jim has barely scraped the surface of who is or will be in his fictional life. Since we first met him, Jim’s one big dream was to be with Pam. He was able to achieve that goal. Do we think he looks happy in his partitioned office? No. But if his work days are some sort of professional purgatory, they’re no worse than what many of the people we know are going through in this recession. And they’re certainly no indication of all the things he might be.
Regardless, if this show had stopped being funny (and we agree that in most cases, it has), don’t look at the straight man. All he ever really did that was “funny” was make the Jim face.