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.

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