“If we've learned anything over the course of these shared Monday nights, it's that Castle isn't one of those shows that has a firm, rigid identity, like your CSIs and your Law And Orders. Those shows aim to the level of chess, a game that, in the right hands, offers the promise of drama and intellectual challenge based on how skillfully the combatants can work a few variations on an iron set of rules. By comparison, Castle is the Play-Doh Fun Factory of procedurals, a big goofy mold that the writers and stars can fill to the brim with whatever obsessions, passing fancies, and oddball notions happen to be on their mind that week. Sometimes, the result is a fun, spangled mess with lots of bright colors and funny shapes and yellow stars shooting over the parapets.”—The A.V. Club
An Open Letter to Jim Halpert
Hi, Jim. I don’t know if you know me, but I’ve been watching you for a while now. You seem like an okay dude, but you also seem like you could use a wake-up call. Consider this to be that.
I’ve been waiting. I’ve been waiting for you to realize that pulling pranks on Dwight and your other co-workers was fun and cute six years ago, but now you’re a fucking adult with a wife and a kid and another kid on the way, and I mean is anyone really falling for the “this is how I stay youthful” crap?
I’ve been waiting for you to realize that pulling pranks doesn’t keep you youthful, it keeps you an asshole. And you like to pretend like you’re a nerdy/geeky guy, even though you spend an hour every morning in front of the mirror trying to make your hair look like you just rolled out of bed, but you know what, Jim? The people who pulled pranks in high school weren’t the nerdy/geeky guys, they were the jocks, either pulling pranks on the nerds because they were bullies or pulling pranks on their pre-frat friends because they couldn’t handle their obviously homoerotic feelings for each other. So either you’re a jock in disguise, or you were so damaged by the jocks in high school that now you’re a thirty-something geek who is fixated on pulling pranks everyday, because that’s the only way you think someone can be cool.
I mean, what if you just stopped, Jim? I mean what if you just started doing your job and raising your kids and loving your wife and put away these idiotic pranks? Are you afraid that you’d see how empty your life is? How unfulfilling your career and your marriage is? Are you afraid you’d see that you are a just a cog in a machine, and not even a cog in a worthwhile machine, but a cog in a paper distribution machine? You’re in a dying industry, Jim, and goddamn I hope it can hold its death rattle long enough for you to raise your kids and retire unfulfilled.
Maybe you’re afraid your wife won’t love you anymore if you start being honest with yourself. Did she only fall for you because of your pranks? Maybe she did, and if you stop then she’ll stop, and then you’ll be alone again. God, Jim, your marriage is such a sham. Two people don’t have to be that cute all the time. It’s so fucking forced. If you really loved each other, every once and a while you could just chill out and fucking be with each other. Enjoy each other’s company. If you can’t let your charm guard down in front of your wife, then what’s the fucking reason for the partnership? The point you stop insisting your relationship have all the tropes of a Seinfeld episode is the point where you can honestly start loving each other. Only what if you realize then that you never really did love each other? Ah, there’s the rub.
Because you had such a healthier relationship with that Parks and Rec girl. You did. It wasn’t some cutesy co-dependent bullshit, it was a fucking relationship, Jim. And that scared the shit out of you, and you retreated to the safety of your “youth” and your pranks and your flirty office romance that represents all of the regrets in your life. At least Dwight knows what he wants, at least Dwight is honest with himself and the world. You hide behind engineered hairdos and pranks and self-aware goofy stares at cameras.
Do you think that makes you better than everyone else? That you can look at a camera and with one expression you can judge everyone else? If you’re always looking at the cameras and you’re never looking at yourself, then you’re never gonna be more than what you are now, Jim.
At least Michael Scott got out. You always looked at him as a fool, you constantly judged him for stumbling through life, but you know what you call stumbling? The rest of us call living. By making those mistakes week-in and week-out, Michael Scott might have become the butt of your jokes, but he also became a better man. He found love, and he got real meaning from his job and his friends and his life, and then he knew when to move on to the next thing. Jim, you’re not going to know when to move on. You’re still acting like you’re twelve, and not in a pranky-fun way, but in a way that is just going to get sadder and sadder. You’re going to start taking it out on your wife, because she is the closest person in your life—which is doubly sad because you never even really let her in, did you? And then you’re going to start taking it out on your kids, insisting they play the sports you never did, they pull the pranks you never did, they live the life you never lived.
But in the end Jim, when you’re too old to play pranks, and everyone else has moved on, you’re gonna give one last sarcastic look at that camera, and maybe you’ll feel like you had the last laugh. But in reality? You died alone.
P.S.: I liked you better when your name was Tim and you were British.
“NBC’s Community (1.3/5) dived 24% from last week to a series low. Remarkably, the comedy still ranked as NBC’s highest-rated program of the night for a third straight week with The Office in repeats. All of NBC’s originals were down double-digits from last week to series lows.”—
I think, NBC, it’s time you just accept that:
- The Nielson system is fucked.
- You will never have the numbers you had 10 years ago. The entire cast of Friends could appear on Up All Night and you’d still not have the ratings.
- That said, you still have some of the best comedies on network television. Don’t compare their numbers to CBS’s comedies: your Community and Up All Night and Bent and Parks & Rec may not pull in any viewers, but they’re better shows, smarter shows, funnier shows, than Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men and that show with David Spade that is inexplicably still on the air.
- You’ve also got some clunkers on your hands, that you gave full season pick ups for no good reason. Nobody wants a second season of Whitney. Nobody. Give that money to Greendale, where it’s being used to resuscitate the sitcom and elevate it to a higher level of television.
- Also, you’ve got some older Thursday night shows that are pretttttttty expensive now and are so bloated with age that they’re painful to watch. I’m looking at you, 30 Rock and The Office. Cut the fat, NBC.
- It’s better to have great shows nobody watches but everyone talks about than shows everyone watches and nobody talks about. Nobody thinks Dancing With The Stars is redefining entertainment. But last night’s Community, “Pillows and Blankets”, or even Awake, are two prime examples of fantastic pieces of television that would absolutely play better on HBO or Showtime or FX, but they’re on you, NBC, so cut them some slack.
- The Nielson system is fucked. It’s worth repeating.
The Office: A Requiem
Last night we said goodbye to the fine employees of Dunder-Mifflin, the scrappy paper company in quiet little Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.” — Pam Beesly Halpert
The Office was created in the U.K. by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and developed for American audiences by Greg Daniels (Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, King of the Hill). For most of its nine-season run (2005-2013) it was my favorite television show. It remains, without question, my favorite sitcom of all-time. And it will be remembered as one of the funniest and most influential T.V. comedies ever.
I still remember the day I fell in love with The Office. It was Tuesday, March 29, 2005. NBC was airing the series’ second episode, “Diversity Day.” I was a college sophomore, probably ignoring some mid-term paper or lab assignment due the next day. But Dean’s List be damned, my roommate and I settled in front of my 13” Magnavox at 9:30PM and watched.
“Diversity Day,” now considered a classic standout from that first season, is based on Michael Scott’s forced diversity sensitivity training. The whole training session results from an incident in which Michael decides to recite, verbatim, the infamous Chris Rock “Niggas vs. Black People” routine (a routine, that Rock, himself, now denounces and refuses to perform; that episode also showcased a flaw that would play out over Michael’s tenure as regional manager—his propensity to view himself as an entertainer first and a boss, second). It was a true LMFAO moment. The episode tackled thorny racial issues with humor and deftness I had never before seen on network T.V. I was hooked.
The reviews for that initial season were at best, mixed. Many critics saw it as a cheap imitation that failed to live up to the brilliance of the British original. But The Office eventually found its identity and what it wanted to say. It was a funny commentary on awkward interpersonal relationships, romance, and tedium, all in the context of the working world. (“Office Olympics” is a season-two episode based solely on the silly games people play at work just to kill the boredom.)
When it wasn’t LOL-funny it was affecting. It found its heart in the small moments in life. But it also went for those bigger moments. And more times than not they landed. Whether it was Jim and Pam’s pre-wedding jitters, Michael’s proposal to Holly, or last night’s series finale, they were instances that made you, as a viewer, root for these fictional characters. As comically pitched as they were, you could see yourself in them. Who doesn’t know what it’s like to try really hard to please his boss or secretly pine for someone?
One of my favorite themes from the show was one of its most relatable. How do you know where the line is between being real friends or work friends? How do you connect with people who are pleasant enough to pass time with in the office, but don’t necessarily share the same interests outside of it? A lot of the plots and situations drew from that well and are instantly recognizable to anyone who’s worked in an office. They did this while exploring a simple truth: that people spend more of their waking hours with their co-workers than they do with friends and loved ones.
Even at its most unimaginative and redundant I tuned in to every episode. I wanted to see how Jim and Pam were adjusting to being new parents. I cared about Michael’s loneliness and wanted him to be happy. Sometimes the stakes seemed low, but you understood that for these characters they couldn’t be higher.
I really can’t emphasize it enough—because it was the genius of the show—you cared about these made up people! The fate of a group of workers employed by a regional mid level paper supply store is something you concerned yourself with.
For me, seasons 2-5 were the critical peak for The Office. It was week after week of unmatched comedic brilliance. It tackled everything from professional ambition to the cold corporate culture of recession downsizing. (The Michael Scott Paper Company story arc was one of season 5’s shining moments.)
And after a few seasons the character relationships really began driving the show. And the cast was so good that its interplay seemed effortless. The writers had a smorgasbord to work with and numerous iterations: Jim-Dwight, Michael-Dwight, Michael-Pam, Kelly-Ryan, Oscar-Angela, Dwight-Angela, Oscar-Kevin, Michael-Toby, Darryl-Andy, Phyllis-Stanley. They all provided great moments of comedy and humanity.
But of course the emotional center to the show was always the romantic evolution of the Jim-Pam relationship. (Over the first three seasons there was no better romantic plot line.) We got to see their relationship in various forms— friendship, unrequited love, dating, marriage, and family unit. We got to see it all.
The first two seasons were spent with Jim and Pam both realizing their obvious attraction to one another, yet refusing to act upon it. It managed to be simultaneously entertaining and frustrating. Why doesn’t he just say what he feels?! The show did a wonderful job of playing out the will they, won’t they aspect for as long as possible, expertly bringing in Rashida Jones as Karen, to set up a threatening love triangle in season 3 (my favorite season and one I’ve watched no less than three times). It’s truly a credit to the creative team for being confidant enough to give the audience what it wanted and then move on, allowing Jim and Pam to be a real couple. There was always a risk that viewers would lose interest once the two became a happy couple.
But the writers had plenty of material when it came to Michael Scott. His natural and understandable yearning for a family remained unresolved. One of the conventions of television is that shows aren’t supposed to give the characters what they want until the end (which made the Jim-Pam storyline so fraught with peril). Viewers are far more interested in watching characters struggle. So when it was announced that Steve Carrell would be leaving during season 7 it was no surprise that he would be leaving on a happy note. After years of watching Michael struggle with desperate loneliness and terrible relationships (Jan) fans were finally treated by watching Michael win over Holly, his seemingly perfect match.
The Office isn’t the first classic show to outlive its expiration date (Friends floundered for years and The Simpsons hasn’t been culturally relevant in over fifteen years— and no one will ever write a retrospective about it because James L. Brooks loves money so it will NEVER go off the air!).
Some say the series should have ended in season 7 after Steve Carrell’s exit in “Goodbye, Michael.” While it’s true that the show never really found its way after Carrell’s departure and had been sometimes depressingly maddening, the truth is that the show had a pretty aimless sixth season as well, redeemed only by the excellent two-part Halpert-Beesly wedding in “Niagara.”
But in the post Michael Scott-era, the show’s most egregious transgression was promoting Andy Bernard into the role of regional manager. Once a (somewhat) loveable and sympathetic douche bag, Ed Helms’s character slowly morphed into Michael Scott-lite and then descended into such petty and insufferable behavior that it became difficult to watch. Indeed, the last two seasons only coasted by on the goodwill of the characters it created rather than any engaging plot lines.
The Office was a successful show by all metrics. It was a critical darling with a devoted fan base. And at its commercial peak it averaged about nine million viewers a week. It accomplished all this by perfecting a well-worn T.V. convention: create characters that viewers will want to tune in and spend time with each week. Based on the numerous shows produced and canceled since The Office began its run, that feat is easier said than accomplished.
But the actual formula that made the show such a hit was the sharp writing that combined hilarious jokes with tons of heart that wrung every single drop from the comedic talents of its ensemble cast. Its ability to tug at your heartstrings sometimes overshadowed its more slapstick elements. Who could forget the funniest set piece the show ever did, which aired during the 2009 post-Super Bowl episode:
Many of the people associated with the show are now huge successes. Mindy Kaling stars in and produces her own show, The Mindy Project, on Fox. Daniels and writer Mike Schur went on to create the hit Parks and Recreation. And before The Office, Ed Helms was most famous for being a correspondent on The Daily Show. Now he’s the star in The Hangover trilogy, one of the most successful Hollywood franchises of all-time.
But its true legacy is its influence. Now, whenever I watch Modern Family or Parks and Recreation I forget it’s even being shot in a “mockumentary” style (which at one point threatened to become a genre all its own).
It made single-camera sitcoms with no laugh tracks the ones now considered “smart.” While more traditional comedies seem unhip and outdated. (Although with the end of The Office, NBC is looking to make a return to that broader and more traditional format.)
It also ushered in a new era of Must-See TV for NBC. For years it was the best comedy on the network and during the 2009-10 season it anchored what I consider to be the Murderer’s Row of comedy T.V. line-ups: Community, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock. All of them critical (if low-rated) successes.
I was too young to appreciate Seinfeld’s original run. I despised Friends. And I know people who insist that the U.K. version of The Office was better but truth be told I only watched the pilot episode so I can’t argue either way (as much as I would like to tell them they’re probably snobs who are full of shit).
Last night’s Office finale was the most satisfying end to a show I’ve ever watched. And simply put, over the last decade no one did it better. That’s what she said.