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I spent a bunch of summers working at a summer camp back in my late teens, early twenties. They were some of the best years of my life. I met my wife there and, more than a decade later, consider the friends I made among my closest. I look back at those years with a nostalgic fondness reserved for the times of true happiness. When I go back and visit, it isn’t with the intention of recreating the experience, but rather as a chance to remember the way things were. Camp isn’t the same: that’s fine, life moves on. In many ways, I feel the same way about The Office.
Now it’s easy to say there’s something “wrong” with The Office this season. Viewing numbers have dipped to a certain degree, advertising dollars are on the decline, and critics have been hard on the show’s somewhat meandering plot structure and lack of gut-busting humor. Let’s face it, even the rather subjective “water cooler” talk about the show has subsided significantly as best evidenced by my mom replacing her “Hey, did you see The Office?” questions, with “Hey, did you see Parks and Recreation?” (The torch has been passed).
The logical answer to The Office’s ratings, laughs and pop cultural references dip would be the exit of Michael Scott from his position as resident Regional manager and comedian du jour. Steve Carrell was the comedic backbone after all. But his moving to Colorado with Holly as a lynchpin for the show’s demise is a little too convenient and ignores The Office’s downward trending over the last few seasons.
I think, much like my experience at summer camp, the major difference with The Office now as compared to earlier seasons comes with the viewer’s personal investment, which is the true nexus of funny. And while there are obviously different kinds of humor, and it’s rather subjective in nature, a show like The Office was wildly hilarious because it A: tapped into a new brand of awkward humor and B: made us care deeply for the characters and their story. The latter is a critical missing component plaguing the show and its viewers. Deeper understanding leads to deeper investment which leads to deeper belly laughs. Consider the comedian who tells knock-knock jokes over and over as compared to the comedian who finds humor in the thing we just went through earlier that afternoon.
Those tuning into The Office for the first time this season, with no reference point or background knowledge of the Dunder Mifflin crew would probably find a funny show: worth watching, sometimes worth quoting and fairly entertaining. To be fair, I think aspects of this season have been hilarious. Rainn Wilson still crushes it as Dwight, creepy Gabe’s horror movie-as-art fascination gets me every time, Robert California’s addition is a net positive and Andy has his moments in the big chair. But beyond these surface level laughs, the over-arching sense of story is pretty much gone.
The second and third seasons of The Office were among the best comedic seasons ever. I’d put them up against anything. And I know there’s a human instinct to proclaim the sanctity and perfection of the past while screaming, “Things are much worse now! Why can’t it be like it was before?!” But there’s a specific reason those seasons were great beyond Michael’s uncomfortably obtuse management style and Dwight’s Survival Man uber-intensity. Because in addition to those two iconic characters, the Jim and Pam love story grounded the show in both emotionally and comedically. *** And I understand this wasn’t the only example of the humanizing of the characters, but it was by far the most culturally relevant (i.e. the big story). Hell there were t-shirts and mugs on sale imploring Pam to “Choose Jim”. If you were to create a t-shirt that encapsulates this season, would there be anything to even choose? Would anyone know what you were talking about?
*** This is not to say the show wouldn’t have been funny in an emotional vacuum, but the human side of their relationship took it to a transcendent level
Humor for humor’s sake is fine in the short term, but it’s not a recipe for long term success. And once joke writing is all that’s left, a show has entered its autumn years.
The Office is left with characters who the writers, rather than exploring in any meaningful way (outside of moments here and there) have been happy turning into caricatures of themselves (something that started happening years ago). And at this point, I am not completely sure there are many stories worthy of “opening up” or delving into with any great passion. (Outside of Pam and Jim getting a divorce which would be both ground-breaking-ly ballsy while also assuredly submarining the show).
All of this is fine. Much like my summer camp, The Office isn’t what it used to be, or at least it isn’t what it used to be for me. I’ve moved on. Sure, we’ll keep in touch, still check in to see what old friends are up to, still laugh at the antics and worry slightly about the future of the organization. But it’s not the same. Life moves on. And much like summer camp, shows doesn’t last forever.