Come For The Laughter, Stay For The Musings On The American Dream

Meghan Keane at The Awl:

Have you watched The Office lately? The NBC series has become a microcosm of how depressing this recession can get—and not just because The Dunder Mifflin Paper company may fold in the next few episodes. That, after all, seems a fitting end for a company based on a business model that stopped being relevant in 1992. Instead, the show has taken the story of a man with a promising future and given him an interminable present.

In the last two seasons, our hero Jim Halpert won the girl, got the big promotion and upgraded to a suit. These were all things fans were happy about. It was encouraging. But wanting romantic tension to be relieved is never as satisfying as the relief.

The matrimony of Jim and Pam Beesly seemed the logical conclusion to a show where half the humor comes from unspoken communications between Dunder Mifflin employees and the audience watching their ongoing documentary. After years of silent glances, quiet flirtations and knowing inside jokes, Pam and Jim were finally—finally—doing what we’d be hoping for all along. Gone were Pam’s poorly-thought-out engagement to her lackluster boyfriend Roy and the painful tug of allegiances between Pam and Jim’s one-time girlfriend Karen that tore apart audiences earlier in the show. Jim and Pam won out. Getting those two together at last seemed so right!

Then their wedding day came. The Office pulled out a pretty impressive mid-season episode for an event that usually serves as a finale. There was communal puking. There was an ill-advised group dance down the aisle. There were the secret vows that Jim pulled out to remind Pam—and fans—of Jim’s greatness.

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.

Jamelle Bouie:

Much in the same way that a lot of people can’t handle dramatized violence or sex, I am almost incapable of watching the dramatized awkwardness and desperation that the show traffics in.  The Office regularly leaves me feeling extremely uncomfortable, and more than a little bit depressed for the characters.  It is actively painful to watch clueless mediocrities trudge through their jobs animated by little more than their mutual disdain and acrimony.  And it’s only gotten worse with this season.  As Keane notes, Jim and Pam were such appealing characters precisely because they obviously didn’t belong.  They were bright, clever and could have easily broken out of Dunder Mifflin to find real success for themselves.  But as we’ve seen this season, they haven’t – they’ve settled.  And worse, we (the audience) can tell that they’ve settled.  It’s perfectly clear that Jim and Pam aren’t happy with their lot, and but don’t have the motivation or courage to aim for something larger.

The worst part about this is the effect it has on the viewer.  I am 22, and as you can probably tell from this blog, I’m kind of ambitious.  I want to do something important, or at the very least, fulfilling.  The Office is not even remotely encouraging, indeed insofar that there is a “lesson” to the show, it’s “that having dreams is no indication that you’ll ever achieve them.”  At this point in my life, Jim, Pam, Michael and Dwight’s antics don’t even close to amusing me.  No, they fill me with existential despair.

Will at The League:

I’m about three seconds older than Jamelle in the grand scheme of things, but having just endured the inevitable “all your friends from college are getting married” season, I think I know where the show is coming from. I feel vaguely depressed just writing this, but “settling” – more charitably, growing up – inevitably involves certain trade-offs. Sometimes, friends’ professional or personal aspirations take a backseat to a long-term girlfriend or spouse. While this might mean they make it out to the bars a little a lot less frequently than you’d like or they aren’t applying to that grad program they planned on, it doesn’t make their decision to invest in a relationship any less satisfying.

In the context of the Jim-Pam relationship, “The Office” makes this trade-off pretty explicit. In the second season, Jim forgoes an opportunity to move to a better, higher-paying job in Maryland to stay in Scranton with Pam. Later, Pam gives up her shot at an art career in New York to move back in with Jim. Sure, they’re still stuck at Dunder-Mifflin, working mid-level jobs in a collapsing industry. But they’ve got each other, which ought to count for something.

E.D. Kain at The League:

Jim becomes the boss he once dreaded. But he does it to get the girl. I know that in the movies you’re supposed to beat the bad guy to get the girl, or do some other dramatic thing, but what Jim does is every bit as astounding as fighting or dying for Pam. He grows up. I wouldn’t say he “gives up” which seems to be the popular take on this lately. Rather, he relinquishes the power he has over his situation – his apathy – and decides instead to care. And this only intensifies when they become home-owners and prospective parents. Somehow, ironically, caring about a girl you love and a family you desire is frowned upon as underachieving. Jim ought to be caring about his career!

I know people who decide they can do all of this without making trades, but they’re mistaken. Ambition has its price. Kids (or spouses!) can step between you and your ambition, and you often have to choose between one or the other. Time is short when you work and take care of children. More school to get that next, better degree is out of the question if you want to spend time with family. Or time with your kids is drastically reduced while you scrape through law school or your MBA and then race off to your 60 hour a week career.

And here we enter the vague waters of “individualism.” In America we are all so caught up in this American dream. We run abruptly into a midlife crisis because we are unwilling to face the fact that most of us are set up to become – at least in our career path – less than historical figures. We ignore the many other ways we can become satisfied and happy and even prosperous in our lives because we are so attuned to the idea that it is our work and our work alone that is what will fulfill us. We undervalue the rest of our lives. We scorn the notion of “settling down” as though it is somehow a pejorative term, as though it is resignation. Settling has double meanings. One is to take something less than we ought to take, but another is coming to rest upon something.

We all search for peace and peace of mind. Beneath all its despair and all its antics and all its odd and perhaps at times unsatisfying twists, this is what The Office is about. Michael wants a family. He wants more than anything to settle down, to find peace and come to rest upon something solid and stable. It’s been his wish forever, and yet he sabotages himself at every turn. Jim and Pam are fumbling their way toward something like it themselves. Really, all the characters are in one way or another. I think the show is about hope more than it is about despair. It is about how we achieve something good in our lives beyond our work and career.

Joe Carter at First Things


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