Friday, March 20, 2009

Why So Serious?

Something must be done about this season of The Office. We all remember the good old days of the Dundies, the Dunder-Mifflin Olympiad, and Dwight channeling Mussolini making a convention speech. The reason all of that worked is because it was just this side of frivolous; it was character-driven comedy, and it was intensely comedic; it never took itself too seriously.

Fast-forward to Season 5, and Diwali parties and Fun Runs have given way to what exactly? Pam's parents facing very real drama when they intend to split up? Michael having real feelings for a woman, almost to the point of you feeling sympathy for the man? Jim and Pam's relationship, which we rooted for through seasons of Roy, straining over the bounds of distance and separated interests? All of this may work for a character drama, but it's not the Office that we've come to know and love.

Most of the episodes in the first four seasons you could walk away from chuckling and waiting for next week's installment (or next minute's installment, if you were watching the "electronic" version). But most of the time now, you walk away with more of a cringe than a smile, and instead of amusement, it's more often a bittersweet far more bitter than sweet, or than funny for that matter.

One viewer posted an impassioned defense of the most recent episode, "New Boss", on Hulu. In true Web 2.0 style, I'm going to respond to parts of that review.

The show really used to have no plot - it was just about a bunch of people working together in an office for a boss that was a pain in the butt.

Is this a bad thing? In effect, you're accusing The Office of being a show about nothing. Recall another show-about-nothing, Seinfeld, which was probably the funniest, most successful, and best-loved comedy that television has ever seen. Asserting that The Office has to have a plot to be funny, or watchable, or successful, is a fallacy.

But, now, the show has embraced more serious and true to life story lines. For instance, the difficulties of beginning a family in a plunging economy[...]

Is this a good thing? I can only name a handful of shows (Freaks and Geeks is one of the few) that are successful because they accurately portray "true to life" stories. The rest are straight-up fantasy (Battlestar Galactica, Lost) or are predicated on such obvious exaggerations of whatever nuggets of reality may have existed that they may as well be straight fantasy (24, House). I have a life in the real world. I don't need television to mirror it too closely.

Another review had the following to say:
[...]it was a good plot-moving episode that finally creates a multi-episode story-arc that we can look forward to.

No. Not from The Office. If I want something that complicated, I'll again turn to something like 24. It's okay for a show, particularly a half-hour comedy, to have perfectly self-contained mini-plots in each episode. Look at Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm or even older The Office. That's not to say that what happened in one episode of those shows never affected what happened in another episode. Arrested Development in particular did very clever things with recurring storylines. But to create something as inherently dramatic as a "multi-episode story-arc" has no place in a comedy.

In the end, this discussion comes down to exactly what you want to see from The Office. If you envision it as a "dromedy", then you might not mind all the changes that Season 5 has brought. But if you see it as straight comedy, like I do, then all of this is more than a little odd. Some people insist that the show has had its dramatic moments all along, but I maintain that the evidence to support that argument just isn't there in the early seasons.

Currently listening: "Comfortably Numb", Pink Floyd

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