I talk television with a lot of people. Friends, family, other critics on Twitter, vagrants on the street. I just love talking about TV. Because I don’t have the time and resources to do a podcast like I used to in college, I’m going to sort of replicate that experience in textual form in a new recurring feature. Basically, I’ll just exchange a few emails with someone on a particular topic. You’ve seen this kind of thing done tons of other places, but it’s something I enjoy doing so expect more of it here on TVS.
Hiya, folks! As you may or may not know, I am current in the midst of a period that necessitates I keep my television criticism to a minimum. But although I do not really have the time to fit much in, I cannot stay away. There are too many interesting things to discuss. That is where a feature like Chitchat comes in handy. Today, my buddy Brad Sanders joins me to discuss an important question: Why are The Office’s Jim and Pam kind of the worst?
Cory: Brad, you and I exchanged a few emails about the new season of The Office back in the fall when the series was first ramping up the post-Steve Carell era, but I wanted to check in with you on a slightly different Dunder-Mifflin-related topic (although we can address the series’ overall quality later): The Halperts. There has been a lot of discussion about the series’ treatment of their once adored couple for a lot of years now, but it’s something that seems to be bubbling back up in recent weeks, spurred on by their actions in “Jury Duty.” Sepinwall touched on it in his review and my buddy Myles McNutt addressed it a little bit in his piece on last week’s episode. There’s no question in my mind that the series has struggled to find real stories for Jim or Pam or really for them as a couple for a while now (whether you believe the problem started once they got together or sometime later, say after they got married, is up to you). But eight years in, how do you feel about the way the series represents the golden romantic couple of the aughts? Do you, like Sepinwall, hate Jim and Pam? Why or why not?
Brad: Cory, I think hate is probably too strong a word for how I feel about Jim and Pam at this point. In moments like Jim’s charade in “Jury Duty” or that cold open from earlier this season where Pam constantly faked labor to get out of meetings, what I saw was a desperate writer’s room trying to find ways to make this couple stop boring us. If Jim and Pam finally getting together sucked a lot of the excitement out of their dynamic, their wedding was the death blow. That was a great episode, but its subtext was pretty clearly “This relationship will never be interesting again, so you’d might as well cry it up now.” Now we’re trapped in a glut of episodes that are a reaction to the stasis. What do you think? Are a despicable Jim and Pam like what we’ve seen this season better than a boring Jim and Pam?
Cory: I’ve long been a proponent of post-coupled or post-marriage Jim and Pam. While I totally agree that putting the two of them together suck a substantial amount of life and narrative drive out of the series, I think that it was ultimately the right move and arguably, has led to some really intriguing stories. If you look at Jim and Pam’s lives as a whole, based on what we’ve seen from The Office, I think it’s actually kind of wonderful how the writers have handled them. The early-season versions of Halpert and Beasley were both so full of life, optimism and hope that eventually, one day, they’ll get away from Dunder-Mifflin. Everyone points to that talking head segment with Jim from the pilot where he talks about DM not being his career and we all remember how much time the series spent on Pam’s dreams. For a young series and for a romantic couple, Jim and Pam’s brazen desire to improve their lives and to escape made perfect sense. It connected perfectly to their position as the will-they-or-won’t-they Unresolved Sexual Tension Couple because not only did we want them to JUST KISS ALREADY, we wanted them to find a better, happier life. We rooted for Jim and Pam. As a couple, both also as individuals. We saw ourselves in them, both in a romantic context but in a professional context as well. They were us. That absolutely powered the series in the first three seasons, maybe into the fourth and fifth (though I’d argue that it began to focus more on Michael and sort of Dwight at that point).
In the series’ later years, however, Jim and Pam can be defined by one word: Complacency. Or settling, whichever you prefer. Pam went to New York, realized that she missed Jim (also: the writers were TERRIFIED to even hint at breaking them up, even if it meant Pam might kiss Mad Men‘s Harry Crane). Jim considered being manager, realized that he was somewhat bad at it and ultimately decided that he was too busy being the cool guy to really make the changes necessary to be the boss (also: again, the writers were TERRIFIED to take Jim away from his camera glances). Jim awkwardly bought his parents his as a gift to Pam, she sort of underwhelmingly accepted. They accidentally got pregnant. Twice. They stopped having friends outside of the office and allowed people like Ryan Howard come to their Christening. Some of these events happened because of writer stupidity or fear, but the point remains: Jim and Pam settled. They ultimately decided that their heart-stopping love was the most important thing in the world to them, but along the way, that love also consumed whatever ambition they had to do other things. When you’re young and maybe in love, you displace all sorts of meaning. “One day, I’m going to marry that girl and I’m going to get the hell out of here.” Well, you can marry that girl (and get her pregnant), but that doesn’t solve your other problem and if you’re too wrapped up in finally marrying that girl, you probably don’t have time — or even care to find time — to solve said problem.
This complacency, I think, rubs people the wrong way. Although this version of The Office is, at its core, much more optimistic and uplifting when compared to the original, it has always found a way to solidly represent contemporary American workplace culture quite well. This is definitely less true in later seasons, but where I think it is most true is with Jim and Pam. The Halperts embody the lifespan of someone working in an office in the 21st century. They come in, full of piss and vinegar, with hopes, dreams and ambition and maybe even some real talent. But once the system sucks you in and you start getting that steady paycheck and those benefits, it’s hard to drop everything and move to Philadelphia and become a sports writer, or whatever the hell it is Jim pretended he wanted to do in 2005 — especially when you have a family. Why risk it? Why not just be happy with what you have and who you are? Now, I think there are some issues with who, exactly, Jim and Pam are at this point and we’ll get to that, but I think people don’t give the series enough credit in this regard. I hate to be the person that tells everyone they are wrong, but is it possible that we just wanted more for Jim and Pam and their ultimate decision to settle (or avoid real challenges) therefore rubs us the wrong way? What do you think?
Brad: It’s definitely valid that they’ve settled, but in the context of what the show has become, does it really make any sense that they settled? In a universe where Dwight Schrute has an Ahab-like obsession with managing a small branch of a paper company in addition to owning a beet farm, where Michael Scott shows that he should be fired on a weekly basis for eight years before eloping, and where Robert California exists, are people going to take away that Jim and Pam are the part of the show that’s supposed to be rooted in cold, hard reality? I’m doubtful. It’s practically irrelevant that their lives are following a realistic trajectory when they exist in such an unrealistic world.
I say practically irrelevant because, of course, it isn’t. The writers have made a conscious effort to show that these are post-dreams Jim and Pam, and that their bitterness that occasionally manifests in machinations like those we saw in “Jury Duty” because they’ve given up on their dreams. That really doesn’t make them likeable, though. Relatable, maybe, though I’m still too young to say “Yeah, settling!” But certainly not likeable. And what does The Office need more than likeable characters right now? Desperate plot lines in the past few seasons have ruined almost everyone in the entire company at this point. You’re right. We wanted Jim and Pam to find a better life. They didn’t, and now we have to deal with the consequences of that. But would it kill the writers to make them worth rooting for? Why can’t Jim want to be a corporate suit in Florida? Why can’t we get scenes of Pam being an awesome mother? When do we get to live vicariously through these people again, and if the answer is never, who the hell are we supposed to live through? Sometimes I feel like I’m the one who’s settling by continuing to watch this show.
Cory: Your point about the balance between “reality” and “unreality” is a great one. Perhaps in that regard, Jim and Pam’s “real-ness” only serves to remind the audience further how “unreal” everything else around them is. And I think it is ever-important to remember that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if the writers made a substantial effort with the characters over time. It’s possible that I am too naive and simply choose to view the creative team’s inabilities as purposeful character change, just as I accuse the rest of the audience for naively hoping they’d be more than this in 2012.
However, let’s pretend I’m not naive for a few minutes longer. You briefly addressed the character’s lack of likability, and I think that is a perfect place to move next. I almost entirely agree that the two of them aren’t likable anymore, at least not consistently, yet, again, I find that interesting. In a lot ways, this extends from what I was already talking about previously: If Jim and Pam are the quintessential representation of lost potential and complacency, it stands to reason that they would, in fact, kind of suck. Their biggest problem (or at least the biggest problem in how the series represents them) is that they still act like they did six years ago. They still think they’re cute. They still think they’re funny. The problem is that all the energy that was narratively behind that initial cuteness is gone and so our investment in seeing them act that way is similarly gone. So, if you follow my quasi-warped logic here, it also stands to reason that not only would Jim and Pam suck, they would also lack the self-awareness to know they suck. Perhaps their immaturity in the office is part of some attempt on their part to connect back to the people they once were, or perhaps they’re just immature. I’m not sure. But their journey from office Most Likely to just another one of the sheep is an arc, just not the one we assumed it would be.
On a related note, I think their declining Q score could also be interpreted as a backhanded comment on what happens to that flirty underdog couple that television always wants you to root for. As viewers, we are trained to expect these sort of relationships to either avoid resolution until the very end, where we can ultimately fill in the blanks of happy endings, 2.5 kids, picket fences, etc. or progress like a live-action checklist of engagement, wedding and baby. But in both cases, we’re also trained to assume that the happy endings and the sparks last forever. With Jim and Pam, The Office again brings us all back to reality and the reality is that people who are supposedly in TRUE LOVE are pretty annoying to be around, especially when you’re a middle-aged dude just trying to punch a clock so your kid can go to community college. Jim and Pam’s “love story” makes for great television, but it probably makes Stanley want to stab his eyes out with his crossword pencil (but he can’t do that, because he has to watch Burn Notice).*
*You could say the same thing for new parents. God. Those people. Yes, I “definitely” want to see more pictures of your newborn.
So perhaps Jim and Pam’s lack of motivation to reach their dreams makes them unlikable. Or their true love is annoying. Or it’s a combination of both and their complacency crashes up against the figure of what they thought their true love would be, I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I think they lack any self-awareness at all, which is again sort of painfully fitting for the only two characters who presumed to have self-awareness when this story began. However, where I do think my argument trails off and yours makes more sense is thinking about the purposefulness of all this. It’s easy for me to sit in my Critic Ivory Tower (not my mom’s basement, but you can imagine) and project or interpret all these different readings onto The Office.
The more likely answer is that the writers have failed to tell stories that would give Jim and Pam a certain level of self-awareness or at least provide a rationale for why they’ve lost it. As you mentioned, scenes at home would help tenfold in this regard. It’s never made sense to me why the story goes outside of the office for some things — like Michael’s love life, various nonsense with Dwight and Andy — but fails to even try to account for other things, like Jim and Pam’s home life. Theoretically, I get keeping everything “in office.” Babies don’t go in the office (and when they do, they suck the life out of proceedings, as we saw). But doesn’t mean that Jim and Pam’s babies don’t have an impact on the versions of them we see inside Dunder-Mifflin or wherever gimmick location the series goes. That’s why I actually really liked “Jury Duty and even Jim’s little story in the house-party episode a few weeks ago. Making an effort to show an “out of office” element impact an “in office” element isn’t that hard, especially when it’s associated with your lead characters. Are the writers solely to blame here? And am I wrong to interpret versions of the story or characters that might not be purposefully, diegetically present?
Brad: I think the fact that The Office has been on for so long is why we like to read non-diegetic elements into its characters’ lives. There was a time before the writing spiraled out of control that these were the characters in our TV lives that felt the most like people in our actual lives, and when things started to unravel, it was only natural to put our own emotions into the way we wish the characters were being presented. So no, I don’t think you’re wrong to interpret your version of the story in that way, mostly because I don’t think you can help it – and the writers have absolutely failed because of the fact that we’re forced to do this.
But I also don’t think it’s such an easy fix that the writers could show us more reasons for Jim and Pam’s general awfulness in the office, at least from a viewer’s perspective. It’s sort of immaterial why Jim and Pam are the way that they are if viewers don’t perceive them as protagonists. Listen, I “get it.” This is exactly how two people would act if their lives had gone exactly this way, and the verisimilitude is commendable, but somehow pouring our hopes and dreams into Darryl and Andy doesn’t feel like what we’ve bargained for. There’s dozens of reasons why it feels like The Office has simply been on the air for too long, but maybe none is more compelling than the fact that the people we once fancied ourselves spiritually kin to have just given up.
I know I’ve said it already, but Jim could really stand to commit to this job already. The fact that when Dwight was assembling a task force for Florida and Robert California wanted him to come down to hit the links with him shows feet-dragging immaturity. I was not sympathetic because he is a father. I was angry because he’s been working at Dunder-Mifflin for close to a decade and he won’t put himself in a position to succeed. I think you nailed it when you mentioned that Jim and Pam still think they can act like they did at the beginning of the series. They can’t, but it’s more than just unfunny. It’s frustrating. I’m kind of just impotently raging against the idea of 2012 Jim & Pam within the context of 2012 The Office at this point, so direct my rage. What’s the solution?
Cory: The problem Jim and Pam were always going to have, in some way, is that they are fictional characters in a popular television series. That’s obvious, but let me explain. Jim and Pam can’t leave the office because The Office (meaning the TV series) is NBC’s most popular series and not too long ago, it was one of the most popular series on all of television. So, for better or for worse, The Office‘s popularity was always going to restrict characters to stay somewhat the same because that’s basically how mainstream sitcoms on a broadcast network operate. Either you leave the series entirely (Steve Carell is one smart son of a bitch) or you moderately “shift” within the constraints the series has already established. The series has presented the appearance of change with Jim taking the promotion to co-manager or Pam pushing her way into a better job and honestly, those are interesting little shifts that could have reflected the changes within the characters.
So not only are the characters, as real as they once seemed, unable to truly grow or change based on how we assumed they would, but even when the series kind of allows them to, the writers quickly de-commit to any idea. I thought Jim as co-manager was a GREAT idea. Pam in her new job (whatever the hell it is) could have led to some interesting stories. But no, the writers used those shifts as episodic plots to create tension for 22 or maybe 44 minutes and then just moved on. Few “great” series are afraid of change and ultimately, The Office‘s inability to change will keep it from being remembered as great. Look at Parks and Recreation. Schur and Daniels shift the narrative every season. And again, we could interpret all this lack of change as purposeful, but even I can’t go that far. It’s just laziness and honestly, a bit of fear.
You’re right though, the only way this improves (if you follow most people’s logic that Jim and Pam suck and that’s bad, unlike my “they suck and that’s good” theory) is if Jim quits his job. There’s been lots of scuttlebutt about a possible spin-off starring Rainn Wilson’s Dwight. Why not have the Halperts quit their jobs and move somewhere far away from Scranton? Isn’t that, a romantic-leaning family sitcom about one television’s all-time best couples, a better idea for a spin-off than Schrute Farms? What else would you do, and do you think Jim and Pam leaving The Office actually makes the mothership series better? I think it might.
Brad: Let me say quickly that while I’m more closely aligned with “they suck and that’s bad” than “they suck and that’s good,” I do find your point of view fascinating. It feels a bit strange that I’m more likely to defend the show itself at this point than its handling of Jim and Pam, but that’s where we are. I couldn’t agree more with your point that The Office‘s safeness will be what ultimately prevents it from attaining canonical greatness. Maybe you could have convinced me during the third season that I’d someday remember The Office as one of TV’s best-ever comedies, but now, it’s laughable that we ever considered that.
That brings us to Jim and Pam’s hypothetical departure that you’ve proposed here. On one level, it works. Their spinoff could actually have some heart, whereas Schrute Farms would undoubtedly just be cynicism piled onto ridiculousness with three minutes of pathos every five episodes to keep us watching. I like it on paper, so yeah, let’s cross our fingers for a pilot of The Halperts as an alternative to the Dwight spin-off. Where I might differ from you is where you say it would make the mothership series better. It would as a television show, I suppose, but the departure of Jim and Pam would be the definition of a death knell for The Office. No one wanted it to come back after Carell left, but it did, and it’s been watchable but far from necessary. If the next-best-known characters head for the hills, you’re looking at an absolutely gutted program that has no business existing. I’d watch it, of course, but its massive audience might finally bail at that point, and neither The Halperts nor Schrute Farms could make the flagship franchise succeed in that state.
I feel like we’re getting to the point in any Office conversation where we realize that what we would really like is for the once-beloved show to hang it up for good, what we have is a mediocre but generally worthwhile shadow of the version we loved, and what we suggest will never actually happen. When a show gets as huge as The Office has, all this critical finger-wagging is mostly moot. Since that’s true, let’s tell it like it is: you and I should write Season Nine ourselves. Hope you’re ready for some weltschmerz, America!