I’ll be honest and say, right up front, that I haven’t been a faithful viewer of “The Office”; I binge-watched the first few seasons on DVD six years ago, then kept up via Hulu somewhat sporadically. If a sitcom goes three weeks without making me laugh, though, I give up on it, and by its fifth or sixth season, “The Office” was recycling jokes like they were paper and plastic.
But after reading Matt Zoller Seitz’s insightful piece on “The Office”’s late recovery, I decided to watch the last dozen or so episodes (the series finale airs tonight). Surprisingly funny and moving, they suggest that a good life is less about ambition and more about love.
When the series debuted as a mid-season replacement on NBC in 2005, it was – like its British predecessor created by Ricky Gervais – a single-camera workplace mockumentary about the employees of a paper company. A satiric look at American work conventions, it poked fun at the absurdity of modern office work. It was almost an embodiment of Marx’s theory of worker alienation.
If you – like me – haven’t kept up, here’s what you need to know. By episode 13 (“Junior Saleman”) of the current season, Jim is a largely absent husband and father (not to mention Dunder Mifflin employee), spending most of his time in Philadelphia working with his start-up. When Pam doesn’t film their daughter’s ballet recital for him to watch, he blows up at her. The phone call ends with Pam in tears, and then – for the first time ever – one of the documentary cameramen comes out from behind the camera, and comforts her.
Jim, for his part, gives up his work with the start-up, returning to live and work full time in Scranton, convincing Pam that he will always choose her over work, and that that choice is a joy for him.
It’s hard to know what Marx might have made of this turn of events – the workers choosing to stay in their absurd jobs, forsaking personal ambition, and finding meaning in relationships at work rather than in the product of the work. It certainly doesn’t align with contemporary American culture to prioritize self-sacrifice over personal success. (Although this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a man on tv make this choice – Jim’s decision is very like Coach Taylor’s decision at the end of “Friday Night Lights” to give up a job so that his wife would pursue her career.)
But in these final episodes of “The Office,” we’ve seen the absurdity of self-aggrandizing ambition (in Andy’s storyline), the absurdity of doing things for the sake of appearances (in Angela’s storyline), and the triumph of love. It’s said that every comedy ends with a wedding, and “The Office” will; but the show’s depiction of love goes beyond the kind of romantic infatuation that is at the heart of most comedies. Love, in these last few episodes of “The Office,” has meant commitment, loyalty, and sacrifice. It’s meant kindness to enemies and patience with those who are slower. It’s been romantic, but it’s also been at the heart of friendships, particularly in the way that Pam and Jim are kind to the buffoons around them.
In the end, this workplace comedy has proved that if you have a shelf full of Dundees, but you don’t have love, you’re just a meaningless paper-pusher. Tonight “The Office” ends, but in its conclusion it reminds us that love never fails.