One of the thorniest arcs on this uneven season of The Office has been the promotion of Jim to co-manager, a move that has seemed more like a demotion, as he has seemed to have lost the respect of his co-workers (and possibly his wife) as well as misplaced his charm. Where there was once a shaggy haired goofball there’s now a well-coiffed suspender-less Bill Lumberg.
With The Office returning from winter break just an hour from now it’s a good time to ask, have we lost our lovable, affable Jim?
Last month Awl.com published an article entitled “The Office is the Most Depressing Show on Television,” locating the show’s current problems in the de-evolution of Jim, noting that’s here’s proved himself to be merely “a mediocre man who has already realized his full potential.” And just last week Macleans explained “Why no one likes Jim anymore.” Is this true? Does Jim Halpert have no friends? Is he the most annoying character on television? Has he become a humorless, corporate tool? A virtual washed up high school football star, his best days behind him?
I don’t think so.
The Macleans article notes that “one moment that especially infuriated fans” was when he punishes Ryan for his insolence earlier in the episode (by forcing him to work in a maintenance closet). It helped to illustrate, they argued, “that Jim is no longer a fun guy.” I addressed this in my reaction to “Shareholder Meeting,” and I maintain my opposition to this school of thought. This is not to say what Jim did was funny, it wasn’t, but asserting one’s power doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve surrendered their sense of humor, traded in their funny bone for a whip. He did what he needed to do, even if he wasn’t happy about it, even if it wasn’t how Jim would normally act.
But, as the Maclean post also notes, this goes beyond that one incident. This has been a season long-epidemic, that Jim is perhaps not cut out to be a manager (or maybe, even sadder, completely suited to be a manager), and that Jim’s difficulties are a symptom of the show’s big picture troubles, the depressing turn that The Awl emphasized.
But while I will not refute the fact that Jim has being losing points, no longer able to skate by on a shrug or a smirk, appearing more like a sycophant than a rebel. However, I think this might be the show’s bravest turn, because it’s uncomfortably accurate. On The Office, I’ll take a realistic, depressing story about Jim learning his limits over ridiculously absurd Michael Scott antics any Thursday. Is it really enjoyable to watch Jim squirm, to fly so dangerously close to failure? No. But is it less realistic than if Jim took over and immediately transformed Dunder Mifflin, becoming the wunderkind that Ryan purported to be. In a season that has continued to take the easy way out (quickly ending Michael’s relationship with Pam’s mom, conveniently resolving Dunder Mifflin’s bankruptcy) it’s encouraging to see the show flirting with danger with their treatment of Jim. So far this season they’ve avoided doling out proper consequences, but with Jim the punishment does fit the crime (the crime being his ambition to be a co-manager of a middling mid-level regional paper company) It’s a big risk, but with big risks come big rewards. And lately, the big risks seem to have been few and far between on The Office.
And we should keep in mind the jury is still out. Jim has not been the man we thought he was. But he could still be that man. He has been disappointing. But he is not necessarily a disappointment. There’s still time to turn this all around. Perhaps, had he remained a top salesman he would have stayed in Scranton his whole life. And, perhaps, if he fizzles out now as a co-manager he might finally leave. With a baby on the way, a story that will probably be the central plot point for the remainder of the season, it’s time for Jim to assess his future, both of his family and his career. And maybe, just maybe, failure is just what he needs.
And, if not, I’m sure Michael Scott will always find a place for him (and that, truly, would be the most depressing show on television).