The Office: Labor Pains

Back in October The Office invited us to Pam and Jim’s wedding, an hour-long special event that had been hyped on NBC and in our hearts, and against unlikely odds that episode actually mostly succeeded.  It wasn’t a runaway success, but considering the expectations and the level of difficulty, it was generally a victory.  That episode was really the first part of a Pam/Jim seminal event season, with the bookend to their wedding being the birth of their first child.  However, since the wedding The Office has kind of skid off the tracks.  So then with last night’s episode, another hour-long affair, I was hoping that this would be the moment that they right the ship.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.  And whereas the wedding was a modest achievement, this felt like an unsettling disappointment.  What should have been a special, moving episode, and a return to form, turned out to be a case study of the show’s recent flaws.  Everything that has been frustrating as of late was front and center in “The Delivery.”

Primarily, it seems that the show has gotten away from the true nature of the characters, and it’s veered farther and farther away from reality.  It’s almost like the writers should rewatch the second season to remember what these characters were like, how they were well-rounded, real-life characters first, and zany, dysfunctional personalities second.  It feels like now they’ve just keyed in on the broadest, quirkiest parts of each character and heightened them.  Dwight breaking into Pam and Jim’s house, rebuilding their cabinets, sleeping in their bed, all while missing the birth and subsequently a day of work, these actions are Dwight like, but taken to the extreme.  These are things he might say, but he wouldn’t actually do, especially skipping work to supervise a carpentry project in Jim’s kitchen.  Dwight (or Old Dwight) prides himself on perfect attendance and punctuality, previously only being late to work when Jim persuaded him that Friday was Saturday.  But this applies to all the characters: Ryan is now just a hipster-preppy douchebag, Meredith a sex-crazed alcoholic, Stanley a lazy adulterer, Kelly a ditzy flirt, Kevin a brain-dead loaf.  It’s almost as if Creed doesn’t stand out as the crazy employee anymore.  It’s an office full of Creeds.   And we’ve talked at great length about Michael Scott, how he’s the needle around which the show spins, when he’s on, so is the show.  And while he demonstrated his typical impropriety and megalomania, throwing the car keys into the bushes, walking into the birthing mid-delivery, smoking a cigar in the waiting room, playing matchmaker to Dunder Mifflin Scranton, the rest of the staff has been giving him a run for his money in terms of selfishness and silliness.  For The Office to get back on track, and let’s hope it does, it needs to get back in touch with these characters.  Right now they’re so broad and predictable, it’s like every episode is a spec script, written by an aspiring writer who has studied the rhythms of the characters and the plots, but has been unable to capture the right heart and soul of the show.

But, as far as I know, these latest episodes have not been spec scripts, they’ve been written by the same staff writers.  So why the sudden downturn?  Are they simply bored?  Just phoning it in?  Perhaps.  But I also think they’ve been choosing “what’s funny” instead of “what works.”  Years ago in a screenwriting class someone relayed a tip they had heard which read something like, “find your favorite line or passage in your script and cut it out.”  Basically, it’s saying remove the self-indulgence, because if you really like something in your script  (or blog post) it might only work for you, it might not really fit with everything around it.  Likewise, I feel like The Office writers could benefit from this approach.  Things like Dwight stopping the caravan to the hospital to point out to Michael where he spotted a deer are funny, but they don’t ring true with the world and tone The Office has set up, so these moments have the opposite effect.  In a vacuum it’s funny, in Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton it’s not.

In addition, to the problems with the characters, this episode continued another disturbing season trend, one that we’ve also previously discussed here, which is a lack of committment to storylines.  Michael’s relationship with Pam’s mother was over quickly as it began.  The Dunder Mifflin bankruptcy, a conflict that seemed like it would be a season-long arc, was abruptly resolved without creating any real drama or consequences.  Michael returned to the sales floor for about five minutes before reclaiming his office without any repercussions.  And now, Pam’s pregnancy and labor are already complete, without much attention paid to the story save for last night’s two parter.  I previously assumed the season would end with the birth, and I feared that after Kathy Bates saved DM from financial ruin the show would exploit and over-rely on the pregnancy storyline for the remainder of the season.  Instead, it feels like the opposite, that not enough time or care was given to this arc.  Perhaps that sentiment stems from the fact that there have only been two entirely new episode of The Office since last December (no, clip shows don’t count), and coming back from the Olympic hiatus with this episode was too jarring.  Perhaps we should have eased back in, allowed to refamiliarize ourselves with the characters.  Instead, we’re thrown right into this life-changing event, without really understanding what pregnant life has been like for Jim and Pam.  It shouldn’t have been central focus, because the show is supposed to be about the office, not the characters personal lives, but it certainly could have been explored in greater detail.  Which, again, harkens back to the theme of the season, burning through these seemingly game-changing storylines without changing the game.  Maybe from here until May the show will focus on Pam and Jim and the baby at home, but if the season so far is any indication, they’ll just begin and immediately end a series of new conflicts.

I will give some credit to the episode for mostly avoiding what I like to call the Friends syndrome, although it came very close to having a full on Friends break out.  The first example of this is Pam breast-feeding the wrong baby.  This mix-up seemed pretty obvious from the moment their hospital roommate arrived, at least from the second Jim picked up the colicky newborn in the middle of the night.  Again, this was a hilarious mix-up that probably seemed funny on paper, but is an unnecessary distraction, hi-jinx for the sake of hi-jinx, in practice.  So while I was cringing over this bit (and I don’t mind cringing during this show, that usually means it’s working, but this was bad cringing, cringing from embarrassment for the writers and actors, not the characters), at least they didn’t have this story play out any further.  Yes, I just criticized the show for not following through on the plotlines it sets up, but no good was going to come from going down the baby mix-up road, besides some uncomfortable and unnecessary sitcom machinations.  The other Friends-like trope that the show has been flirting with is the flirtation between Andy and Erin.  After going through another episode of the two of them exchanging goofy smiles and telling the camera how much they like each other, I resigned myself to the fact that they would keep them apart for at least another episode, which would have been absolutely useless, as they have already extended this courtship long enough.  So I was surprised and greatly relieved when Andy finally manned up (I guess his scrotum had healed afterall) and asked Erin out.  The drawn out union of Pam and Jim made sense – they had obstacles to overcome, it was a necessary and rewarding slow burn  – but the Andy/Erin romance has become frustratingly difficult, and without the emotional depths of Pam and Jim, they were overdue to get together (and again, I know this somewhat contradicts what I said about storylines being resolved too quickly, so I guess the problem is that the writers are having trouble identifying which ones to extend and which ones to conclude).  Also, kudos for uncharacteristically upholding the documentary conceit and not letting the cameras into the delivery room.  It’s comforting to think, even though they’re fictional characters, that Pam and Jam had that moment to themselves.

So what now?  3/4 of the way through season 6, and about 1/2 the season has been sub-par by The Office standards, mired in its worst slump since the early part of season 4.  Perhaps I’m being too hard on the show.  Admittedly, I hold it to a higher standard than any other comedy on TV.  Maybe I need to lower the bar.  Or maybe they should just fire everyone and start anew (I’m talking about the Dunder Mifflin staff, but maybe it should be the writers).

Or maybe “The Delivery” will serve as a bookend in another way.  Not just the 2nd half of the Pam and Jim special occasion series, but the end of this run of mediocre, frustrating episodes that began after “Niagara.”  Maybe now, with wedding and the birth out of the way, Dunder Mifflin can get back to selling paper (and, now, printers).

I have no plans to abandon the show.  I’m going to watch the little Cecilia Marie Halpert grow.  But I’d rather do it out of enthusiasm instead of obligation.

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1 Comment

Filed under Analysis, Dunder Mifflin, this is Pam, Must See TV

One response to “The Office: Labor Pains

  1. Paul

    Your review of this episode was so dead on with the exact problems the show is facing, that I just copy and pasted it to people when they asked me what I thought of the episode. Good work.

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