It’s hard to remember it now, but seasons two through four of “The Office” can rival the current and the last of seasons “Parks and Recreation” in sheer gloriousness. So much has happened since the marriage of Jim and Pam that it’s easy to lose sight of just how amazing the show once was, how it excellently combined the comedy of discomfort with the effervescent sweetness, and how Jim and Pam were once a sublime combination of Ben/Leslie and Andy/April.
Based on Ricky Gervais’ brilliant UK series, many argued during the heyday of the US version that it was actually better than the original: It was a sweeter, less misanthropic version of Gervais’ series, and if anything, it was more palatable. As originally formulated, the series revolved around the branch manager, Michael Scott and his uncanny ability to stick his foot in his mouth, the will they/won’t they relationship of Jim and Pam, and a menagerie of eclectic and amusing oddballs that made up the rest of the Dunder Mifflin staff.
What’s happened in recent years, however, is that Jim and Pam did, and then Michael Scott left, and suddenly, those eccentric and oddball side characters — originally designed to be scene stealers with little screen time — have had to take on a heavier load. The oddballs and boobs became the main characters — one of them, Andy Bernard, became the new branch manager –and “The Office” lost its core, its voices of reason. In the beginning, when Michael Scott or Dwight Schrute would do something dumb, we knew we at least had Jim or Pam as our inside voice: They provided the sane perspective. But somewhere along the way, before Pam’s second pregnancy, and during the never-ending series of prank wars with Dwight, even Jim and Pam lost sight of reality, succumbing to one-dimensionality.
Now “The Office” is a mess of supporting characters, of oddballs and eccentrics, that bounce around each other with no real rhyme or reason; there’s not a lot of consistency in their characterizations; now, it seems, the more they’re onscreen, the less we really know about them. At one point, the characters drove the storylines; now, the increasingly inane storylines drive the characters. And it’s driving “The Office” into the ground.
After the first few episodes of this, the eighth season, I had some small hope that the showrunners would turn it around, that Andy would infuse “The Office” with new energy. I felt the direction they were heading in was to turn Andy Bernard into a version of Leslie Knope: A boss whose earnestness the cast would rally around, instead of mock. He would be determined and hard-working, and would take the business of selling paper way too seriously, and his staff would grow to respect it. Alas, Andy is just another version of a Michael Scott character that had already grown stale. And James Spaders’ Robert California, who I thought might resurrect the show’s moral center, is just another boob in the show’s collection of them. He’s like a smarter, wealthier version of Creed, if Creed were allowed to run the company.
Look: Situation comedies rarely survive creatively after 100 episodes: There’s only so many iterations of the same situation you can play with. We’re seeing the same thing on “Modern Family” in only its third season, but like “Modern Family,” “The Office” is still watchable, amusing at times, and often entertaining. But “The Office” has not only outstayed its welcome, it’s slowly destroying the brilliant characters it created over the first three seasons. Jim’s only purpose these days, it seems, is to continue his prank war with Dwight, a prank war that Dwight often gets the better of, which occasionally allows Dwight to be the show’s voice of reason. And you know there are problems when Dwight is a voice of reason. Pam has been reduced to a waddling pregnancy joke; nobody knows if Ryan and Kelly are together, week to week, and even fewer people care; Daryl got promoted into a job where he doesn’t seem to do anything; Stanley now employs a catchphrase (it’s a funny catchphrase, mind you, but “The Office” was supposed to be the anti-catchphrase comedy); Meredith is a series of drunk jokes; Angela’s obsession with cats ran its course four seasons ago, and now she’s getting the pregnancy jokes’ sloppy seconds; Oscar, who was once a cool gay character, is now a gay stereotype; and Kevin has somehow gotten dumber over the course of the series, which is saying a lot since there was once an episode where Holly confused him for a mentally retarded man. Indeed, the only character the show hasn’t completely destroyed is Creed, whose mind was destroyed in Vietnam.
Worse still: There’s no apparent end in sight. In its eighth season, “The Office” is the most popular sitcom on NBC. They’re bringing in Catherine Tate in the second half of the season (she was originally thought to be Michael Scott’s replacement, but she had stage commitments in the UK) and, who knows? She could replace Andy. There could be a never-ending succession of Micheal Scott replacements. “The Office” could run another four or five years, recycling plot lines, magnifying the caricatures, and hauling in a series of guest stars to take our attention away from the stale regular cast. But the longer “The Office” continues, the more we forget. Now this scene, back when Jim and Pam managed to stay ahead of the curve instead of bending with it, and back when “The Office” still had a keen sense of playful self-awareness and an unwavering sweetness, is little but a memory, a ghost of how great “The Office” once was and may never be again.