Tuesday, April 27, 2010

'The Office' as High School

Catholic Key columnist Santiago Ramos thinks the sinking maturity level in Season 6 of The Office is sinking the quality of the show. From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

The Office as High School

By Santiago Ramos

Don’t get angry at me. I am merely pointing out a few things. Since those things have to do with the first post-hiatus episode of America’s beloved show, The Office, I understand that I must tread carefully.

Before I point these things out, let me make a few concessions. First of all, I fully understand, and share, the desire for comfortable TV, a funny or silly show before which one can slink down on the couch after a long day. It so happens that I watch The Office on Hulu, and I don’t slink on a couch, I slink on a chair—but the principle remains the same and the slinking happens.

I also understand that The Office was never meant to be a straightforward satire in the way that the UK version was meant to be. Or, at least, I concede that this point is debatable. I make this concession because I don’t want to court the objection that I am criticizing a show for not living up to an ideal that I imposed upon it.

I also want to concede that, perhaps, I am taking a TV show too seriously. Pretty much writing a TV column forces one to do this. But I’m just going to acknowledge this possibility so that I can create space for my argument.

My argument is the same one I made in my review of The Office spin-off, Parks and Recreation, a few months back: “A satire is supposed to look at the absurd facts of life straight in the eye and laugh defiantly. What Parks and Recreation does is look at the absurdities of life, shrink back, and play silly or sentimental games.” Ignore the first sentence—it merely sets up the second. I’ve already conceded that The Office is not supposed to be satire. (Also ignore the first sentence because I am ashamed of having used such a hackneyed phrase as “straight in the eye.”) Focus, instead, on “silly or sentimental games.”

Silly and sentimental are two adjectives that come to mind when I think about the new episode of The Office, “Secretary’s Day.” They come to mind, especially, when I consider the long, cheesy romantic story-arc between Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) and the new receptionist, Erin. For how many more episodes will we have to suffer?

We have already suffered through Andy’s agonizing deliberation about whether, and how, and when to ask Erin out; this agony was articulated in annoying asides to the invisible camera crew that is part of the show. Next, we had to listen to Andy’s repeated pleas to his new girlfriend that she keep their relationship secret—you know, high-school style. The secret was exposed in, yes, a video arcade. In “Secretary’s Day,” we endure the first fight between the lovers—over another secret, a secret Andy should not have kept.

It is not too much to say that Andy could be a high school student, and Erin (played by a talented actress new to the show, Ellie Kemper) has been given, by the writers, the maturity level of a middle-schooler.

The other main drama in “Secretary’s Day” comes from the staff collectively mocking the accountant Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) by means of a funny video that another accountant made, interposing Kevin’s voice on the moving mouth of the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. (Kevin does kind of look like and sound like the Cookie Monster.) Kevin spends the entire episode protesting the fact that other people are making fun of him (literally, “making fun of me” is how he puts it), and a Human Resources representative (the higher authority) must intervene.

A crush, and kids making fun of kids. This was the latest episode of The Office.

I don’t know what to do beyond point these things out and register my disappointment. I am fully aware that American television tends to romanticize high school, for example, in shows like Saved by the Bell and Happy Days. High school is a happy time for most people, and usually the most geographically compact, united community we get to live in, before we move on and have to live a car-drive away from everyone. It would only make sense to see the workplace become high school, somehow, on a television show. I am also sure that I wouldn’t want the American Office to adopt the dark cynicism of its Brit counterpart. There’s a reason why the latter couldn’t go on for more than two seasons.

But I am also tired of feeling my stomach churn every time Andy Bernard opens his mouth. There has to be some sort of third way. Jim and Pam are supposed to be models of maturity for their office coworkers. Perhaps they can also become models of higher comedy.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.

(Ed. Note: Photo is not from current season.)