It is ironic when a sitcom is more realistic than any reality TV show. The US-version of The Office ended its run last week, and even though it is [hopefully] pretty rare to find a boss like Michael Scott or Andy Bernard, and it is [sadly] pretty rare to find a coworker as creative or dedicated to pranks as Jim Halpert, the show proved over the last season to be a much more intelligent and realistic show than expected.
[Warning, this will contain spoilers for The Office‘s finale.]
In between the laughing and the cringing [anyone else have this uncomfortable reaction when you see someone–even fictional characters–do something embarrassing?] while watching The Office, three important lessons can be learned from the final season of this situational comedy.
Lesson #1: “Happily Ever After”? More like: “Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Unhappy, and then Happy Again”
Boy meets girl, conflicts arise, conflicts are conquered, boy and girl live happily ever after. Sound familiar? For awhile, The Office followed this common plot line with two of the main characters, Jim and Pam. Near the beginning of season six, Jim and Pam marry, and with a child on the way, it seems they are ready to ride off into the cliche Sunset of Happily Ever After. Don’t misunderstand me–I enjoyed the ups and downs and twists of their relationship as much as the next person, despite never doubting for a moment that they WOULD end up together and live happily ever after. It was just a matter of time.
At this point in the series, I would say it was no more and no less realistic than any other sitcom. For seasons 7 and 8, the show hit a low-point, in my opinion. Michael left, Jim and Pam faded into the background, and the spotlight unfortunately turned on Andy. I almost stopped watching.
Jim and Pam were back in season 9! However, they seemed to be back individually rather than as a single unit. What?! How could this be? They rode off into the sunset, how could things not be going perfectly? Shouldn’t they be whispering sickeningly sweet nothings to each other and generally showcasing an idyllic life?
To stay true to traditional story plot lines, the show should have ended when Jim and Pam got married. However, The Office continued. By season 9, Jim, who initially never planned on staying, leaps at a chance to get out of Dundler-Mifflin, and joins and invests heavily in a start-up business…and forgets to tell (or ask) Pam. Miscommunication, lack of communication, resentment, stress, and anger ensue. I loved it!
No, it is not that I thrive on others’ discontentment, but I was thrilled that a television show was actually showing a realistic relationship. There is never a point in any relationship where suddenly everything is perfect, easy, and effortless. Although it may seem depressing to come to this realization, this is exactly the dose of honesty that many people need. By showing us that Jim-and-Pam are not perfect, viewers are not left with ridiculous expectations for their own personal relationships. Why stay in a marriage that has problems and conflict, when it is obviously possible to have so much more, because there are plenty of [TV and movie] couples who have perfect marriages? The reason this is not a depressing reality, is because in time, Jim and Pam are able to work things out and are happy and contented once again. Hard times do not have to last forever, and they do not have to mean the end.
Lesson #2: Problems are resolved over time, with effort
As Jim gets more and more involved in juggling two jobs, Pam lets anger and bitter resentment build up until it boils over. As Jim is gone more and more, Pam is lonely and makes a new friend among the camera crew, who happens to be understanding, compassionate, present, and a newly-single male.
Once again, I almost stopped watching. This time it wasn’t due to boring, embarrassing, and cringe-inducing humour, but because I did not want to see yet another television show excuse and pardon immoral behavior. I did not want to see yet another show propagating the idea that marriage and love are things that can be given up as soon as it becomes inconvenient, or the going gets tough. I kept watching because I had faith in Pam; she seemed like such a sensible and good person, so surely she would never cheat on Jim.
I’m glad I continued to watch. Pam did not respond to the cameraman’s advances, and she finally talked to Jim. So everything was settled and perfectly rosy in a 30-minute segment, right? No! The situation was handled much more realistically, and Jim and Pam struggled (not always successfully) through several more episodes, because in real life, problems are not solved so instantaneously. Also, when working toward a solution, there is not continual progress. There are periods of stagnation and even periods of regression. More goes into solving a problem than simply identifying the problem. Although identification itself can be difficult, much more must be done to solve the problem and prevent its recurrence. These simple–but often forgotten–facts were portrayed in the last half of season 9.
Lesson #3: The difficulty of balancing two peoples’ needs, desires, and goals
This third lesson is probably the most personal for me. As I near graduation, job-searching, and marriage, life could be complicated enough if I only had myself to worry about. [Don’t ask how marriage would work if I only had one person to worry about–just go with it.] To complicate matters, my boyfriend has already graduated and is looking for a job. There are many factors to consider when trying to decide where we should live: how close to family will we be? will I need to get a different state’s pharmacy license? will it be close to a good business school if/when he goes back for an MBA in a few years? will we both be able to find the job we want in close enough proximity?
The only thing that is clear right now, is that compromises will have to be made. But how much compromise is too much compromise? Where is the line between being self-sacrifice and becoming a human doormat? How do you deal with the impossibility of deciding whose goals are more important?
Jim and Pam struggled with these exact questions in the final two episodes of season 9. Jim decides to give up pursuing his dream career with the start-up company, and returns to Dunder-Mifflin full-time, in order to not lose Pam. Honourable, admirable, and sad all at the same time. It is wonderful that he has his family as such a high priority that he is willing to spend the rest of his life at a dead-end job that he does not particularly enjoy. Yet, why should Pam get her way? Isn’t she holding him back? Won’t Jim soon grow tired of his dead-end job and resent her in later years?
I understand this concern about resentment very well. A few years ago, when my boyfriend was considering switching majors (mostly at my suggestion) he asked me what to switch into. I refused to even make suggestions because I was so worried that he would switch and end up hating the major, and in turn resent me. I managed to stay silent, and he made the decision to go into marketing-management on his own. Now that he is searching for a job, he is again having to choose between a marketing job (one that he would like, but is difficult to find) or a management job (one that he wouldn’t like nearly as well, but is easier to get–and the sooner he gets a job, the sooner he can afford things like: an engagement ring, a wedding…you get the idea). What if I inadvertently and indirectly persuade him to go the management route, and years later he hates his job and blames and resents me?
Pam tells Jim her concerns, and he flatly refutes them (rather like my boyfriend) and acts as if it is impossible that he might regret his decisions or resent her–because they are riding off into The Sunset of Happily Ever After Part II, right? Well, I was concerned that these saccharine rebuttals were going to be the end of the story, and we as viewers were going to be led to believe that Jim’s unmatchable and unwavering love for Pam would override the dullness of a 50-hour work week, 50 weeks a year, for the next 35 years at a paper company that could potentially become obsolete within the next 15 years.
Fortunately, the finale redeemed itself. Pam worked on a compromise that would allow both of them to be happy. She would be able to pursue and enjoy her true calling, art, and Jim could pursue his dreams by rejoining his now-successful company. [Did I mention that a whole year had passed between the second-to-last episode and the finale? This relates to Lesson #2: solving problems requires time.] With commitment, dedication, and patience you can have your happy ending…again and again and again.
More could be said about the lessons taught by the rest of the characters over the years…but sometimes simple laughter is better than analyzation. Besides, who watches TV to learn things, anyway?