There is not one show on network TV that makes me laugh like The Office. Adapted from the British show of the same name, its subtle humor has a style and uniqueness previously unseen on American TV. The pacing and plotting of The Office is far more relaxed than a typical show, which allows for the actors to manipulate comedic beats in ways sitcoms won’t allow.
The Office is unique in it’s presentation: single camera, presented in widescreen, filmed on a practical set in a faux-documentary style, and shown on NBC without a laugh track. The actors are all well-versed in improvisation, and a large portion of each episode shown is unscripted. However, the one aspect that I find to be both unique and completely refreshing on The Office is the relationship between salesman Jim Halpert and receptionist Pam Beesley.
Here’s the set-up: From day one, it’s obvious that Jim is in love with Pam. Pam, however, has been engaged to one of the company’s warehouse workers for three years and she, outwardly at least, sees her involvement with Jim as strictly platonic. Pam and Jim are best friends at work, pulling pranks and, mostly, keeping each other sane as the inanity of office life passes them by. For the audience, they are our window into the show. Carrell’s Michael Scott may be billed as the star, but he’s far too maniacal and out there to invoke empathy from the viewer. Both Jim and Pam represent, presumably, the show’s audience: smart people who are unsatisfied with their dead-end jobs and, although they know they can do better, are floating along and assuming something else will eventually come and find them. What interests me about Jim and Pam’s relationship is the realness of it. It’s never forced or contrived.
Jim is played by John Krasinski as a funny, self-deprecating, likable under-achiever who finds myriad ways of surviving his mundane existence by amusing himself at the office in any way he can. Jenna Fischer plays Pam as insecure, kind and funny, yet beaten-down. She has a beautiful, outgoing woman inside her, but outside forces have bottled her potential in. At work, their camaraderie is palpable; when they get together, the sum is far greater than the parts. They are perfect accomplices.
The audience presumes, from the pilot on, that their will be a romantic subplot involving Pam and Jim. We know this because of the way they flirt, and the way Jim speaks of Pam longingly. However, we also assume, us having seen sitcom after sitcom, that we know how the relationship will play out. Our inclinations, it turns out, are wrong.
Relationships in TV comedy are never poignant and almost always afterthoughts. If FRIENDS wanted to advance the ongoing Rachel/Ross subplot, they would devote part or all of an episode’s story around it. This way, a show like FRIENDS can keep their options open when it comes to the possible relationship, revisiting it occasionally (a few times a season) to progress it along a little further. The weird part of this (and this trend is universal for half-hour comedy) is that when the FRIENDS story did not revolve around the evolution of their romantic relationship, the two characters would interact as the episode’s story deemed fit. This is how sitcoms work. Characters aren’t three-dimensional. Not really. They are archetypes. Ross and Rachel spoke with no underlying romantic tension before they got together; they only made jokes to a laugh track.
What makes Jim and Pan so great is that EVERY EPISODE advances their relationship, but not because every episode is about their relationship. Only a couple of the The Office‘s plot lines have been specifically about them. However, no matter what the plot is, all interaction between Pam and Jim belies something deeper. There is amazing depth to even the most innocuous conversations between them.
The evolution of their relationship is unique in that it has been slow (for TV show standards) and remarkably subtle. Relationships on TV usually move very quickly, even when a character is harboring a secret crush. It is usually played out in grand actions and bold proclamations. Not on The Office. The comedy is subtle. The production team often allows for the camera to linger on a character after they’ve said something, paying close attention to facial expressions and body language. No show I’ve ever seen relies on reaction shots like The Office. For Jim and Pam, it’s the same. Paying attention to facial expressions after they’ve spoken about the other is just as important as listening to the dialogue itself. As in life, motivations and truth are not gleaned from dialogue as much as we’d like to believe.
Jim and Pam have gone from being buddies to best friends to…well, go watch the final episode of season 2. This gradual increase in their reliance on each other is exactly how friendships and/or relationships work in real life. Sure, everyone meets new people, and that can occur at the drop of a hat. But changes in the nature of long-standing relationships happens very gradually, so much so that you rarely notice the change until far after it has occurred.
Ultimately, Jim and Pam are likely what keep the audience coming back to The Office week after week. They ground the show and their ongoing relationship is the show’s only significant through-line from episode to episode. After season two’s finale, it will be very interesting to see what the writers decide to do with the two of them. Regardless, I’ll be watching.