Aaron R. Davis
Let’s just get this out of the way first thing: The Office has jumped the shark.
Ever since the hour-long wedding episode, which saw Jim and Pam finally wed and ended with the characters acting out a YouTube video, there have been a lot of people talking about shark-jumping. For the record, I was not one of the people who hated that episode and called out the show for leaping over a Selachimoprh. Maybe the wedding episode was a tad indulgent, but it seemed totally in character for Michael. We’ve seen him hijack a wedding before in his endless bid to be beloved and popular, and we’ve seen in the past how, like a child, he tries to replicate what he sees online because he thinks people will be delighted. I had zero problems with the wedding episode.
But what really cinched it for me was this past week’s episode, which was a fucking clip show.
Clip shows used to be a cheap way to pad out the episode count with filler when a show spent too much of its budget on other episodes. I’ve always found them joyless and easy to skip. Frankly, they’re the worst episodes of any TV series (unless we’re talking about The Simpsons; the worst episodes of The Simpsons are now musical episodes and any show where they tell three incredibly unfunny stories about something).
But in the age of DVD (not to mention ubiquitous Office reruns on TBS and a thousand local affiliates), are clip shows even necessary? And what really irks me is that it was the first new episode of the show in over a month (advertised with only the new scenes in the framing device to make it look like it was a real episode), it’s a rerun this week, and the Olympics are about to preempt everything. Why put in a “new” episode at all?
What really made me think The Office has jumped the shark was the weirdly smug tone of the whole episode; the way it reveled in the assumed adoration of the audience. There was no effort to it at all. At this point, the producers seem to think that the audience will love whatever they do, no matter how bad it is. They’ve gotten so overconfident in peoples’ love of the show that they think they can get away with anything.
Right now the producers are operating on a level of smarm that makes them believe they can just have Rainn Wilson sit in a chair and stare at the audience, wordlessly, for 30 straight minutes, and the audience will lap it up because they love The Office so much that nothing is a wrong decision.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the clip episode isn’t the episode where The Office vaulted over a shark called plausibility. Remember, jumping the shark is about long-term effects that you can only judge long after they’ve set in. So let’s go back and decide when, exactly, the show Fonzie’d over credibility.
My money is on “Stress Relief,” the hour-long episode that aired on February 1, 2009, immediately after the Super Bowl. That was the moment I first felt there was something … off. That was a bad episode designed as a sales pitch to whatever Super Bowl audience still wasn’t watching The Office, but it heightened everyone’s character quirks so badly that it felt overwrought, something the show had previously tried hard to avoid. That wacky, slapsticky opening with the office fire and Angela hurtling her cat into the ceiling was pure cartoon. Dwight’s behavior, especially slicing the face off of a CPR dummy to see if he can wear it over his own face like a serial killer, crossed the line into outright sociopathic. And, of course, celebrity guest stars are always a ratings stunt. It was a cynical exercise that felt completely out of place.
But since then, things have gotten more fantastic, and the plausibility of the show has become incredibly strained. The show was at its funniest when it was character-based and rooted in awkward behavior. No one seems to remember anymore, but there was a time when the show was downright uncomfortable to watch because the humor was so spot on. We’ve all known bosses like Michael Scott, and the original genius of the series was that the writers took what was familiar and ramped up the intensity just enough into absurdity. Mostly – but not always – it stayed within the realm of believability, and that’s when the show was at its best. But that kind of tension is now resolved by something magical or something pat or something wacky, and it’s come at the expense of character and credibility.
As this sixth season has gone on, with Michael and Jim as co-managers (which is about as believable as Jim being allowed to be a manager in an office where his wife works), the credibility is long gone. I especially don’t like the change that’s occurred in Jim. He was a great character because he was so effortlessly sensitive to everyone’s feelings, but now he’s turned into a total buffoon. We’ve seen this before, too – like the episode where he was in charge of the office for a day and tried to merge all of the birthday celebrations into one. He may be a nice guy, but he’s not necessarily suited for managing people, because people can be petty. And I understand the dynamic will shift, as it does in real life, when a person is promoted to a position of superiority. But the writers are handling it so badly it actually leaves me shaking my head sometimes. Dwight’s slide into cartoonish evil is bad enough, but his setting up the Employee of the Month plot in order to embarrass Jim would’ve required Jim’s brains to fall out in order to work. He’s turned into a total fool.
All of this is believability being thrown out of the window. And I’m not talking about realism. No sitcom is realistic. I’m talking about that moment when a show abandons its own interior plausibility, which every show spends time building up, only to ignore later when it goes on for more than three or four seasons and ends up on autopilot and starts doing more and more repetitive and/or outlandish things.
Frankly, by now a wizard could appear in the office and send Dwight on a quest, or Oscar could be harassed by a floating alien that only he can see and hear, and it wouldn’t seem out of place on The Office. I think believability is something the show abandoned a long time ago for the sake of ratings. It doesn’t necessarily make The Office bad, but it does make it a different show.
And with believability gone, I think we’re long into the post-shark jump period. Sure, there have been some great episodes since “Stress Relief.” I think all of the Michael Scott Paper Company episodes were brilliant. But no show goes immediately into the dregs because they jumped the shark. Declines have their momentary rises, but they always go back to falling. The Michael Scott Paper Company episodes were good, but still can’t quite touch the show at its peak. As The Office slides down the other side of the quality hill, those episodes were bright spots in a wane.
This is what happens when a show jumps the shark: overconfidence sets in, and overconfidence breeds laziness. And nothing is lazier than a damn clip episode.
The Office has jumped the shark.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.