The Office’s missed opportunity: failing to find reality in its reality TV

For the first time, the staff of Dunder Mifflin was able to see footage that’s been filmed in their office for the past 10 years, and their reactions were, sadly, a lost opportunity–kind of like this whole storyline, and The Office’s last few seasons.

After the staff watched the first trailer of “The Office: An American Workplace”–which will air on WVIA, Scranton’s real-life PBS affiliate–Kevin said in an interview, “This is a documentary? Oh. I always thought we were, like, specimens in a human zoo.” That line was funny, dumb, and completely believable for his character.

Thus ended the plausible responses to the trailer. Instead of exploring how being filmed and exposed to the world affects people, The Office’s writers decided that it’d be more fun to make their characters look like morons.

Brian, the highly implausible boom mic operator character who interrupted filming to comfort Pam and then was fired for protecting Pam by assaulting a warehouse employee, resurfaced when Pam went to ask him what the crew captured on tape.

That was a stretch by itself; the staff has been acutely aware of the cameras’ presence, often in compromising moments, throughout the NBC series’ entire life. And while there have obviously been moments when the cameras were hidden from their subjects, having the office staff be completely and collectively ignorant about what was filmed is just absurd. Still, I was willing to go with that, because it did seem like they felt betrayed, and that was interesting.

However, after learning that turning off their mics wasn’t an effective strategy for hiding from the camera crews, Pam told Brian, “So we basically had no privacy for 10 years.” She then storms out, upset and surprised. That she had no privacy. After being filmed for 10 years. At work. In town. And at home. Are the writers kidding us with this?

Worse, the characters are wildly inconsistent. Pam first asks Brian if he thinks Jim has changed, so she knows and understands the access he’s had to their most intimate moments. A few seconds later, she’s lamenting the “private stuff” the crew caught on tape. (Pam later seems to change her mind, hoping the crew captured intimate moments that remind her of better days with Jim, but I just cannot believe she was initially so ignorant about what had been captured on tape.)

Earlier, Oscar asked a producer who was interviewing him, “You’re not going to use any of that, are you?” He’s referring to all of the “honest” things he’s said in interviews about dating the closeted senator, and again, this is way out of character. Pam Beesly and Oscar Martinez are arguably two of the smartest people in the office, yet both had moronic yet completely serious responses.

It would absolutely make sense for Oscar to regret his affair with Angela’s closeted husband, or regret confessing details to the producers. It would make sense for Pam to regret sharing so much of her life with cameras and producers. It would make sense for the staff to be horrified after learning about some “secret filming” by cameras were sometimes hidden.

They’d be facing the consequences of their actions, or the consequences of trusting producers and crew members who’ve been around for a decade. They could also weigh that against the attraction of their fame, which right now consists only of viewers responding to the trailer.

Those would be fascinating developments and interesting paths to explore with these characters, just as it’d be interesting to illustrate how reality TV crews use the intimacy they develop with their subjects to eventually betray their subjects–just like journalists.

It’s rich material, for both drama and comedy–and perfect for The Office.

Instead, the writers have decided to do the same thing they’ve done with all the characters the past few seasons, which is take the easy route, changing characters we loved to fit dumb plots instead of letting character inform plot. Yes, the characters have always inhabited a narrow space between believable and cartoonish, but they resonated emotionally. There was always reality embedded in the absurdity.

Also, are we seriously expected to believe that they live in a world without reality television or documentary film? My memory is too feeble to recall specific references to or discussion of reality TV by the show’s characters, but they do not live in a popular culture bubble, and I do not believe for one second that they are that ignorant.

While The Office is still incredibly well-acted and shot, it owes a lot of its success and emotional resonance to its format, and thus to reality television. Jim’s glances at the camera alone added weight and humanity to some pretty standard sit-com set-ups. Likewise, the interviews worked as a narrative device and a context for jokes, but really allowed us to understand and connect with fictional characters we grew to love.

How very disappointing, then, that it couldn’t find a way to smartly explore that. But since the show no longer treats its characters seriously or with respect, I guess we shouldn’t have expected it to treat its central conceit any differently.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.