Unless NBC manages a programming miracle in the next few months, we are living through the last days of their three-decade-long “must-see TV” tradition during which they owned Thursday night, either in the ratings or the critics’ hearts.
Starting with “The Cosby Show” in 1984, NBC’s run of Thursday night sitcoms included some of the greatest shows in history: “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frazier,” “Will & Grace,” and “Family Ties.” These smart and sophisticated shows were aimed at the most desirable demographics (younger, higher-income viewers) on the most important night of the week (Thursdays, when the advertisers wanted to reach customers just before the weekend.)
Until very recently, it was plausible to argue that the current crop of Thursday sitcoms – “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Parks & Recreation” and “Community” – were on par with the best of any former four-show “must-see” bloc. Unfortunately, these shows are all running out of steam at the same time, and it’s possible that three or even four of them will be gone at the end of the season.
NBC has indicated that it will be looking for more conventional, less idiosyncratic comedies in the future. Given the network’s recent record of new programming, it seems unlikely that Thursday night comedy will be “must-see” for the foreseeable future.
For me, the main question is whether “The Office,” the most popular, longest-running and best of the four shows, will go out on a high note. This is a series that should have ended two years ago, when Steve Carrell, who played the needy and wildly inappropriate boss Michael Scott, left to make movies. Carrell brought energy and dynamism to the show though a wild blend of mal-applied new-age psychology, cringe-inducing management gaffes and pop culture non-sequiturs. He was Every Boss.
With Carrell’s departure, the show’s narrative arc has shifted to the Jim and Pam story. Their budding romance, Niagara Falls wedding and subsequent parenthood provided emotional resonance and satisfaction for the first five or six seasons. But as grateful as we are that they remain happily married, they no longer have much to contribute to the show as a couple.
Rather than give them marital problems, which would have tarnished the memory of their courtship, the show has done something more original and real: They’ve given Jim a chance to grow up.
Jim’s personal development has always been at the core of the show. The other characters haven’t changed much over the years, but Jim has evolved from a young, alienated, somewhat timid cynic into a mature family man. Always too smart for his job, he’s become a bit smug and self-satisfied in recent seasons. He seemed settled, the classic big fish in a tiny puddle.
But then NBC threw us a curveball. In the first show of the current season, the pseudo-documentarians who have been filming the office for nine years, tell Jim and Pam that their documentary is no longer about the paper company; instead, they admit, “we are "following you guys to see how you turn out."
Pam scoffs at the idea, saying that it doesn’t look like anything interesting is going to happen to her and Jim for a long time. Jim is stricken by her remark, suddenly realizing that he’s been sleepwalking through life. He later bitterly observes of another character, a younger version of himself: "If he doesn't watch himself, he's going to be here for years. Doing nothing.” Even Roy, the laid-off warehouse worker who was once engaged to Pam, has outpaced Jim by launching a successful gravel business.
Suddenly we see that Jim, who once seemed to have it made with a happy marriage, good looks, wit, the respect of his peers and moderate success as a paper salesman, is actually a bit of a loser. He has always taken the path of least resistance and shied away from challenges, thereby wasting his professional life. The amusing pranks he pulled on his colleague Dwight now seem a meager substitute for real achievement.
The first half of this season revolved around Jim’s growing determination to take a risk. His more ambitious college friends have launched a sports marketing start-up that was originally his idea. He belatedly opts into it, but is clearly out of his league, especially since he’s in Scranton and the start-up is in Philadelphia. Finally he decides to take a leave of absence -- and in the last show of 2012, he was headed to Philadelphia to help launch the new venture.
“The Office” began as a sharp satire of modern corporate life, but has devolved into a generic workplace sitcom with a limited connection to reality. Jim’s “ Hail Mary” gives the show a chance for a minor reboot in its final episodes. Maybe the show has something pungent to say about the start-up culture, and maybe the series will end with Jim finally realizing his full potential. Either way, devoted fans are hoping “The Office” has an ending worthy of its hilarious, high-wire history.