The Office shows the pitfalls of fake reality becoming “real”

The Office shows the pitfalls of fake reality becoming “real”

At the end of “The Job,” the third season finale of NBC’s The Office, Pam is sitting in the Dunder Mifflin conference room, speculating about what would change if Jim were to get the job at corporate. As she continues to discuss how she’s sure that she and Jim would remain friends should he leave, Jim bursts through the door and asks if she’s free for dinner that night.

It’s a pivotal moment in the series’ narrative, the moment where a three-season courtship officially becomes an actual relationship (and, three seasons later, a marriage). However, it’s also a moment that—like the entire series—is witnessed through the lens of a documentary crew. When Jim enters the room, he apologizes to the people behind the camera for interrupting their interview; as Pam finds herself overcome with emotion at Jim’s romantic overture, she looks slightly off-camera and says, “I’m sorry. What was the question?”

In this scene and others like it, acknowledging the documentary crew is a way to differentiate between stock sitcom storylines and moments that seem comparatively unscripted, like Jim’s sudden return. While the handheld camerawork and character testimonials were designed to evoke the “reality” of documentary filmmaking, they have become such a part The Office’s formula that it’s easy just to see them as part of regular television production. Shows like Modern Family and Parks And Recreation added to that feeling by adopting the same style without acknowledging the presence of an actual documentary crew. 

The Office’s commitment to that presence has always worked as an antidote to the format’s artifice, which is why it was so frustrating when it started to disappear in later seasons. Yet the writers’ reluctance to explore the camera crew in more detail was understandable. Having never established why the crew was filming at Dunder Mifflin, the logic of the documentary became more and more absurd with each passing season, to the point where Michael Scott’s “Hey, will you guys let me know if this ever airs?” in his final scene is a self-deprecating punchline. 

At the same time, there was an enormous potential in pulling back the curtain and exploring the legacy of the series’ characters from the perspective of someone who had been just off-camera the entire time. I was thrilled when showrunner Greg Daniels revealed he intended to explore this territory in the ninth and final season. It felt like the show, which has become unmoored in recent seasons, was finally going to confront its documentary premise head-on and restore a sense of grounded reality to its series.

Then it happened, and it felt more fake than anything that came before. 

Everything was going well at first. Jim and Pam’s fight toward the end of “Customer Loyalty” restores the sense of eavesdropping the show has lost in recent seasons, the raw frustration of a long-distance marriage—necessitated by Jim’s new job in Philadelphia—rising to the surface on both sides of the phone call. When Pam breaks down sobbing at her desk, the shot lingers just long enough for viewers to feel like they shouldn’t be witnessing this moment, which is when an unfamiliar voice emerges to ask Pam if she’s all right.

The origin of that voice would be revealed moments later, but taken on its own, that moment captures the cumulative impact of the documentary style. Asking “Are you okay?” is probably how viewers would comfort Pam in that situation. They might also ask the same rhetorical questions that characters seem to answer when they give interviews to the camera. In the absence of any actual documentary crewmembers, it functions as an audience surrogate. The crew’s continued presence mirrors the continued presence of the audience.

It’s this relationship with the audience that series like Modern Family or Parks And Recreation have looked to recreate when they’ve adopted the documentary style (albeit without any of The Office’s logistical baggage). Parks creator and former Office producer Michael Schur said as much to The A.V. Club:

“The point of mockumentary style, to me, is that people act one way when they know the cameras are there and act a different way when the cameras aren’t there, and when they’re doing what we call ‘talking heads’ or ‘confessionals’ to the cameras, they often will say the exact opposite of what they think, and the cameras will peer through a plant and will catch them interacting with someone else, and we’ll see, ‘Oh, that’s how they truly are.’”

While Schur also acknowledges the style was convenient, given that the writing staff and production crew of the new show came from The Office, it was also key to how Parks And Recreation evolved following its shortened first season. The documentary style allowed the idiosyncrasies of Leslie Knope to be fine-tuned, and it similarly allowed hardened characters like Ron Swanson or April Ludgate to gain further dimension and develop into fan favorites. Even if the camera crew doesn’t actually exist, the style nonetheless facilitates the same kind of relationship with the audience that The Office boasts.

For Modern Family, the documentary style has been used to soften potentially objectionable content. Gay couple Cam and Mitchell represent the most “modern” of the families and the largest barrier for the mass audience needed for the show to become a hit. Even if the couple is less progressive than the show sometimes believes, a high-profile same-sex relationship is still notable and—for some—scandalous. The “talking heads” frame and explain their storyline more carefully and offer a way for their issues to be aesthetically and thematically linked to the series’ more “traditional” families. The two, on average, seem to share more talking-head time than the other couples, and those talking heads are more often used to set up storylines than with Phil and Claire (whose stories are more typical for a traditional family sitcom).

By removing the documentary crew from the conversation, Modern Family and Parks And Recreation make the camera an audience surrogate. Any documentary that doesn’t acknowledge their presence creates a similar situation, but an ongoing television series intensifies this relationship, developing the same kind of bond between characters and audience that documentarians experience with their subjects. Just as viewers can’t reach out through the screen to express empathy for television characters, documentarians aren’t supposed to reach out and comfort their subjects. And so when someone broke this rule in Pam’s moment of need, it felt cathartic at first, as though the fourth wall were being broken and audience members were being welcomed into the narrative.

When it was revealed that the man behind the voice was named Brian, and that he was a conventionally attractive male between the ages of 30 and 40 with whom Pam shared a personal relationship, the audience no longer felt welcome. Rather than an audience member concerned about his or her favorite character, Brian registered as a plot device, a convenient male figure whose presence at Pam’s side during this difficult time highlighted Jim’s absence. Rather than emphasize the powerful long-term relationship—between audience and characters and between characters and their documentarians—that is reaching its apex after eight and a half seasons of ambiguity, the reveal felt like a cheap way to use an abandoned conceit to raise the stakes around Jim and Pam’s relationship artificially, by providing a sense the two might break up. Despite making the camera crew more real than ever before, Brian is barely a person, as fake a recurring character as the show has introduced during its nine-season run.

It could be argued that this disappointment—and the subsequent debate that has, if nothing else, reignited discussion around the show—was inevitable. The documentary crew could be the sitcom equivalent of Lost’s island, that longstanding mystery the show ignores for too long, fostering inevitable backlash when the reveal doesn’t line up with a diverse range of audience expectations. But unlike Lost, The Office wasn’t burdened with the weight of the supernatural. The camera crew, imaginary or real, just comprises a bunch of regular people doing their jobs, somewhat comparable to the employees of Dunder Mifflin. They stuck around for nine years, like the rest of us did, and could have been just as valuable as surrogates in “reality” as they were in theory. The Office could have called attention to how the documentary style has shaped our relationship with these characters; instead, it solved a short-term problem—a lack of tension surrounding Jim and Pam’s relationship as the show reaches its conclusion—and threw away broader thematic potential.

In the past, I always judged Modern Family for limiting its potential by choosing to have no documentary crew at all. I’d smugly tell people how the Modern Family camera crew doesn’t actually exist, as if that somehow invalidated its storytelling and threatened its premise (and as though I wasn’t guilty of a double standard for not saying the same of Parks And Recreation, a show I enjoy much more). I saw it as something the show did because it was lazy, just as I judged The Office for abandoning the logic of the device in later seasons. 

And then Brian the Boom Mic Guy emerged and made me look like a fool—not for believing that the documentary crew had thematic value, which I continue to stand by, but for believing that at the end of The Office, the show’s writers would understand that the documentary crew was more than just an abandoned novelty. The Brian storyline has been a failure for many reasons, not only because the clichéd “other man” narrative will inevitably fade away for Jim and Pam’s happy ending, but also because, in finally acknowledging the reality of the series’ documentary crew to complicate one relationship, The Office complicated the most important relationship of all.

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