What You Wanted to Be
Dreams are just that—they’re dreams. They help get you through the day.
—Pam Beasley (Jenna Fischer)
For nine seasons, the six beautiful individuals on Friends broke up, fought, made up, got pregnant, and got married, all while rarely leaving their spacious, well-decorated apartments. This was aspirational comedy, about people better off than you. No matter how difficult their trials, the friends never lost their glamorous sheen.
The Office is the anti-Friends. It takes place almost entirely in the office of Dunder Mifflin, a paper sales company in rustbelt Scranton, Pennsylvania. Rather than liking each other, its inhabitants are thrown together. They’re average people working jobs most of them despise, forced to deal with one another for eight hours a day. (As the U.K. version of The Office made explicit, most people spend more of their lives with co-workers than their closest friends.)
While the comedy was obvious right away, it took until the second season for the series’ dramatic undertone—found in its protagonists’ alienation and anxiety—to reveal itself. In retrospect, the first season, with its episodic non-narrative, was too easy. An extended cover version of Office Space, it offered up wacky, insensitive boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and his assistant Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) as fodder for smart-alecky Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). For the first season, six episodes long, most of the action centered on those four.
With Season Two’s 22 episodes, however, the focus expanded to include the entire staff, whose tragicomic rhythms came to the fore. Michael morphed from clown to sad clown as viewers came to realize his insensitive hi-jinks were driven by his eternal loneliness. One of the season’s most effective scenes showed him leaving work in the episode “Halloween,” after he’d fired one of his employees. “You hear about layoffs on the news, but to actually have to do it yourself… that is heavy stuff,” he mused. Leaving alone, he quietly cleaned the pumpkin detritus from the front of his car (revenge by the fired worker), and drove home, where he sat in the dark, watching TV. Finally, some trick-or-treaters rang his doorbell and he was on again: someone new to entertain.
It turns out Michael’s especially good with kids, another second season revelation. This made him briefly popular during the episode titled, “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” He bonded with young Sasha (Delaney Ruth Farrell), who loved his toy collection. He tried to impress the other kids with a video of himself as a boy, appearing on a local kids show. As young Michael (Jake Kalender) told the camera, “I want to be married and have 100 kids so I can have 100 friends and no one can say no to being my friend,” nearly every adult’s face showed a mixture of shock and pity. Sasha, with the honesty only children can deliver, asked, “So you didn’t get to be what you wanted to be?” It was about as heartbreakingly true as network sitcoms get.
The series’ documentary style is perfect for capturing such revealing moments, as well as magnifying their emotional impact. The scene of Michael Scott through his window blinds as his living room darkened had a poignancy that the more conventional Friends style couldn’t muster. It captured the pathos of everyone in the office, none of whom got to “be what [they] wanted to be.”
The Office is galvanized by these telling images, as when Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) told his unimpressed daughter, “This is my filing cabinet” or Ryan the temp (B.J. Novak, who also writes much of the show), confessed directly to the camera, “If I had to, I could clean out my desk in five seconds and nobody would know I’d ever been here. And I’d forget, too.” At its core, The Office is about something not very funny at all: the tragedy of adulthood, where possibilities dwindle to limits.
Perhaps no character is more aware of this than Jim. He’s the guy who should be boss: he’s genuinely funny (unlike Michael), has a good rapport with virtually everyone in the office, naturally leadership qualities, and knows his business. In fact, he knows it too well. He’ll never be boss because he can’t forget the fact that he makes a living selling paper. Trying to make the best of the future promised by a new account, he could only trail off: “If we were to get this, we wouldn’t have to downsize our branch. I could work here for years… years. Years.”
It doesn’t help that he’s in love with the perpetually engaged Pam. Jim and Pam spent most of this season circling one another, two people obviously in love but unable to do anything about it. Pam set a date for her wedding; Jim made plans to be out of the country. He revealed his crush to Michael, who promptly blabbed it to the whole office, leaving Pam to deal with knowing looks from her co-workers. Pam confided in Jim, saying how easy he was to talk to, unlike her fiancé, Roy (David Denman), who doesn’t like to be bothered with such talk. Jim shot back, “With what? You mean like your thoughts and feelings?” Pam, oblivious and distracted, answered, “Yeah.” Jim made plans to transfer out of the Scranton office.
Jim’s travails came to a head in the season finale, “Casino Night.” Appropriately, the Dunder Mifflin employees were rolling the dice and taking the consequences. Jim, the guy Ryan says “has worked in the same place for five years” and “eats the same ham and cheese sandwich every day,” decided he didn’t want to leave Scranton without knowing for sure. He confessed his love to Pam, who stammered through the beginning of a “We’re such good friends” speech. Jim walked away. The possibility of something new, no matter how much they both wanted it, was closed off. “So you didn’t get to be what you wanted to be?”
At this point, it seemed like inertia and the comforting routine of the office had dissolved Jim and Pam’s dreams. She tearfully confided to her mother over the receptionist’s desk phone. Then Jim returned. Without a word, he kissed Pam. She kissed back. They looked at one another, unsure. And just like that, the possibility was back, at least for them. The Office may be a place for dreams after all.