Not Getting Stuck at “The Office”

Jim and Pam's marriage marks a sea change. But are the sharks circling?

Almost immediately after the Jim-and-Pam wedding episode of "The Office" aired last Thursday, the rumblings started: Has the show jumped the shark?

Jim, Pam and the gang's bounce down the aisle – an homage to the “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” viral video – may not be Fonzie leaping a man-eater and signalling the beginning of the end, but there's no doubt that "The Office" begins a new phase with tonight's episode. Still, signs are good that the sharks will be held at bay.

The success of the "The Office" is due largely to the strength of the writing and the characters – elements that helped other great shows survive and even thrive amid change.

"MASH" went on without McLean Stevenson, Wayne Rogers and Larry Linville, reaching new heights of serio-comic storytelling with new characters and ambitious episodes, even if the show occasionally lapsed into preachiness.

A more apt comparison may be "Cheers," where the consummation of the Sam-and-Diane flirtation sparked only more comic combustibility. Even after actress Shelley Long left after Season 5 and took Diane Chambers with her, the show flourished six more years with the addition of Kirstie Alley and the expanded role of Kelsey Grammer's pompous, enduring Frasier Crane character.

No one, of course, has quit "The Office." But the dynamic at Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch has been forever altered.

Jim, now a husband, office co-manager and soon-to-be dad, already is finding that life can’t be joked away with wisecrack and a smirk to the camera. Pam will have to juggle marriage, motherhood and her nascent sales career as she mourns all-but-dashed dreams of life as an artist.

Sounds a little depressing, but “The Office” consistently finds humor amid underlying sadness – most notably in Steve Carell’s clueless Michael Scott, who inspires nearly as much empathy as laughter.

Ricky Gervais, the co-creator and star of the original British version of “The Office,” has said the center of his show was the love story between Tim and Dawn, Jim and Pam’s cross-Atlantic forerunners. That’s proving true on this side of the pond, with Jim and Pam emerging as the primary drivers of the action.

There are major differences, though, between the two shows, and they're more than just stylistic: The brilliant British version of “The Office” spanned a mere 12 episodes and a special. The American edition, which is staking its own claim to greatness, recently passed the 100-episode mark.

Gervais has cited among his influences Woody Allen, who told Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall”: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

The creative forces behind "The Office" apparently realize that with longevity, change is inevitable and potentially positive – their challenge is to keep that shark on the run.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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