The Office: Broken Fourth Walls and Busted Faces

vlcsnap-2013-02-07-17h58m34s189[NOTE: I realize this post may become obsolete mere hours after it is posted, but I’ve only just completed it and wanted to get it out before tonight’s episode]

Spoilers Abound! (if you’re not caught up)

Two weeks ago, The Office took a bold step and decided to actually reveal the documentary crew who has been filming life at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company (now Sabre, still?) for the past eight-plus years. Midway through its final season, it’s understandable that the show would be open to changing things up in such a big (and maybe distracting and potentially disastrous) way. They don’t really have much left to lose at this point. Still, it’s a very interesting development for the show, which has always kept the documentary crew invisible, though not absent from episodes.

As novel as this change seems, the show has technically been “breaking the fourth wall” since episode one, having the characters to speak directly to the camera in talking-head interviews and allowing them to acknowledge the existence of the camera throughout the series. We knew of the crew’s existence and it mostly worked (I can’t say the same thing for the two seasons of Modern Family I’ve seen, where it always seemed like the talking-head sections were at odds with everything else, even causing temporal conflict at times).

The Office has never really broken the fourth wall from the other side though, allowing the crew a chance to appear on camera (a probably-incomplete list appears on Dunderpedia, pointing out times when the crew has been visible/audible). This changes in the 12th episode of the 9th season (“Customer Loyalty”) when Pam turns to Brian (the hunky Chris Diamantopoulos) for support after he asks if she’s okay following an over-the-phone fight between her and Jim.

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The next episode (“Junior Salesman”) takes a slight timeout from the doc crew, just opening with Brian telling Pam that after last week, the crew was warned not to have as much contact with the “subjects” of the documentary. That doesn’t stop him for long. Brian gives Pam a playful bump with his boom microphone at the beginning of episode 14, “Vandalism.”

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He does this as a sign of support because someone has vandalized Pam’s mural in the warehouse. Oh my, we have an honest to goodness whodunit in the office (not to be confused with the mystery featured in “Murder,” one of the bright spots in the slowly fading series’ sixth season)! Nevermind, it’s not a whodunit, because the culprit is obviously the highly conspicuous bearded guy who has never appeared on a single episode of the show up to this point, Frank, played by the somewhat recognizable Brad William Henke (Justified, 24, Lost, Dexter and the 2008 film Choke). Anyway, after Dwight and Pam take revenge on Frank by vandalizing his truck, Frank flips out on Pam, and then this happens:

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Brian smacks Frank across the face with his microphone. We come to find that both Brian and Frank were fired over the entire affair (poor Frank, he’s only been working at Dunder Mifflin for one day!). Brian tells Pam that he’ll be there for her if she needs someone to talk to.

So, how do I feel about all of this?

A part of me thinks this is awesome. Can you imagine how great it would be had we never see Brian until he ran in and smacked Frank? What an insane moment that could have been! As it stands, I still think it’s a really interesting idea to bring the documentary crew into the picture (for any show that relies on this conceit). On a purely superficial level, it brings some new life, and a new dynamic to a show that is ready to be put out to pasture.

Maybe it’s not great for them to focus so much on it for the end of the series though. It might have been fun to have this happen somewhere in season five or six. Then we could periodically have the doc crew show up in certain scenes or episodes. We’ve already had several slight interactions with the crew prior to this season. Perhaps if they were recurring characters beforehand we could really get invested in using them for the series’ endgame. Introducing a ruggedly handsome boom mic operator halfway through the final season seems just a little bit contrived. However, I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that The Office’s best days are behind it, so I’m fine with this bit of experimentation.

Now let’s get to the real problem: where it looks like they’re headed with this. We already have the conflict of Jim’s new job causing trouble in his married/family life, do we really need to pile on a love triangle as well? Yes, it could be the ultimate test that Jim and Pam survive to ride off happily into the Philadelphia sunset (and to a stop at Paddy’s Pub), but what good does that do the characters? Despite the marital tension that has been growing all season, I don’t for one second buy that Pam would actually entertain the possibility of cheating on Jim, not after everything we’ve watched these two go through for the past 8 years. On top of that, we just meet Brian in episode 12 and by episode 14 we’ve already got dangerous flirtation with the hint of something more.

Of course, I’m writing this before the series has had a chance to play things out. Maybe they won’t make it terrible. There are obviously any number of possible outcomes, but maybe one of these things will happen:

We never see Brian again

Fat chance of this happening. However, maybe the bold move of Brian’s appearance and the microphone smack is all the show was really going for. He could fade out after this. Or, it might be the setup for the crew to recur over the rest of the season, without them intruding any more heavily into the lives of their subjects than they already have. We’ll get used to seeing them around more often, we might milk a few moments of humor out of them breaking through from the other side of the fourth wall and then they’ll show us the documentary and be done with it. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but it could be the show’s best course if it wants to keep me from rolling my eyes (Liz Lemon style).

Pam and Brian are actually just friends…seriously

This unlikely scenario would save us from an unwanted love triangle (or pyramid?). I say unlikely because building a platonic male/female friendship (not just acquaintanceship or co-worker-ship) on TV, without one of the characters being gay, takes time (though it can be done). That’s time that the show doesn’t have, or at least shouldn’t be wasting, as we head toward the finish line.

Pam and Brian flirt, but it never goes much beyond what we’ve already seen

I’d be mostly okay with this too. Maybe they’re about to take it too far when Pam realizes what she’s about to do (maybe after watching some of the old episodes on DVD) and stops. She holds it inside for a few episodes and then decides she needs to tell Jim. There’s obviously another argument, but Jim shows his character as well and they all live happily ever after. Or Jim could just forgive her right away without drowning us in any drama.

Lastly, I’ll throw this one out there:

Pam and Brian go too far, way too far (or at least farther than they should)

What if Pam really did have an affair with Brian? What if Jim found out about it? What if the series ended with them divorced or separated? How dark (and awesome and subversive) would that be? Think about everything we’ve seen with Jim and Pam so far in the series:  the kiss (“Casino Night”), Pam’s confession of love (“Beach Games”), Jim asking Pam out  (“The Job”), the proposal (“Weight Loss”), the wedding (“Niagara”), the baby (“The Delivery”) and another baby somewhere in the doldrums of season 8. Now think about turning all of that history and feel-good-ness on its head. Sure, everyone would probably hate it, but given that I personally don’t think the show has had a great season since its fourth or fifth, I would LOVE IT! It doesn’t have to be a complete downer though. Maybe there’s no Pam/Brian love-child. Maybe Jim and Pam don’t get divorced and sue for custody of the kids (Halpert vs. Halpert anyone?). Maybe the series ends on a hopeful note, with the possibility of them reconciling, or even showing them trying to start things anew.

Of course, it would be the most drastic tonal change the show has ever experienced, potentially going even darker than the original British version ever did. Also, the majority of the show’s audience would probably be outraged. I don’t see this extreme endgame ever playing out, but I’m just saying, if they wanted to go there, the seeds they’re planting now could certainly grow in that direction. You’ve got nothing to lose, guys, make it happen!

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9 thoughts on “The Office: Broken Fourth Walls and Busted Faces

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