A Show About Something
When I was a seminarian, a friend of mine who didn’t have a TV in his room wanted to know if he could use my room and my TV to watch the Office on DVD. It was a weekend right before midterms but I wasn’t really planning on studying so I joined him and began my encounter with the employees of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch. For the first few seasons, and really up until the last few episodes of the whole series, I thought that The Office was my generation’s Seinfeld. It seemed, from all appearances, to be a show about nothing. But in the end, The Office would turn out to be a show which was deeply about something. And indeed it turned out to be a show about the most fundamental thing that there is: love.
More to the point, The Office became, at least from my point of view, a fantastic exploration of the journey man takes from living a self-centered life to one which is selfless and open to the law of the gift. Now that I’ve seen the entire series, I think the whole series can be set off by the quote made famous by John Paul II from the Second Vatican Council: man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (Gaudium et Spes #24).
Man’s Search for Meaning
When the show began, Jim Halpert was a nonchalant twenty-something who had stumbled into a job that paid the bills. He wasn’t planning his life around his career, and was certain his job was only a temporary, but necessary evil. His zest for life was always obvious, perhaps especially so around the work place. His ongoing prank war with Dwight Schrute and his friendship with receptionist Pam Beesley kept him relatively sane around the office place, and gave him lots of time to utilize his best talents.
Rather soon on in the show, it becomes clear that there is something going on between Jim and Pam. Or, at least, it seems that there should or could be something going on. But, as viewers soon find out, Pam is engaged to warehouse employee, Roy. Their engagement had been an ongoing issue for several years, and it seemed a wedding date was nowhere to be found. Furthermore, the obvious disregard that Roy had for Pam’s feelings and indeed for her person, added plenty of fuel to the fire that was burning beneath the surface in Jim’s heart. Yet, he kept things to himself and respected Pam’s decision to be with Roy.
In the show’s first few seasons, Jim seems to be struggling to find himself. He is a likable-enough fellow, he enjoys sports, music, recreation, and has a good heart. Even though he’s always playing pranks on Dwight, he clearly cares for him and the others he works with.
But deep down there’s a restlessness, a longing for something more, something greater to build his life around. That restlessness is ultimately only satisfied by the challenge offered to all of us: die to self, and serve another, and through that other, serve God. While The Office may have almost always left religion off of the show or used it as a comedic device, the golden thread which ran throughout the show, Jim’s love of Pam, is incomprehensible without an implicit Christian worldview.
Discovering the Gift
With great Hollywood timing and perfect on-screen chemistry, Jim and Pam dance around (and sometimes with) each other for what seems like an eternity and still remain just friends. Pam opens up to Jim about her doubts and struggles with Roy and their relationship. Jim is the ever-constant ear to listen, and the one who knows how to cheer Pam up. He is also an encyclopedia of all things Pam: he knows her favorite chips, favorite flavor of yogurt, what she wants for Christmas, her deep desire to do something with art, etc.
Also, a regular feature of the Office is that all the male co-workers on the show (okay, except Dwight) are constantly making references to Pam’s physical beauty. She is trampled upon, quite often, as sexual innuendo fly around the proverbial water cooler, and somehow always make their way back to Pam.
What is really fascinating, and profoundly virtuous, is the way that Jim never allows himself to be brought into all of this. He shrugs off the suggestions, and finds a humorous way to re-route the conversation to something more wholesome or less objectionable. While Jim is not always the perfect man, when it comes to Pam, he finds a way to uphold her honor and dignity.
Throughout Season 2, Jim struggles with his feelings for Pam, wondering if it’s all just a pipe dream. Advice from Michael Scott in this area is surprisingly good. On the Booze Cruise, he tells Jim that while Pam may be engaged, she’s not married, and that he should never, ever give up. That evening, Jim humbly realizes that he is falling in love with Pam, but he doesn’t tell her. Rather, he continues to pursue her happiness in the way he best can, as a friend, and as one who will look out for her best interests no matter the pain it may cause him.
In due time, Pam’s relationship with Roy falls apart, and her and Jim eventually begin to date. What’s really fascinating, to me, is that this is also when Jim finally has an opportunity to advance in his career. He’s on track to be an executive at Dunder Mifflin and live in New York City, rather than suburban Scranton. But, knowing Pam is finally available, and that he has to make his move, he leaves the interview, comes back, and asks out Pam directly. It’s one of the best moments in the entire series.
After their romance begins in earnest, things go mostly the fairy tale route for the couple. They date for a few months, Pam goes to art school, only to realize that finishing up will lead to more time away from Jim, so this time she sacrifices her own plans for the chance to be closer to Jim. It’s beautiful. They soon are engaged, and a bit before their marriage wind up expecting their first child. As the series goes on, they have children, more financial stress, and the normal wear and tear of marriage. Their relationship is portrayed more honestly and it becomes clear that the love of marriage is not a daily fairy tale so much as it is a daily decision, a daily struggle, a daily joy that says “yes” to all of life’s impossibilities.
Jim, at one point, starts a second job in Philadelphia, leading to nights and sometimes weeks away from home. He calls in regularly, tries to juggle his normal day job at Dunder Mifflin, and all the while is building a successful new business that’s primed to take off big time. He’s trying his best to invest his time and energy into something that will be able to take his family to a more comfortable lifestyle and provide well enough that Pam won’t have to work and so that he won’t have to work two jobs. But the strain on their marriage is palpable. They even begin counseling sessions, and in the end, Jim decides it’s best to leave the business behind and focus on time with his family.
It is ultimately the richness of family life that will always prevail for Jim and Pam. They work as much as they can and do the best they can, but the ultimate priority for them is their relationship and their family.
While the two aren’t overtly religious, there’s a noticeable theme of self sacrifice and solidarity in their marriage. They both juggle the responsibilities of family life as much as they can, and they share the burdens of keeping things together. Jim realizes he can’t put all of his focus on work in order to someday have his family better off. His wife and his children need him and he decides that they can make it well enough with him working at Dunder Mifflin. Pam, too, realizes she can’t and shouldn’t be alone to raise the children while Jim works; they need each other. This Christian vision of marriage and love puts self sacrifice, the desire of the good of the other, always at the center, and lets everything else flow from it.
In my viewing and constant re-viewing of this series, what’s perhaps become more clear to me over time is that it’s not so much Jim or Pam’s singular, heroic decisions like leaving a New York job opportunity or quitting art school that really define their relationship. Instead it’s the small, constant, sometimes imperfect decisions they make in an effort to better love and better serve one another. My favorite author, Fulton Sheen, describes marriage as a bond between three people: the husband, the wife, and the love which draws both of them together, the love of Christ. Caught up in the video narrative of The Office is, I believe, a profound window onto the kind of love that the Church has in mind in its teachings about marriage. Jim and Pam share a love and a relationship that is not perfect, but that is always seeking greater perfection, and in doing so, the central role of the gift of self becomes paramount.