Does Jim Prefer? And Why Pam Does Not. Pt. 1

by zunguzungu

You’re supposed to identify with Jim in The Office. You, presumably, are male, since Pam, the only remotely sympathetic female character, is constructed to be as boring, repressed, and boring as possible. The actress who plays her, Jenna Fischer, comes from an improv background but she was instructed to disregard the first rule of improv: instead of responding to questions with a “yes, and…,” her character always says “no,” and then sits quietly, looking scared.

Her relationship with Jim is supposed to be a kind of awakening, and this is played fairly nicely: in season three, she emerges as self-willed in ways the earlier Pam, cowed by her brutish fiancée, could never have been. She pursues, somewhat pathetically, her desire to be an artist, and after rejecting relationships with both Roy and Jim, her character arc builds to a nice seasonal climax in the “Beach games” episode, where she first berates her co-workers for not coming to her art show and then tells Jim that she cancelled her wedding for him, but not just for him, and that most of all, she just misses his friendship. This is well done, because the key is less that she finally declared her love for him than that she asserts herself. That this narrative arc inevitably deposits her in a relationship with Jim should surprise no one, though, and however good the season three climax is, it is a bit disappointing to see an interesting dramatic vein get played out. I’m not optimistic that the show will be able to recover from the loss, but we’ll see.

When I used to watch the office on TV (occasionally, and rarely), it was hilarious, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Over the long weekend, I nursed a bad cold by getting through the first two seasons of the show, from its glorious beginnings to the cliffhanger season finale, and the subjectivity of that experience is very different: you get much deeper inside the characters, and the humor cuts at a very different angle. This is a show about being trapped in a Kafka-esque prison world, where Michael Scott is not merely a nominal authority but (nightmarishly) actually does have authority. He actually can fire people (and the real horror is that they don‘t want to be fired). So when you, too, start to get sucked into that world, when you, too, keep going back into the prison-world of the office and watch episode after episode on end, the awkwardness becomes harder and harder to laugh at. Michael Scott, quite frankly, becomes unendurable.

But while Pam’s character arc might be a nice narrative of self-realization, the development of the artist story is only heartwarming in direct inverse proportion to how honest it is (and the show is pretty honest). She’s not a good artist, nor (it is absolutely clear) does she have a future outside of being a secretary at this office, which the show is occasionally brutal in portraying as a degrading, futureless, and empty existence. As is the office as a whole, of course, but her narrative of self-realization and salvation through art is ultimately a delusion and shown to be such: one of her pictures (at her pathos drenched art show) is a picture of a stapler and another is a picture of the office itself, which Michael Scott (the only person from the office to even show up) promptly buys and places on the wall in the office itself. That the picture wasn’t originally for sale, that what is meant to be Pam’s escape from the office leads her back to the office, and that none of her coworkers show up–implying that they disapprove of her attempt to escape, like prisoners distancing themselves from a jailbreak–are all very nice touches. But the master stroke is that Michael Scott, the show’s arch-villain, does show up, but fails even to realize that Pam is trying to escape from the office because, in fact, her escape is so doomed from the start. The ignorant, oblivious, idiot is, in this case, absolutely right. And that’s scary.

This is why you’re supposed to identify with Jim rather than with Pam. Her character is the show’s figure for failure (dramatizing the power of the office, and all it signifies, to crush humanity), and while Jim can leave the office — remaining in The Office but in another offices — it seems to me that this privilege could never be extended to Pam without tearing the heart out of the show. As receptionist, she exists as a petty, sordid trophy for Michael Scott’s most casual and most unthinkingly heartless actions; since Michael is the embodiment of the office’s stupid and evil power, the show needs her as the object of that evil. It needs her passivity (even cooperation) to demonstrate his awesome power, just like he needs her, however oblivious he is to that. So she has to hug him when he buys her sad little painting in order to demonstrate how hopeless escape really is, like Smith at the end of 1984. It’s a powerful (and wonderfully dark) vision, but we can only laugh at it to the extent that we don’t identify with Pam, I think, the way Frederick Douglass could only represent subjection along side a curious assertion that he was never truly subject to slavery. The two cannot co-exist. If we identified with her, the show would be far too dark to see.