For those of you not old enough to remember the series “Happy Days”, towards the end of its long run, the writers had the Fonzi character actually jumping over shark-infested waters in an attempt to draw viewers back to what was becoming a rapidly declining viewer base. The stunt was silly and outrageous, and its only value was to coin the phrase “jumping the shark” when a television series’ writers have to come up with something absurd, unique, special (or at least in their feverish, closeted little minds) to gain back lost a portion of their lost audience.
It’s with a heavy heart that one of my all-time favorite shows, “The Office”, did just that with its special post-Super Bowl episode.
Rainn Wilson, the quirky actor who portrays the show’s snarky protaganist Dwight, was featured in pre-Bowl spots touting the upcoming episode. “The whole office is assaulted!”, Wilson said, while being interviewed wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey. “And there’s Jessica Alba and Jack Black, and don’t forget, Cloris Leachman!” Intriguing, eh? Alba, Black and the possibly now mentally impaired octegenarian Leachman – all on “The Office”?!
What I’ve always admired about this show is its subtlety in the face of the outrageous, the downright bizarre, the utter flakiness of mankind. We know that Michael Scott is a deeply flawed ‘hero’ who values the affection, perceived or real, of his employees more than his job and his career. We know that, like all of us, his childhood shaped him into the person he is today. We know that that childhood was not a happy one, one in which his mother placed her own needs over that of her son. We know this through bits and pieces of information gathered by faithful viewers willing to put in the time and effort over the course of the series – small comments, a photo of two, an offhand remark. Subtle.
More broadly drawn is the character of Dwight Schrute, who is meant to represent the “mean guy”, the “office jerk” in every office and pretty much in every way of life. There’s always a mean-spirited, selfish, emotionally unhinged, over the top fellow pretty much everywhere. Our only respite is to try to avoid that person. His co-workers in “The Office” have, over the years, done an amazingly good job of this.
Over the last two or three episodes, however, the Dwight Schrute character has become more farcical, crazier, much more mean-spirited than your average ill-tempered nut job. The writers used his character to jump that proverbial shark in the show’s special February 1, 2009 episode.
Angered that his co-workers didn’t pay much attention to his prior, unseen fire safety message, Dwight deliberately and in a calculated fashion sets fire to the workplace. We watch as he methodically and with great care wedges wood under doors so that they won’t open, likewise rendering door handles unuseable by heating them with a blow torch. Once he has rendered the office space virtually exit proof, he tosses a lit cigarette into a trash can and waits for his co-workers to notice the smoke. It’s a bit of a wait, especially for us, the viewer, as Dwight drops hints and comments that are, as usual, ignored by those around him.
In the ensuing, ugly flurry to escape, we see the worst side of these characters. As they frantically try to pry open doors, Dwight ‘reminds’ them that if a door handle is hot, there’s most likely fire on the other side. Windows are sealed shut, so Michael, running around and over his employees, throws a chair through his office window to yell for help. As panic ensues, Stanley suffers a heart attack and falls to the ground. It’s only then that Dwight tells the cast that the fire was a false alarm.
The rest of the episode deals with Michael trying in his usual on-off way to make Stanley feel more comfortable, a task includes Michael trying to provide a soothing, meditative experience for his employees as a way to reduce the stress that he, Michael, brings out in them. He insists upon a “roast” as a way to give the office staff a way to purge themselves of their real feelings for him. He is left hurt, bewildered and actually grief-stricken, unable to cope with the reality of what his office “family” actually thinks of him. He wanders a vacant playground trying to come to terms with the burden of this knowledge. A nifty little ending wraps up the show, with Michael doing a quickie roast of each of his workers (“Meredith, you’ve slept with so many men that you’re starting to look like one.”) as a way to unburden himself of his hurt. Knowing how desperate their boss has always been for their affection and approval, the staff is momentarily wowed by Michael’s tiny act of bravery.
Yes, the show wraps up nicely and neatly. But the ugly overtones of how it started continued to linger throughout the episode.
The Dwight Schrute character has gone from being the office jerk, nerd, smart ass, stickler, tattletale, suck-up and general weirdo to … a really unlikeable, despicable, over the top and dangerous person. When confronted by Michael’s superiors over the sheer stupidity of what he’s done, Dwight is self-righteous, deflecting the blame on his co-workers who needed to be taught a lesson because they were too stupid to have it learned it the first time.
I think that “The Office” needs to take away some Dwight time, perhaps as a punishment, perhaps as welcomed relief to the viewing audience. In real life, Rainn Wilson is what we’d all call “a character”. During promotions for his movie “The Rock Star”, a major box office bomb, he had a YouTube video posted in which he was holding fellow co-star Jenna Fisher “captive” unless more people bought tickets to his movie. In interviews, both written and verbal, he is unpleasantly verbose.
He was the perfectly creepy undertaker in training in “Six Feet Under”. Initially, his character on “The Office” was drawn broadly to be just another really, really annoying person, someone to whom we could all relate because we all, at some point in our lives, have to deal with folks like him.
Leading up to the special episode, Dwight cuckolded Andy Bernard by having sex somewhere in the building with Andy’s fiancee, the ice queen Angela. Towards the end of that story line, what was once a perplexing scenario – Angela having sex with anyone? Dwight having sex with anyone? – became downright ugly and perverted. If Dwight is left out of the major story lines for the balance of this season, I doubt there will be few complaints. His character’s actions were so far beyond the realm of what any sane person would do that it’s now hard to see him as a “person”; he’s more of an Adult Swim cartoon character now. Who deliberately sets fires for his own selfish pleasure? Oh, wait, there’s an answer to that…an arsonist. A sick, mentally unbalanced arsonist.
As a longtime fan of “The Office”, it was really very sad to see the writers crash and burn on the Super Bowl special episode. They turned a character who once had a charming quirkiness and possessed honest but offkilter emotions into a nasty, cruel and reckless caricature. Were Dwight Schrute to retire to his beet farm permanently, I, for one, would not miss him – not for a second.