Not Going for the Easy Drama
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
I’ve been listening to the Office Ladies podcast, and if you’re any level fan of The Office, you should listen to it. It’s Jenna Fischer (who played Pam) and Angela Kinsey (who played Angela) discussing a bunch of behind-the-scenes details about the making of the show.
What’s particularly interesting about it is that they actually cover a lot of the writing of the show, despite both being actors and not writers.
The episode this last week was covering Casino Night, the season two season finale, the episode where Jim confesses his love for Pam.
If you didn’t watch the show, there’s kind of a lot of moving parts leading up to this point. To sum it up:
Michael is the manager of the office and he has a huge crush on Jan, his boss. They’ve made out, and it would violate company policy for them to date, but in this episode we see that Jan was starting her self-destructive streak and was planning to hook up with Michael.
Too bad Michael has another date at this Casino Night event.
Jim and Pam work together in the office and are totally in love, but Pam is engaged to this other guy, Roy (seriously, listen to this podcast – Jenna has some amazing insight into Pam’s character and motivations and choices regarding Roy in particular).
Near the end of the episode, Jim runs into Jan in the parking lot and we find out that Jim is transferring to another office (the subtext is that it’s too painful for him to watch Pam marry Roy).
But here’s the thing: Jim has been flirting with Pam all night, but it’s clear that Jim wants it to be real, and it can’t be, because of Roy. At the same time, Jan came here to hook up with Michael, but it can’t happen because he’s got someone else and also Jan doesn’t want to lose her job.
So Jim and Jan are in the parking lot. They’re both lonely. They’re both sad. They’re both frustrated and fed up with their circumstances. And there’s this underlying tension to the scene, and it’s all shot as if it’s a secret, and they’re all alone …
And on the podcast, the actors said there was a lot of chatter at the time that people were worried in this moment that Jan and Jim were going to hook up.
And you know what?
I could see it.
A lesser show would have done it. They would have sensed the tension in that moment and taken the easy shot and had Jim hook up with Jan. It would have been so dramatic! Jim – Classic Nice Guy Jim – hooked up with his boss’s boss! Pam has been cast aside in favor of a bigger catch! Michael missed his shot!
If you know how season 3 opens up, and the events of the early part of that season, you know it easily could have been fed by the drama of Jan secretly hooking up with Jim. (Jim transfers to the other office, Michael’s office gets closed, and Jim’s new boss is given the job of managing both offices, but quits immediately – Jim could have been given that promotion, putting the question of “Is it because they hooked up?” in everyone’s mind)
But the writers for The Office knew they wanted to play the long game. They knew where the show was going, that it wasn’t really just a workplace drama. Ultimately, that show was about relationships and specifically Pam and Jim’s relationship. It goes sideways in season 8 when they lose sight of that relationship as the heart of the show, but the heart comes back in season 9 when they focus on the tension in that relationship again.
The lesson I took from this was to not always go for the most dramatic possible outcome. Jim and Jan hooking up would have been shocking, but it made a kind of sense in the moment. It would solve their loneliness and it would eliminate the entire painful conversation between Jim and Pam that happens five seconds later, and it definitely would have eliminated the kiss that happens two minutes after that.
And maybe Jim and Pam could have recovered from it, but it would have been a lot more soapy than it needed to be.
And maybe they wouldn’t have recovered.
But that heartbreak? Oh, that heartbreak. That moment where Jim confesses his love, and Pam shoots him down, and he just says, “Don’t…” with tears lining his eyes.
IT IS CRUSHING.
Without that moment, the season finale would have been a gasp-worthy cliffhanger.
With that crushing, heartbreaking moment, the audience fell in love with the show.
And then two minutes later, Jim puts himself on the line again, kisses Pam, and the camera fades to black.
Is your cliffhanger.
Jim hooking up with Jan would have been a gasp moment.
Instead, 8 million people all across America howled at their television sets, “NOOOOOOO! HOW CAN THEY LEAVE IT THERE???!???!!!”
Instead of taking the easy drama, the gasp-inducing moment, the writers took the harder route. They beat Jim up, they made the audience cry with him, and then they took a chance with a much bigger, much more frustrating cliffhanger.
And that’s how you become one of the best-written shows in American history.