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Monthly Archives: May 2013
Michael Scott had just hit Meredith with his car. Jim and Pam were already together. That’s where I started with The Office.
I don’t normally begin television shows in the middle. In fact, I’m pretty doctrinaire about avoiding spoilers and slogging through a series’ early growing pains to understand the foundation on which later stories and character developments will be built. But a friend had invited me to a watch party for the Season 4 premiere. I was hard pressed to say no.
And it cracked me up.
Oddly enough, some fans point to the fourth season as the beginning of the series’ decline – when it stopped being a realistic if fractured look at modern office life and descended into the wacky adventures of an increasingly cartoonish workforce. But the laughs got my attention. Every week, Michael Scott had some great line that tickled my funny bone until the next episode aired. From something as weird as “You don’t know me; you just saw my penis.” to confused statements like “New ideas are fine, but they’re also illegal.” to the even more whimsical pronouncements like “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!” each episode had more than its fair share of entertaining and quotable bits.
But while the buffoonery of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute drew me in, it was the show’s emotional core – best exemplified by the relationship between Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly – that made the show something special. When I first watched them hold hands and pick out ridiculous items from a garage sale, I had no idea of the strain and struggles the characters had been through to get there. I just saw a cute couple who had a fun repartee and seemed to really enjoy each other’s company. That was what kept me coming back.
When I really think about it, it’s sad.
The characters in our favorite books, movies, and television shows are not really our friends. Their journeys–the times that they’ve struggled, succeeded, tripped, and triumphed–are events that we have, at most, witnessed, rather than participated in. Those people and their adventures do not exist. They never did, they never can, and they never will. Our having experienced those events vicariously does not make them truly belong to us. No matter how genuine those stories feel to us, no matter how much time we may have “spent” with these individuals, they are all mere reflections, tricks of light and stage and pen that create the illusion of something real, even when that illusion is earnestly felt.
But we, or at least I, cannot help but feel that kind of connection to these characters and their stories. When critics talk about the world of a book feeling “lived in,” they’re underscoring that sense of truth that can pervade a work. When they talk about an emotional moment feeling “earned,” they mean that there’s been some build, some understanding between creator and audience that has been established over time, that makes a scene or a speech or a character feel real. That’s what the best works are able to do–make their audiences feel a connection to something that’s not really there.
A professor of mine once gave a firm warning on the importance of triage. He explained, “Every year, I tell my class that each exam question is worth the same amount. And yet every year, I read the exams of students who wrote near-perfect and exhaustive answers to the first question, but who clearly did not leave enough time to answer the other two. It’s the product of an inherently flawed thought process: ‘If I just make the one answer perfect enough, it will make up for the others, despite the fact that they’re worth an equal number of points.’ Well, it won’t; it can’t, and at the end of the day, you’ll do poorly.”
This warning was stuck in my head as I watched the Dallas Cowboys’ 2013 draft, a draft that seemed as focused on perfecting the areas where the team already excels, rather than improving on the team’s glaring weaknesses.