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Tempestuous TV

The “Will They or Won’t They” Cliché

By Andrew J. Sercombe

“Pam is very attractive, no question. If I didn’t have an award show to host, I could easily see having two or three seasons of will-they-won’t-they sexual tension that ultimately goes nowhere.”

— Conan O’Brien, Emmy 2006 opening skit, after crashing The Office

 

The self proclaimed “World’s Best Boss” is gone. Sputtering with out Steve Carell, many fans argue The Office has now lost everything it once provided audiences with over its last seven seasons. Without Carell, Dunder Mifflin is left with Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and Ed Helms; an impressive line up, yet one unable to fill the gap left by Carell. Carell distinguished the American version of The Office from Ricky Gervais’ UK predecessor, and any fan of the show could see that David Brent was no Michael Scott. Carell undeniably shaped the show into what is undeniably his own yet, The Office has never been the same since Michael left Dunder Mifflin, and the show will likely never capture that magic again: The Office is dead.

Still working at Dunder Mifflin are Jim and Pam, who have now been together longer than apart on the show. Three seasons of “will they or won’t they” romantic tension began their relationship, and supported Steve Carell’s performance. Every episode seemed to contain one element that added to the relationship, even if the episode had nothing to do with the two characters. The departure of Carell brought an end to the Jim and Pam relationship drama and left the show a caricature of its former self. .

On May 11, 2006, NBC aired “Casino Night,” The Office’s second season finale; written by Carell coincidentally. The episode features Dunder Mifflin hosting a makeshift casino party in their warehouse and the peak of Jim and Pam’s “will they or won’t they” dynamic. Highlighted by their memorable “smile-off” over their poker game, the chemistry between Jim and Pam in this episode is arguably at its all time high. Outside the party, Pam says goodnight to her fiancé of four years, Roy. Returning inside, Pam stumbles into Jim and confesses what two seasons of The Office had built towards;

Jim: I love you, I need you to know that, for once.

Pam: I can’t.

They part until later that night, where Pam is alone on the phone with her mother asking for advice about Jim’s confession. Jim enters without a word and the two kiss. This moment defined the series until Jim and Pam’s wedding in season six. Just as the first two seasons built towards this scene in “Casino Night” between Jim and Pam, the next four constructed their Niagara Falls wedding. Jim and Pam have not looked back since.

***

On March 31, 1983, NBC aired “Showdown, Part 2,” the finale of Cheers’ first season. Sam is the proud blue collar every-man from Boston, Diane the sophisticated grad student. Sam feels at home at the Cheers bar: while for Diane, Cheers only represents a stop-gap to bigger and brighter aspirations. The attraction between the two built over the course of season one and climaxed when Sam’s smarter, richer, more accomplished brother Derek arrived and almost stole Diane away, forcing Sam to at last declare his affections for her. The two come together in memorable fashion. As Diane describes what her life with Derek will be like to Sam, he can no longer maintained his feigned indifference. Diane breaks him into admitting that he doesn’t want her to leave. The two bicker about whether they could ever spend a happy minute together without over-thinking every gesture and offhand remark. Yet, when the argument over their future reaches its peak, Sam asks, “Are you as turned on as I am?” and Diane answers, “More!” ending season one with a triumphant kiss.

Season two of Cheers may be its most frustrating. Choosing to roll the credits after the couple share their first kiss, season two gives audiences the second act; the epilogue to “happily ever after”. The entire arc of the season is about giving the fans what they thought they wanted, then illustrating the realities of romance and Sam and Diane’s inability to resolve their fundamental differences. The two have different values and goals in their lives, and they struggle to co-exist as a couple without losing their own strong identities.

Sam and Diane break up at the end of the second season and do not rekindle their romance until season five. They become engaged, but ultimately rediscover the same difficulties they found in season two. The engagement is called off and Shelly Long, who played Diane, left the show to pursue a movie career. Cheers continued for another half decade, and it wasn’t until the series finale did Long return. Diane was back at Cheers bar and it finally looked as though Sam and Diane were finally going to wind up together and audiences would see the happy ending that they craved over the entirety of the series. Instead, Sam changed his mind at the last minute to reignite the relationship in the series finale, and returned to the Cheers bar single, but happy; an appropriate and inevitable ending to eleven seasons of a bittersweet connection between the two.

The “will they or won’t they” plot has quickly become cliché. Anyone can see that television has attempted to recreate the magic of Sam and Diane (Bones, Lost, Glee) but nothing has really come close. The on-again off-again plot can carry a television show, and is remarkably successful at captivating audiences when used effectively. Yet, The Office has turned away from Jim and Pam and their attractive dynamic. Jim and Pam are arguably this generation’s Sam and Diane and nothing has come close to the success of the Jim and Pam story but the back-and-forth between Friends’ Ross and Rachel. Basing a show around this plot device is dangerous; when the couple does finally get together – or does finally split for good – it is difficult to find new sources of entertainment. The drama of the relationship is lost. It’s a problem that has plagued television ever since Sam and Diane. Cheers never fully recovered from Diane leaving the series. Friends had to break Ross and Rachel up and get them back together continually. The allusion to “happily ever after” attracts audiences and is the ground in which most conflict is based upon. The end is almost in reach, but is never really attained; never coming to a conclusion. The couple repeatedly faces these internal conflicts. An ending is dangled in front of audiences for the entirety of the story, and then inconclusively finished. With “happily ever after” the audience is left to encapsulate what happens after the “fade to black” on their own.

***

As The Office continues this season, it must be incredibly tempting to look back and try to recapture the show’s past success. Why do the producers not recycle elements of what made it so popular five years ago? Sure, they have played with Andy (Helms) and Erin (Ellie Kemper)’s romance with a similar formula, but sitting in front of them are Jim and Pam who could be easily spun into the centre of the show in Carell’s place. But “dramatic” is not the same as “realistic,” and if The Office attempts to keep its status as a funny, yet sympathetic and bittersweet view of ordinary life, it can not spin the show’s realistic relationships into something else. Jim and Pam still have difficulties. They are still faced with conflict, but they have not faced problems within their relationship. Couples find plenty of drama outside their relationship, and they face them together. This can still be funny. It is what The Office is doing and it’s uncharted territory for most comedies. Television is changing. The cliché is being broken.

Cougar Town brought Jules (Courteney Cox) and Grayson (Josh Hopkins) together by the end of the first season and going into Season 3, they are still together. On Community, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) slept with Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and made out with way-too-young Annie (Allison Brie), but didn’t choose either of them. On Parks and Recreation, creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur – who both worked on The Office producing the Jim and Pam story – built dead-pan April (Aubrey Plaza) and city hall shoe-shiner Andy (Chris Pratt)’s romance. Three weeks into their relationship, April and Andy married in an impromptu wedding ceremony. They are the anti-Jim and Pam. Their story wasn’t based on years of stolen glances, but on the refreshing recklessness of being young, stupid and in love. Happy endings are uncommon. Comedy provides entertainment from the misfortunes of others. It is unsettling to see what happens after “happily ever after” and it is what The Office and Cheers show best.

Many fans argue that Jim and Pam are not interesting any more. I agree; they aren’t. Jim and Pam have ended the “will they or won’t they” cliché. They have become what every aging couple inevitably becomes; boring. Instead of the drama of infidelity or scandal, Jim and Pam work day to day – set against themes of the current financial crisis – trying to buy a house, pay their mortgage, finding a day care for their new born, and expecting baby number two along the way. This is reality, and it is the only original element that remains of The Office, the show that so many know and love, as it enters its eighth season.

This is what makes great television; its relatable and realistic approach to discover universal emotions and feelings felt by the audience. It is why in each and every one of us, we can some how relate with the criminals of west Baltimore in The Wire, or the one time high school teacher – now turned meth cooker – Walter White in Breaking Bad, or agree and laugh with the quirky yet absurd observations of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm or through Seinfeld.  Relating to the human experience is what makes good television great. Jim and Pam’s boring ending is just as realistic as Sam walking away from Diane, and it is for the better.