So I was not happy when the producers of The Office, now in its last season, chose to beat us over the head with a reminder that its characters are supposedly being filmed for a documentary or reality series. For almost all of the show's eight years, I accepted that the "talking head" segments in which characters spoke directly to the camera were sincere and self-revelatory, imitating a common technique in which characters in plays break the fourth wall and address the audience. Now we're being asked to imagine that the characters have really been flirting or play-acting for the people still (inexplicably) filming them.
Pam [...] glances off screen for a supportive face, and pulls a boom-mic operator into frame with her. His name is Brian, and because he has the looks of professional handsome-guy-with-comedic-chops Chris Diamantopoulos, we can tell this won’t be the last we see of Brian. It’s a Big Moment for The Office, but it has a hollow ring to it. Pam and Brian’s interactions hint at a history, but aside from the fact that she’s otherwise alone in the office, why is this the moment The Documentarians felt the need to cross the line separating themselves and the Dunder Mifflinites?
Just... ugh. Please, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, don't go down this road!
For a show that presents itself as smart and cynical, it's strange to see The Office make the argument, even inadvertently, that reality TV shows are naturalistic and able to capture the true characters of its participants. (If the show presented to us as The Office isn't supposed to do that, why have we been watching it?) It's a stark contrast from its longtime Thursday-night neighbor, 30 Rock, which often mocked the artifice of reality TV through parodies like Queen of Jordan.
The big reveal of the camera crew on The Office is unnecessary. At worst, it validates the belief that audiences have to be given simple-if-stupid explanations of everything they see on screen. It's tempting to end a TV series by clarifying its characters' behavior, but this can actually put distance between the characters and the viewer.
Wilfred (of which I've only seen the first season) is about a man who sees his neighbor's dog as a talking, pot-smoking lout in a dog costume, but I doubt the show's producers will ever explain this phenomenon. It's possible to empathize with Ryan, the show's protagonist, because his trouble coping with reality is an exaggeration of something almost all of us experience at some time. To clarify that he's a drug-addled paranoiac who's hallucinating the show's title character would serve no purpose other than to make Ryan an alien creature whose feelings we can more easily dismiss.
The danger of too much clarification is why Sheldon can't be identified as having Asperger's syndrome on The Big Bang Theory. It's why one of the most jarring moments on The Sopranos was in the second-to-last episode, when there are word-by-word close-ups of a passage from a psychological study making it clear that Tony Soprano is a psychopath who can't be helped by therapy ("for criminals it becomes one more criminal operation"). In that case, however, there's a conscious decision to beat the viewer over the head and douse any empathy we might have for the show's title character. (Is that fighting sociopathy with sociopathy?)
Getting back to The Office, I get no insight from the late-in-the-game clarification that Pam Beesly Halpert is an emotional exhibitionist, at ease in front of a camera and willing to share her personal life with a television audience. She's now a wannabe reality-show star, and it now feels voyeuristic to see her break down in tears. We knew from the beginning that Michael Scott would shamelessly do anything to get attention, but The Office once gave the impression that other characters were more circumspect. (I've figured out what I'm supposed to to think about Andy Bernard.) The "talking heads" segments seemed like a way to put more discreet characters like Pam, Darryl, and Toby on an equal footing with their more garrulous colleagues in terms of what they reveal to the show's audience — not in terms of how much onscreen footage they can earn from a film crew of Big Brother veterans.
The Office also has several characters who seem guileless, either unwilling or incapable of observing social norms. Creed and Meredith are the most extreme examples, but Kevin and Ellie also qualify. Raising the possibility that they're just playing for the camera smudges rather than illuminates the characters. In another recent episode, Meredith shaved off all her hair to get rid of head lice, and she's been wearing a succession of bizarre wigs for the past few weeks. I accepted this as part of her trailer-trash Auntie Mame attitude, along with her tendency to flash her breasts, but now The Office is asking me to consider that she's making a calculated ploy to become a reality-TV star. (Maybe the film crew gave her the wigs in the first place.)
It's too late for that, anyway. As far as I remember, none of The Office's regular characters change demeanor when the camera is on them. We never see anyone daydreaming in the background of a scene, only to perk up when the camera crew approaches, nor do we see anyone freeze in terror at the thought of appearing on TV (which would surely happen in a workplace of this size). However the series ends, I'll always watch the better episodes as a white-collar version of Our Town (or, sometimes, the sales-commission-slave version of The Vagina Monologues) rather than as part of a saga about how a film crew got too close to its subjects.