With the rise of the internet has come the rise of memes. These little cutesy, big-captioned photos are not unrelated to propaganda posters and hallmark cards, but their sudden ubiquity is somewhat surprising. I’m sure half of today’s high schoolers are deciding who to vote for based on memes about the GOP’s hatred of women or how Obama doesn’t think anyone built anything, ever.
In the wake of the news that The Office and Arrested Development were being cancelled/brought back, I began thinking about how these two shows were the first real “memeable” shows.1 How often have you seen a paint-covered David Cross with the caption “I Just Blue Myself” floating on your Facebook timeline? Or what about those old fake motivational posters with John Krasinski extolling the virtues of workplace laziness? You never see a picture of Norm from Cheers with one of his quips about what he’s ordering. That’s because Cheers is a pre-internet show. Had it aired this past decade, someone would have quickly threw up a photo of Norm, staring into his over-foamed glass, with “A REASON TO LIVE, AND KEEP ‘EM COMING” emblazoned over his head.
Television is intellectual comfort food. Unless it’s some hard-hitting, hard-to-watch, hardcore, hard-ass show like The Wire or Breaking Bad, TV is what you do when you want to turn your brain off and have some easy laughs. Like comfort food, television produces nostalgia. This is why so many people of my generation decry the current state of children’s TV while pining for a return of old school Nickelodeon—despite the fact that re-watching The Rugrats will make you want to invent time travel just so you can go punch your 8-year-old self in the teeth.2 That’s the power of nostalgia. Memes can create that nostalgia as you are watching the show. After you watch an episode, you notice some funny pictures on the internet—maybe an LOLcat quoting Senor Chang or something—and you become more excited for next week’s episode. You’re instantly fonder of the series, and you’ll always have those fond memories regardless of your opinion of the show ten years later.
This is why fans of AD have felt so personally wronged by the show’s early cancellation. They loved that show, passionately. They shared memes on facebook, started websites that retroactively reviewed episodes, and couldn’t understand why Fox decided to can the show. Community fans, take this to heart—a sitcom with no relatable characters and low ratings will die quickly.
The Office has had the opposite problem. NBC allowed the show some freedom to spread its quirky wings. There was some trepidation—they only ordered six episodes in the first season—but it paid off. The second season finale may be the most gut-wrenching moment in television history. When the third season made the daring move to split time between Pennsylvania and Connecticut, no one missed a beat. The writers were walking a fine line, however. In what world would a documentary crew have the budget to cross-cut between states? Thanks to the big laughs and the hyper-tense drama, the audience suspended disbelief. It even made sense that the crew would occasionally catch up with Pam at her New York art school in season four. Why not? Her romance with Jim was the central plot of the show.
That might be the greatest trick The Office ever pulled. Michael Scott was undeniably the main character, but the most intriguing plot revolved around the will-they-won’t-they tension with Jim and Pam. Jim represented everyone beaten down by the need to pay rent. He was a guy with tons of intellect, but no real skills—someone who would find paper salesmanship easy but couldn’t cut it anywhere else. Pam was an aspiring artist trapped behind a desk and in a unfulfilling relationship. Her chemistry with Jim was so electric you wondered if they were going all Bogie-and-Bacall on us backstage. Who didn’t want a romance like PB&J’s?
Even their proposal was a perfect mix of art-doc and twee: a long-range shot while Jim, drenched in rain a la John Cusack, dropped to a knee at the gas station which served as the halfway point between Scranton and New York. If you didn’t cheer during that scene, check into a psych ward.
Here’s the thing, though: If we understand the show as a documentary about life in the workplace, shouldn’t it have ended when the central plot was resolved? Sure, there were vivid minor characters, but that’s a requirement of any good show. Cut The Office off after episode one of season 5, and you have a cohesive documentary. Michael would always be wacky, ineffective, and offensive. Stanley would always punch out right at 5 PM. Meredith would either start going to AA meetings or not. Angela would continue to shoot judgmental looks at Kevin across the partition. But ultimately, the two people who you really cheered for found happiness. They wouldn’t be stuck at Dunder-Mufflin forever, because love can accomplish anything.
Instead, Jim and Pam gave up on their dreams of escape and became average, like if Andy in The Shawshank Redemption gave up after digging 250 feet. We were treated to some excruciating romance threads involving some minor character like Andy or Kevin who, while great, couldn’t carry a plotline. Michael Scott started his own paper company in the middle of a recession. A newly wedded Pam joined him, and Jim said nothing. Hotshot MBA Ryan, fresh off a firing and a coke addiction, was found working at a bowling alley with Eminem hair. Perhaps this illustrates how out of touch the writing staff is: There’s simply no way Ryan settles for a part-time job in Lebowskiville. Wouldn’t he go on to be a club promoter (along the lines of Parks and Rec’s Jean-Ralphio) or, at worst, drive a Red Bull van?
The thing about comedies is they have to rely on outlandish characters. These over-the-top characters can be legendary (Tobias Fünke, GOB, Britta Perry, Annie Edison, Abed, Ron Swanson), but they run the risk of their act wearing thin (Dwight Shrute, Andy Bernard, Britta for most of the second half of season three). Steve Carrell knew The Office was way past its prime and got out early, with some dignity intact. AD never had a chance to lose its dignity, which is an injustice. You should be able to burn out, fade away, or go gently into that good night on your own terms.
There are two evils crippling television, and they both are money. Arrested Development was killed by greedy producers who didn’t know that they were sitting on gold. The Office has been allowed to limp along like 42-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar because the writers got lazy and the actors couldn’t refuse a paycheck. Both are marvelous shows that met inglorious ends. Community, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock—take note.
1 The best example of this so far is Ron Paul Swanson.
2 Complete list of shows I’m too scared to watch because of nostalgia, in order from “Will Invent Time Travel” to “Will Be Really Sad For A Day”: Rocko’s Modern Life, Doug, Angry Beavers, Hey Arnold!, Spider-Man, All That. Shows I’m not afraid of at all: Kenan and Kel, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Rocket Power, The Ren and Stimpy Show.