Wednesday, November 23, 2005
The Guy-Next-Cubicle: On NBC’s “The Office”
I’ve watched enough of “The Office” to determine that the chemistry going on between office mates Jim and Pam is really something special. I have a feeling this show has hit upon a uniquely powerful formula, romance-wise, and I’ll do my best in this entry to put my finger on what it is.
My two daughters and myself are all nuts about Jim Halpert, Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company’s inside sales rep, played by John Krasinski. His character fascinates me because (not to be insulting or anything) John Krasinski is no matinee idol. He does not have a Hollywood face. On the other hand, though, if you worked in an office with him, after being around him awhile you would conclude he was very cute. In fact, it is probably largely due to Jim’s non-glamorous looks that the female viewer finds it so easy to identify with receptionist Pam and get sucked into the show’s plot and the relationship between the two characters.
The situation is perfect for all kinds of excitement, angst, and sexual tension. Jim is single and clearly crushing on Pam. Pam is engaged to a jerk and in denial about her feelings for Jim. So the two are “just friends,” but the kind of friends who engage in all but the most overt expressions of affection. Their favorite activity is conspiring to cause grief to the more annoying members of the staff. Therefore the two are cohorts in crime, sharers of secrets, allies in the war on office frustration.
This affords plenty of opportunities for activities that, in a slightly different context, would be fraught with romance and eroticism. You have meaningful glances, furtive giggling, the passing of notes and emails, whispering in each other’s ears, etc. Every little victory they achieve is another private bonding experience.
Meanwhile, however, they cannot actually “be together.” There can only be secret longing in Jim’s case and self-deception in Pam’s. Nevertheless, beneath all the ambiguous office hijinx and conflicted emotions, these two are undeniably very drawn to each other. So whether intentionally or not, they must express that desire within the bounds of the office and their activities there.
And here’s where the viewer connects: Most of us have been in this position, attracted to a person who certainly behaves as if it’s mutual, yet is prevented by circumstances from expressing it. There’s a cute guy in the next cubicle. He’s funny, nice, physically attractive, and best of all, seems equally interested in you. But he’s married, or you are, or both, and therefore the furthest it will go is mild flirtation. It’s frustrating in a way, but on the other hand, it’s kind of a nice little game. It will never become as serious and complex and troubling as a real relationship.
Meanwhile however, on a fantasy level, you always wish it could. And that’s why Jim seems so attractive, and you pull so hard for him and Pam to actually become a couple somehow. The story is about you, about the little experiences of unfulfilled sexual yearning that happen all the time. When Jim leaves a bag of chips on the counter for Pam, you remember the time that cute guy at work bought you a surprise coffee, and you think, “Yeah, he probably did do that because he kinda likes me.” And you wonder what might have become of it, if circumstances had been different. It’s almost like watching Jim and Pam will give you a chance to find out.
Jim is so attractive because he’s all those real life, regular, cute guys we’ve known, rolled into one. When he’s funny, or attentive, or shyly affectionate, it just seems like he’s right there in the room being that way to you. It’s not a sit com, it’s suddenly very nearly real life, and that’s potent stuff.
John Krasinski was recently chosen one of the world’s sexiest men by People magazine. Apparently when someone else on set told him this, he thought he was being punk’d. I’ll bet people who haven’t seen “The Office,” who merely looked at a photo of John, might be likewise perplexed. Nevertheless he deserves this status, and I admire him all the more because he has achieved sexiness by the same ordinary means as men we encounter in real life.
And that’s what makes it that much more thrilling. If there were a real Dunder-Mifflin in Scranton, PA, there’d be a lot of women applying to share an office with Jim Halpert.