Two relatively interesting things happened on NBC this week. The Office finally closed out its Florida arc by dragging most of the subplot’s principal characters back to Scranton and Community returned after a long, nervous hiatus. Coincidentally and with two different conclusions, both shows explored the same issue: How do we reconcile the paths life provides to us?
I think the answer both shows reach is a reflection of the core sentiments the shows represent. Furthermore, I believe these sentiments explain why Community is struggling to justify a fourth season despite a small but fervent fanbase and The Office is trudging along through to a guaranteed 9th season. In essence, Community is a comedy of hope and joy while The Office has long retained its core of sadness and desperation.
Since this column has been about The Office, I’ll start there. “Get the Girl” relegates the last of the Florida arc to the B-plot as Andy arrives in Tallahassee to win back Erin, who has remained there after the Sabre store project in a bid to start a new life. After a fun smattering of scenes that play mostly as speedy scenarios geared for laughs instead of actual storytelling, the two star-crossed goofballs reunite and drive back to Scranton in love out of nowhere. Satisfying? Not in the least, but when has the Andy/Erin plot ever been about depth?
The main plot of the night involves Nellie’s sudden appearance in Scranton with the intention of taking the manager’s job. Lucky for her, Andy is MIA and Robert California is more interested in being amused by these strange “hu-mans” than running a proper business. Through manipulation and luck, Nellie wins over everyone in the office except for Jim.
(a small aside: I actually like that Jim has become principled all of a sudden. He stood up to Cathy, saved Dwight’s job and resists Nellie’s coup when nobody else does. It makes sense for a father of two and a man who has found meaning even in a seemingly meaningless existence. Let’s hope the show keeps him on this path).
Ultimately, Nellie wins the day and leaves us with a chilling outro. She explains her unlikely rise to the manager’s position by asserting that American business and even the American dream is entirely random. Throughout the episode, different characters propose different reasons for why things are the way they are in life. Some say it’s survival of the fittest, others admit that it’s all relative to one’s circumstances. Even Toby, who tries to pass himself off with the somewhat slicker name Tony, thinks it’s really all about appearances. But the episode leaves us with this idea that, in the end, it’s all random and pointless. That idea has been hanging over The Office since the beginning and we’ve taken humor from the absurdity of this nihilism or from the defiance of others against it. I’m still not thrilled with Season 8, but at least episodes like “Get the Girl” suggest the writers are really thinking about larger themes going into Season 9.
Community comes at things from a different angle. Every character in “Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts” spends some time despairing over the seeming inevitability of their inborn identities. By the end, though, they all find an unexpected path to a happier, more fulfilled place by learning from one another. This is the default mode for Community, even if it isn’t afraid of going to darker territory.
But comedy isn’t about feeling good, ironically. Comedy is about identifying absurdity and facing upsetting things with a laugh. Sometimes it’s a laugh of recognition, other times it’s a laugh of relief. Community may be more fun than The Office, but it exists in a different world than the one in which we live. In the world of Greendale Community College, things always work out and people find their better angels. At Dunder-Mifflin/Sabre, life is a sea of pointless gray punctuated with moments of unnoticed absurdity. The Office plugs into something unpleasant about life, like the seeming randomness of power structures, and forces us to gaze at it unblinking for 22 minutes a week. It may not always work as art or as entertainment, but damned if it isn’t affecting.