The Moment When The Office Jumped The Shark
“It’s a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on…it’s all downhill. Some call it the climax. We call it ‘Jumping the Shark.’ From that moment on, the program will simply never be the same.”
The American version of The Office is one of my favorite television shows, but even its most unabashed fans have to admit that its quality has declined sharply since the halcyon days of seasons 2 and 3. I recently rewatched seasons 2 through 5, and I believe I can pinpoint the exact moment when the Office “jumped the shark.”
If you’re unaware of what “jumping the shark” means, it is a term used to describe the point where a previously successful show’s quality begins to tank. This phrase originated from an episode of Happy Days where the Fonz literally jumps over a shark on a pair of water skis. Despite the fact that Happy Days continued for another seven seasons, most critics and many viewers agreed that it never again reached the same level of quality that it once had.
The Office has always struck a delicate balance between reality and absurdity. Though I wouldn’t call the early seasons “realistic” simply due to the outlandish behavior of Michael Scott (no one would be be able to consistently pull of the stunts he does without getting fired) the first three and a half seasons primarily feature true-to-life characters and situations. Jim’s longing for Pam, for instance, felt real. Phyllis, Stanley, and Kevin seemed like the type of people who would work at a mid-sized paper company. I think the novelty of the faux-documentary style and the talking-head interviews contributed heavily to the shows plausibility as well.
As the seasons wore on, the show’s verisimilitude faded. Early seasons featured storylines such as an office vs. warehouse basketball game, a diversity seminar ruined by Michael, and a take-your-daughter to work day. Post-season 4 storylines had stuff like an entire office taking time out to play Call of Duty, a wedding in which ever single person in the office is an active participant and Michael attempting to get rid of his H.R. rep by planting drugs on him. Dwight, meanwhile, went from being a slightly kooky guy to a complete psychopath (though no less funny).
The moment when the show officially jumped the shark occurred in season 5. A little context: one of the main story arcs throughout this season was the Andy and Angela’s engagement, a development which itself could have been considered a shark jumping moment. At any rate, Angela spent most of the first half of season 5 clandestinely sleeping with Dwight as Andy tried his damnedest to plan a wedding with a woman who showed absolutely no interest in him. Meanwhile, Phyllis was aware of the Dwight/Angela liaisons and was using it as leverage to get Angela to do her bidding (really stupid plot point, by the way). Phyllis eventually spills the beans to everyone but Andy.
In the next episode, “The Duel,” the show finally jumped the shark. Andy finds out about the affair and the two have a ridiculous “duel” that ends with Andy trapping Dwight with his car. And then, the two walk back into the office and its like nothing ever happened. The next episode, Andy and Dwight sit happily a few feet away from the woman who just broke both their hearts. The whole thing was such a huge letdown.
I remember watching “The Duel” for the first time and thinking that it would be a pretty heavy episode, along the lines of “Beach Day” or “Casino Night.’ Instead, everything returned to the status quo, just like any other sit-com.
What makes this decline so bothersome is how good The Office was. Seasons 2 and 3 are some of the best television episodes of any television series, ever. The show now is just a shell of its former self. It’s still getting by, mostly on our familiarity with the characters and because of how funny some of the actors are. The emotional resonance, always the foundation upon which the show’s comedy sprang from, is no longer present though. Here’s hoping Steve Carrell and the gang can get it back.