Narrative Problematic and “The Office”

the-office-nbcEveryone’s got a different opinion on when and why The Office went bad. For many people, it’s when Steve Carrell left.  Some say it happened in the last season or the second to last. For others, the show peaked as early as Season 4. It’s a tale as old as television: all shows have an expiration date, and not all of them know when to call it quits.

Most of us can name at least one show we’ve soured on after one too many seasons of continually declining quality. As examples we’ll name Community, or The Simpsons, or The West Wing. And we’ll attribute all sorts of different reasons for this decline: the departure from the show by a lead actor or key producer, or being bumped from network to network and forced into unfortunate time slots, or maybe just a general drying up of creativity on the part of the writers.

I’m going to offer up a different theory here on what can turn a television show from good to bad. It concerns what in fancy TV-theory terms is called the “narrative problematic,” and The Office is perhaps one of the most perfect examples of narrative problematic gone wrong.

Jeremy Butler, a professor at the University of Alabama, defined the narrative problematic as the “narrative kernel that recurs every week…the program must ask the same question again and again to maintain consistency and viewer interest” (Television: Critical Methods and Applications, 37). In essence: it’s what the show is really about, what’s happening throughout the most overarching storyline. The show Parks and Recreation—in many ways the offspring of The Office—was about the wacky band of misfits populating the Parks and Recreation department of a small Midwestern town, yes. But I would argue that what it was really about was an ambitious and passionate woman who fights to make a name for herself and her town, struggling against political rivals, economic crises, and her own work/life balance. And we can view this as the overarching plot of the show, steadily developing throughout the seasons: she moves from achieving small-scale bureaucratic goals, like building a park or organizing a successful Harvest Festival, to running for office, to considering what would happen if she left all of it behind for a high-powered job in federal government. The end of the show answers the basic narrative problematic of “will Leslie achieve her career goals?” with a “most of them, but not all.” And that’s it—there’s no more story to tell. It’s finished, and the show ended after a satisfying seven seasons.

So, back to The Office: why, and when, did it go bad? First, I think we should ask what its narrative problematic was.

I don’t think it was Jim and Pam’s relationship, although that’s obviously one the show’s more prevalent arcs. The “will they or won’t they” arc can last ages (see Friends) but it simply isn’t interesting enough to be the single problematic the show is based on. The Jim/Pam storyline comes up a lot throughout the first four seasons (before they officially get together, and then it mostly leaves the series’ focus) but it’s not the blood that pumps through the veins of The Office. 

No, I think what The Office was “really about” has to do with the fact that it takes place in a paper company.

It’s not just that Dunder Mifflin is a supremely boring place to work, although that it is. If they just wanted to go for boring, they could have made it a company that sells desk chairs or microwaves or what have you. But Dunder Mifflin is a company—and not exactly an industry giant—that sells a product that with each passing year the world needs less and less of.

So, there you have it: The Office is about a company whose employees know that their jobs are in constant jeopardy. Each day they balance complete apathy for the work they do with a lingering fear that they may be terminated at any point.

Now, to say that that’s a question that popped up in every episode would be a stretch. Mostly, it’s about a moronic boss and the drama that ensues from the frequent coupling and uncoupling of his subordinates.

But is it, really? Certainly for the first few seasons it is—and this I would argue is a result of the influence of its British parent, the Ricky Gervais-led show of the same name. But as the seasons pass Michael becomes steadily more mature and less antagonistic, increasingly loved and respected by his employees. What remains, however, is that same lingering question: will the company survive?

In the first two seasons, rumors of downsizing lead to alliances and infighting within the employees. The third season is permeated by competition between branches and one eventually closing down. In the fourth season, Ryan attempts to revamp the company’s image in order to bring it into the digital age and fails horribly. In Season Five, Michael starts his own paper business and experiences the pitfalls of starting a new company in a declining market, while news of more branches closing continues to circulate. In Season Six, the company goes bankrupt and is bought out by Sabre, a printer company.

And there’s the answer to our narrative problematic. Will the company survive? No, it won’t. Like so many others it runs out of money and… well,

And that’s it. That’s where, I think, the story should end: Season Six, when the company is bought by Sabre. That was the end of the story. The subsequent seasons have always felt sort of empty to me: it’s still funny for a good season or so before Carrell’s departure, but there’s nothing really driving it anymore. The jobs of the Dunder Mifflin employees are safe, and there’s no reason, really, to keep following this group of people. Even Jim and Pam’s storyline, the other most prominent arc, is basically over: they got together, now they have a kid yay.

Sure, they found directions for the story to go: Jim and Pam eventually start to have relationship issues, and Angela and Dwight have their whole thing, and Michael finally gets back with Holly. But if the showrunners planned to end the show with Season Six they could very well have concluded those storylines—especially Dwight/Angela, because man did that one start to drag—without much trouble.

Without a narrative problematic, The Office got lost, confused. It suddenly had nothing to rely on except its quirky characters, which is why Andy suddenly gets a lot more to do, and why after Michael leaves a rotation of increasingly crazy and unfunny bosses (Will Ferrell, James Spader, Catherine Tate) come in and do increasingly crazy and unfunny things.

Most people dislike what the show became after Carrell left, but let’s be honest with ourselves: it was already changing. The seventh season feels somehow stale. It’s not like the writing was any worse—though that did happen eventually—it’s just that it shouldn’t exist. And I think it kind of knows it.

Narrative Problematic and “The Office”

What’s iZombie going to do next?

*Note: I actually wrote this several months ago, before the third season of iZombie started. Some of the questions raised in this post have now been answered, but I think there are still things here that are worth discussing.

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With the entrance of early spring comes the moment we wait for all year, that other little thing besides the warmth that keeps us hanging on until the summer: teaser trailers.

Teaser trailers are the absolute worst because they remind us of all the shows we’ve been waiting months and months for, but reveal absolutely nothing. I just watched the teasers for the next seasons of Game of Thrones and iZombie, and came away, as everyone always does, feeling extremely unsatisfied. But the iZombie one did get me thinking about something, and that’s what I’m here to talk about.

iZombie is entering its third season, a milestone which could either  mean the show is still in its nascent stage—as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer— or that it’s showing signs of having run its course— as with Buffy’s lesser-watched spin-off, Angel. This raises a very interesting question about how, exactly, a show is supposed to plan its storyline. There’s a lot to consider there beyond plot, and it’s an especially important question with genre shows like iZombie. So with this discussion, I want to look at two successful series, both made by iZombie’s parent network, the CW—Buffy and Supernatural—in thinking about where iZombie might go next.

Buffy and Supernatural lie on different parts of a spectrum. There’s the “series” end, which Buffy occupies. That’s the type of show that focuses more on episode-to-episode action, rather than longer-ranging arcs. It’s where you find most sitcoms and police procedurals. Then there’s the “serial” end, which focuses more on the longer story arcs, and individual episodes are less differentiated. Game of Thrones and Marvel’s Daredevil lie at the extreme on this end. This is the end that Supernatural lives in.

Now, in truth both series are closer to the center on this issue. They both follow a general “monster of the week” format that belongs at the “series” end while also maintaining larger, more important storylines. In fact, in many ways Buffy more closely resembles a serial in many ways than does Supernatural, since as the show progressed it dropped the “monster of the week” formula in favor of seasonal arc. No, what makes me say that Supernatural belongs on the “serial” end is because for at least the first five seasons the show had a definite plan, a multi-season story arc with a single, focused direction. Buffy always had an open-and-closed, single-season Big Bad with nothing of the previous season’s arc carrying over into the next one.

The reasoning behind each choice is clear. Supernatural was confident that it could last five seasons, so it committed to a complex plot line that could only be resolved in five years. Buffy was constantly afraid of being cancelled, so every year it created an arc that could be resolved in a single season. There are pros and cons to each way. The Buffy way allows for infinite seasons: you can keep on creating open-and-shut season arcs as long as you can keep thinking of them, and you can use this to develop your characters however you want. But it also makes those seasonal arcs a bit shallow, less interesting. It really doesn’t allow for much complexity. By contrast, the Supernatural way allows for infinite complexity (as long as you tie it all up at the end), but with two dangers: first, the danger of being cancelled before the arc is fully completed; second, the danger of being forced to continue on after the arc is completed.

Imagine Game of Thrones being forced to keep putting out seasons after the story had come to a conclusion. Imagine if Danaerys had finally come to Westeros, if the Iron Throne had a new ruler, if the White Walkers were defeated by an as yet-unidentified hero. Imagine an entirely new plotline, haphazardly compiled together, a year after you and everyone else thought it had drawn to a satisfying close. That’s what happened, to a lesser extent, to Supernatural. An arc which had been created in season one, and then identified and drawn out in season two, had reached its climax in season 5 and there came to a close. I am nowhere near Supernatural’s biggest fan, but I will admit that the first five seasons had, at least, a fairly gracefully laid out story arc. And then there was season 6. And just like that, Supernatural, much like one of its main characters, was dragged from the depths of the afterlife to carry on a confused and soulless existence for the rest of time. The show had absolutely nothing to do after the completion of Season 5, nowhere to go. It couldn’t pick up a Buffy-like format and just do monster-of-the-season plotlines: its viewers had become accustomed to longer, more elaborate story arcs, and to do anything else would feel like a letdown. They had to create a new one, unplanned and unwanted, out of thin air. And it shows— the series has become lost and meandering, agreed by all to be worse than its first five years, without a focus or a destination.

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That’s the magic of Buffy— it doesn’t need a destination. A very similar thing happened after Buffy, season 5. The endings of Buffy, season 5 and Supernatural, season 5 were so similar that I can’t tell if the Supernatural one was a ripoff or an homage. Anyways, Buffy was pretty sure it was going to be cancelled after season 5 so they decided to end it with a bang. And then it came back. Unlike Supernatural, though, they could just start back up again with a single-season story arc because it didn’t have the precedent of something more complicated. The downside is that this format can start to feel stale after a while, and the show’s writers may feel the need to keep raising the stakes after each season to ridiculous levels just to keep it feeling fresh. Look at Teen Wolf: in season 1, the villain was a werewolf who was slightly more powerful than the protagonist. In season 5, we’re now at horse-riding ghosts who kidnap and murder entire towns, working towards their goal of destroying the entire world.

On the flip side, the other danger of the Supernatural format is being cancelled before that multi-season storyline is fully completed. Angel is a good example of such a show. The mysteries that had been promised in season 1 were still unfolding during season 5 when Joss Whedon found out the show wouldn’t be renewed. That meant he had to suddenly try and wrap up the series—with all of its promised conclusions– in the half-season that remained. And, in my opinion at least, it shows. The fifth season of Angel is not good television, and the last few episodes are the worst of it.

Now I’m aware this feeling is not shared by everybody. I know several people who prefer the ending of Angel to the ending of Buffy, as the ending of Buffy wraps everything up, for the most part, and with most of its main characters still alive; Angel does the exact opposite. People who like Angel’s conclusion better prefer its “the fight never ends” mentality to Buffy’s “saved the day” mentality. I would respond that the fight will probably end when all the main characters die, which is what happens in Angel. However, I’m writing based on my opinion, which is that season 5 of Angel was crap for the primary reason that it was cancelled before its time. The various seasonal arcs— the prophecy of the vampire with a soul who could become human, whatever Wolfram and Hart actually is— were wrapped up hastily and in a very unsatisfying manner. I’m not saying Angel needed to become a human again for me to be satisfied, but I’d have preferred something a little less sudden and random than what actually happened. For me the ending of Angel was like the ending of The Sopranos: I genuinely thought something had gone wrong with my television when the episode cut to black and the final credits rolled. Surely I must have missed something. I’m all for people trying to experiment with the format of television, but you can’t end a show like Angel, with five years’ worth of mysteries promised to be solved, without some sort of solid conclusion. This isn’t The Lobster or some other indie movie that relishes in not bothering to come up with an ending. This is a television show on the CW and I expect different things.

Bottom line, the Supernatural format is riskier but often has a better payoff than the Buffy format. That’s not to say I think Supernatural is in any way a better show than Buffy; quite the opposite, in fact. But most shows, if they have the time but know when to end, will flourish using the Supernatural format while many shows languish using the Buffy format. It takes quite a lot of skill to make the Buffy format work as a sophisticated show.

So where does iZombie come in? Well, iZombie is about to start its third season, which means it is entering a precarious adolescence that can either mark the beginning of newfound quality, as with Buffy, or hit its peak and commence a downward slide, as with Angel. In the end, it will either be considered one of the earlier seasons or one of the later ones. In both Buffy and Supernatural, which both carried on far beyond their third seasons, it’s considered the earlier part of the show. Buffy is still in high school. Spike isn’t even a main character. Sam and Dean are still hunting Demons-of-the-Week. In Angel, which only made it to Season Five, Season Three saw a bunch of shit go down that drastically altered the rest of the show. Season Three often begins or ends with a noticeable cast turnover, as with Teen Wolf, MisFits, and Glee.

iZombie has put itself in an interesting, I daresay difficult, position: the position of where to go after Season Three. The entire show, up until this point, has been following the Supernatural format: the time in each episode is split between a Murder-of-the-Week and the gradual progression of a very complex, multi-season arc plot: the mystery of how the zombie drug came to be, who is really pulling the strings, and what the final endgame is.

So what happens when that mystery is solved? Conspiracies can only go so deep. In Season One, Liv and the rest of the gang were flying more or less blind, focused on answering the most basic questions that come with zombieism (how many are there? how can they live? etc) and fighting against Blaine, who is a very small-time sort of villain and therefore a good jumping-off point for more impressive villains. Season Two brought us to Max Rager and its sinister lab, and showed us hints at government ties to the zombie epidemic. The final cliff-hanger revealed a cult of zombies apparently intent on transforming Seattle—and then the rest of the world— into a zombie utopia, with brains aplenty.

So the logical next step, as we reach Season Three, would be to further develop the mysteries introduced in Season Two— but can iZombie do that while at the same time neatly setting up for future seasons? In a show that has flourished on deepening the conspiracy with each season it’s unclear what they’re going to do after those depths have been thoroughly plumbed. They’ll have to find a new direction to go with— maybe the zombie wars really will break out. But that’s going to require an immense overhaul of the series, including at some point scrapping the Murder-of-the-Week format iZombie will only let go of when we prie it from its cold, undead hands. Does the show— and The CW— have the capacity to completely change up a series for the sake of continuing a good story? I guess we’ll see.

What’s iZombie going to do next?