Recently an article went around about how Jim from the Office was secretly a dick. And when Sam and I discussed the article, we agreed that pretty much the author had articulated things that were already floating around the cultural discussion a lot. Everyone is more or less aware that Jim makes a lot of mistakes (so much so that Sam and I have already debated if Jim and Pam should have ended up divorced). But the article misses something essential about the toxicity of Jim. You’ll notice that by point 4 of 21 in the Buzzfeed article (hey Buzzfeed, know you’re reading this blog!) it discusses issues Jim and Pam had together. But Jim and Pam’s major conflict comes in Seasons 1 and 2, while she’s still with Roy. I’m not going to deny that Jim has his issues after Jim and Pam get together, and the show even acknowledges they had rough roads (Pam, in the season finale, suggests the doc crew edited their romance to portray it as a fairy tale). But even in that moment Pam focuses on their time once they’d been paired off, which ignores an enormous issue. Jim was, for at least two years we watched and a few years before that, actively rooting against an engagement of a friend because he was in love with her. And that’s crazy (crazy!) problematic.
Roy isn’t the right match for Pam. That’s true, and it’s not something worth arguing against. He treats her poorly, doesn’t listen to her, and they’re mostly together because it’s familiar to them. If Jim was solely opposed to their coupling for those reasons, it’d still be questionable (how much should you poke your nose into that sort of business is a bit up for debate, as far as I’m concerned) but maybe justified. Issue is, Jim doesn’t object to Roy because he’s wrong for Pam. Jim objects to Roy because he believes he (Jim) deserves to be with Pam. His argument basically boils down to “Roy doesn’t deserve Pam because I’m soooooo in love with Pam”.
That’s terrible in so many ways. It treats his wants as more worthy than Pam’s wants. She may be with Roy for the wrong reasons, but she has chosen to be with Roy, and his choosing to dissuade her from that because he wants to be with her totally ignores her own agency and ability to choose. When she rejects him, he pretends to move on but he fails to. While The Office is a sitcom it still sends a clear message: if you want to be with someone badly enough, chances are you’re in the right.
Jim and Pam is a fairy tale romance, enough so that swiping through Tinder I often encounter bios that read “A Pam searching for my Jim” (or something to that effect… in a totally unrelated Tinder note I also find an overload of bios that read “”“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” -Wayne Gretzky” – Michael Scott”). That’s a bad thing to aspire to. Jim is possessive of someone who has made a choice he doesn’t agree with. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how much he loves Pam if he fails to respect her in the nascent stages of their non-relationship. I don’t think it necessarily makes him a poor partner once they get together (though, in reflection he does have a tendency to ignore her autonomy re: buys a house “for her” and takes an Athlead job without telling her…), but I think it allows him to indulge in some bad behavior before they do.
Does The Office have a responsibility to send a message? Sitcoms are supposed to be funny primarily, sure, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to affect the hearts and minds of young people who are watching them. I came up watching The Office, and I know the feeling Jim had because I, like I’m sure many people, have loved someone who didn’t love me back, and I’ve felt that feeling: if I love them hard enough and long enough eventually they will realize we’re meant to be together. That attitude is unhealthy for both people. To put the entirety of that burden on The Office would be… well, beyond ridiculous – it’s something you personally have to navigate and is certainly also part of our culture as a whole, as well as in our media, especially for males. But ignoring The Office’s reinforcement of that idea releases them from all responsibility, which is untrue and unfair as well.
Which brings us to the first season of BoJack Horseman.
BoJack isn’t super upfront about deconstructing sitcoms and comedies, because it’s first few episodes are duds (hey, Rapheal Bob-Waksberg, sorry about that, know you read the blog) but by episode 3 or 4 it’s already showing hints of what it will be: a comedy series with hilarious animal puns and deep dark honest humans dealing with real conflicting emotions. The season starts with BoJack falling in love with Diane (pretty much right off the bat) and because I’d watched The Office and because I’m conditioned this way by lots of media, I sort of hoped he’d steal her away from Mr. Peanutbutter (it is difficult to write a serious piece about this show). Like The Office’s Roy, Mr. Peanutbutter doesn’t seem like a particular good match for Diane, and BoJack and her do connect in some serious ways – they get each other, and have an honest intimacy. And you can see me, already, constructing an argument for why the protagonist should win the day, even though I know BoJack wouldn’t be good for Diane, even though I know Diane gets to choose and she chose Mr. Peanutbutter. Luckily BoJack Horseman the show knows what BoJack Horseman the character doesn’t. In the back half of the season, in a hilarious forgotten jury duty based gag, BoJack fails to prevent Diane and Mr. Peanutbutters marriage and that’s that. It’s a smart choice, because up to this point we’ve only seen the relationship from BoJack’s perspective, and now that it’s cemented we get to see the inner-mechanisms of Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter, and understand the weaknesses BoJack perceived are there, but Diane is aware of them and still made her choice.
As a result of that choice BoJack has to give up on treating Diane as something he deserves or more accurately something he needs – some thing that will fill the void in him. Instead he starts to treat her as a someone, and as a result of that we get a different equally beautiful relationship between BoJack and Diane. The show doesn’t ignore the things it played up at the beginning to convince you Diane and BoJack would be a good match. It doesn’t ever even throw out the idea that there is something between them – four seasons deep their connection remains complicated and while I don’t think romance is the endgame with them it’s also not totally off the table. BoJack Horseman argues that love is complicated and relationships are complicated, that they become tricky between us and even within us. Diane chose to marry Mr. Peanutbutter, and that relationship is equally complex and complicated as a relationship with BoJack would have been – it never posits “Diane made the right decision” because there isn’t a right and wrong decision because there aren’t really soulmates. It simply posits: “this was Diane’s choice”. And four seasons in the show is still offering her choices and still allowing her (and every other character) to question what they want in a relationship and which relationships are right for them. BoJack would never suggest Roy and Pam are a “bad couple”. It would suggest Roy and Pam have some issues to work out, but they also highlight some strengths in each other, so they could try to work out those issues and appreciate those strengths (or not!) or she could try things with Jim and, guess what, probably same deal re: some strengths some weaknesses, lots of choices to be made by everyone.
The Office suggests certain people should end up together (three times over, with Michael and Holly and Dwight and Angela reinforcing that no matter how bumpy the road, you are predestined to be with a specific someone no matter what). BoJack Horseman suggests the opposite by allowing each and every one of its characters autonomy, following them where they want to go instead of forcing them into a pre-prescribed box. Even from an omniscient showrunner perspective BoJack is more respectful of autonomy than The Office. And, sure, The Office is just a wacky sitcom that doesn’t ever try to get into the nitty gritty of what a relationship means in the same way BoJack does, and, sure, I watch The Office all the time and laugh my butt off. But BoJack is funny too, very funny, and fosters more respect of others and their decisions while putting the onus of building a healthy, beautiful relationship on you, the individual. If you’re going to be funny either way, shouldn’t you be funny while also teaching the stronger, healthier lesson?