NBC’s The Office has recently been raising a fascinating topic of discussion: cheating. The show is a comedy, and most of what the show portrays is lighthearted and funny. But the writers have never shied away from storyline and drama (the humor often flows from these aspects rather than cheap gags), and the show has introduced some heavy and important themes from time to time. [Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen any of the January episodes and don’t want to find out what happens, read this later.]
Cheating in relationships is not new to The Office. Angela, Michael, Andy, Dwight, Stanley, and Oscar have all been involved in relationships where someone was cheating. For the most part, however, these characters and their relationships are so flawed that their moral failings are brushed aside (“Of course she would do that!”). I’m not suggesting that’s right, but that’s why these subplots have never caused much of a stir.
Recently, however, there have been hints of cheating amongst more relatable characters. Most notably, Pam has developed (has been developing for quite some time, apparently) an emotional relationship with the guy who holds the boom mic for the supposed documentary crew (henceforth known as “the boom mic guy.”)
The crazy thing is, they haven’t done anything. All we’ve seen thus far is a touch of flirtation, an emotional connection, and some very sweet comforting. Compared to what other characters have done, this is nothing. But it makes me furious. This form of cheating really bothers me. Pam is married, and her husband Jim has been busy and unavailable. So Pam’s connection with the boom mic guy is dangerous. Pam’s form of cheating is troubling because we’re rooting for Pam and Jim. We believe they ought to be together, so we don’t like outsiders messing with their relationship.
But look at it from another angle. Pam and Jim got together because Pam was acting exactly like this in a previous relationship. In the first few seasons, Pam was engaged to Roy, and Jim eventually won her over by subtle flirting, an emotional connection, and some very sweet comforting. Pam and the boom mic guy in season 9 are basically Pam and Jim in season 1.
This shows how manipulative television can be. We believe that love involves loyalty; that love is something greater than sticking with the person who makes you feel happiest in a given moment. But we don’t seem to hold these views when it comes to television characters. We wanted Pam to leave Roy. The only reason we’re not rooting for the boom mic guy is that we still like Jim. (By the way, a while back I wrote about this very phenomenon in the movie Water for Elephants).
An interesting comparison is Erin cheating on Andy with Pete, one of the new guys. Like Pam and the boom mic guy, this one is subtle—nothing much has happened. But in this case, I find myself rooting for Pete. Why? I think it works the same way. When Erin was dating Gabe, she was connecting with Andy, and we were rooting for Andy because we liked him and we didn’t like Gabe. Now that Andy is treating Erin poorly, we’re rooting for Pete. It will be interesting to see how this relationship develops when Andy returns.
The point is this: we need to be careful that our view of love is not shaped by the television shows we watch. I love The Office, but all good things must be enjoyed with discernment. I am certain that the writers will keep Pam and Jim together, but the recent bumps in this relationship brought my attention to the other forms of cheating on the show, and I was surprised to analyze which relationships I was rooting for. And ultimately, love is love—whether our favorite characters realize that or not.