The Late Office: A Defense

The comment thread to Alyssa’s very good post on the politics of Parks and Recreation reminded me that the belief that The Office should have ended after season three is (a) extremely prevalent and (b) wrong. For one thing, I tend to think that complaints that shows have gone too long are, as a rule, incorrect. Unless the show’s existence is precluding that of a better show, who cares if it keeps producing bad episodes? It doesn’t negate the excellence of the earlier ones. I stopped watching The Simpsons about a decade ago, but a lot of people like the new episodes, and its survival doesn’t preclude me from enjoying seasons one through ten.

But more importantly, The Office has produced some of its best material in season four through seven. In fact, I’d say that season five is the strongest season so far. Let’s tick through some reasons.

It got darker: My favorite episodes of The Office tend to be the bleakest and most despairing ones, and there’s a lot more of that in season four and onward. Once the focus got off Jim and Pam, the show had a lot of fun by making its other characters miserable. Michael’s dysfunctional relationship with Jan got way worse in season four, particularly in the one-two punch of “The Deposition” – where Michael is brutally interrogated about his personal life by Jan and Dunder Mifflin’s lawyers – and my all-time favorite episode of the show, “Dinner Party”, which reaches Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? levels of domestic turmoil. “Night Out” showed Ryan as having descended into drug addiction, and by the end of season four he was in handcuffs.

Season five upped the ante. The main intra-office romantic intrigue involved Dwight repeatedly cuckolding Andy. Dwight is hardly meant to be a good guy, per se, but it’s still sort of amazing that a network sitcom had one of its main characters do something so unconscionable for so long. Michael found his soulmate in Holly, and then the company ripped her away from him just as they were falling in love. “Business Trip” is just brutal in showing how much hurt and rage built up in Michael over Dunder Mifflin’s decision to transfer her. Even Jim and Pam’s plotline was pretty depressing, which brings me to…

It let Pam and Jim stumble: This started subtly in season four, with subplots focusing on the ways the dream couple could screw people over. See Jim pissing everyone off by suggesting the office combine birthday celebrations in “Survivor Man”, or the two of them locking the entire office in for the night in “Night Out”. And then, in season five, it really let them fail. From the show’s beginning, Pam’s dream was to go to art school and become an artist, and in season five she went to the Pratt Institute to do just that. And she failed. She failed literally by not passing her classes, and more broadly she gave up on art as a career. Then she joined Michael’s paper company. Which failed. Then she became a saleswoman at Dunder Mifflin. And sucked at it. Only in her very recent position as office manager is she having professional success.

Meanwhile, Jim, who once said he’d have to throw himself in front of a train if Dunder Mifflin became his career, buys a house in Scranton in season five and becomes co-manager in season six. As I wrote at Alyssa’s last summer, this is a pretty astonishingly bleak trajectory. Jim and Pam, after all, originally bonded over hating Dunder Mifflin and wanting to get out and support each other as they pursued their dreams. The show let them pursue their dreams, and then made them fail and accept that they were stuck where they were. This, to me, is a much more unusual and compelling thread than the “will they won’t they” stuff in season one through three.

It made Michael human: Alan Sepinwall has a good slideshow highlighting episodes where the show has humanized Michael, and it’s no accident that the vast majority come after season three. While the show had made it clear that Michael is a good salesman before, seasons four and onward are where they make you empathize for him. You don’t delight in his suffering when Jan controls him throughout “Dinner Party”; it’s horrible. His relationship with Holly was genuinely endearing and it hurts when the company rips them apart. You want the two to be happy together.

But the best sub-season arc the show’s ever done, the Michael Scott Paper Company, is where the show really lets him come into his own. It shows Michael standing up to the corporate overlords who had abused him and beating them. He learned he couldn’t beat them in the marketplace, and then proceeded to beat them in negotiations. In “Broke”, you keep expecting him to trip up, but he doesn’t, and ends up getting him, Pam, and Ryan good jobs at Dunder Mifflin – and in Pam and Ryan’s cases, promotions from their last positions there. Most impressively, you don’t resent Michael’s win. I, at least, was really thrilled to see him beat Stringer Bell Charles Miner. Michael went from a cartoon to a character you can root for after season four, and I think the show would have really missed something without that element.

It’s still funny: I think people forget this because there’s so much other good comedy on the air right now. And sure, it doesn’t make me laugh out loud as much as Archer or Parks and Recreation do. But when it hits, it really, really hits. I recently rewatched “The Lover” and that’s just hysterical, straight-through. I could rewatch the scene where Michael tells Jim he’s sleeping with Pam’s mom fifty times, and it’d still be funny. Same goes for “Scott’s Tots”, which features some of the best cringe humor the show’s ever done. Jim and Pam’s drunken escapades in “PDA”, Dwight’s fake fire in “Stress Relief” (complete with Angela throwing cats into the ceiling), Stanley’s dream of living in a lighthouse-cum-spaceship: these rank as high in my mind as any of the comic setpieces in the first three seasons.

Utility and Truth

Via Ned, H. Allen Orr’s review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape says most of what needs to be said. I haven’t read the book, because I am a mortal creature and I have better ways to spend my time on Earth, but Orr’s review does remind me of something incoherent in Harris’ reasoning that’s been nagging me since the book came out. Here’s Orr quoting Harris:

The very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.).

While there are a number of different philosophies of science and epistemologies that can accommodate the scientific method, Harris is certainly correct that you have to accept one of them for the whole thing to work. Harris’ choice appears to be scientific realism, which, in short, is the view that science describes a world that is really “out there”, and that a scientific observation is true when it corresponds to this real world.

Which is funny to me, because Harris is a utilitarian. At least that’s what I and Orr make of his conclusion that the good is the “well-being of conscious creatures”. A quick scan of the book shows that Harris explicitly identifies identifies as a consequentialist (see page 62; sadly there’s no Google Books preview I can link to). Consequentialism + a hedonic conception of the good = good old fashioned utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, unlike some other ethical theories, has philosophical implications outside of ethics. In particular, I think it commits you to some form of pragmatism. If the answer to “what should I do?” is “whatever action maximizes the general happiness” then the answer to “what should I believe?” is “whatever belief is conducive to maximizing the general happiness”. That starts to look a lot like pragmatists’ argument that what is true is what is most useful to believe.

As Richard Rorty pointed out in my favorite essay of his –  “Religious faith, intellectual responsibility, and romance” – this affinity between utilitarianism and pragmatism is historical as well as logical. William James was a great admirer of John Stuart Mill, and The Will to Believe can be read, in Rorty’s words, as an attempt at a “utilitarian ethics of belief”. And James, of course, believed strongly that religious faith could be a force for good.

This makes sense. Under pragmatism, the statement “God exists” is true if it is useful to believe that God exists. This may seem a flimsy reason to believe, and Rorty lays out a number of ways in which it limits what one can believe, but it is no flimsier a foundation than pragmatism offers for believing in science, and most would consider that foundation pretty strong. No one would mistake Quine and Sellars and Dewey for arch opponents of science, after all.

So Harris has a problem. He can be a scientific realist, which rules out both pragmatism (which rejects the idea that there needs to be a real world “out there” which true statements reflect) and utilitarianism (because it implies pragmatism). Or he can be a utilitarian, and a pragmatist, and acknowledge that religion is often a source for good in the world and a source of joy for many privately. But you can’t be a utilitarian and a scientific realist, and you certainly can’t try to get to utilitarianism through scientific realism, which is what he’s trying to do now.