Poor Jim Halpert on The Office: with the exception of his wife, no one likes him anymore. On the U.S. adaptation of Ricky Gervais’s show, Jim (John Krasinski) once won the hearts of fans with his conspiratorial looks at the camera and his crush on Pam (Jenna Fischer); he was the romantic character in a comedy about workplace drudgery. Fans thought this season, in which Jim and Pam finally got married, would make him even more lovable. Instead, the writers have exposed Jim as, in his own words, “a big stupid goofball,” whose defining moment this season was in an episode where he spitefully allowed someone to fall into a koi pond. Fans are starting to notice: TV.com picked Jim and Pam as two of the most annoying characters on TV, while journalist Meghan Keane wrote a widely discussed article for theawl.com, arguing that Jim is a “mediocre man who has already realized his full potential.” He was a popular character, but now Keane tells Maclean’s that only a few of her readers are ready to “stand up for Jim.”
When the show started in 2005, viewers saw Jim as their representative in a crazy world. With his subtle put-downs of his insane boss Michael (Steve Carell) and his refusal to take his boring job seriously, he used humour to cope with a bad situation, like Hawkeye on M*A*S*H. But this season, Jim’s promotion to co-manager at his workplace has exposed his petty, resentful side, like his jealousy of Michael for being a better salesman than he is. Keane says that because the show once offered Jim “as someone to empathize with,” it’s depressing for us to see that he’s “not very good at his job.” Even his wisecracks— “legend has it, on this very site, there used to be a productive paper company”—seem nasty now that he’s a boss.
One moment that especially infuriated fans was when Jim decided to try to get some respect by openly humiliating the insubordinate Ryan (B.J. Novak), making him literally work in a closet. Ryan is a villainous character who deserved what he got, but other signs point to the fact that Jim is no longer a fun guy: in another episode, Dwight (Rainn Wilson), who was usually the butt of Jim’s jokes, successfully plays a trick on the now-clueless Jim. Even Jim’s messy haircut, the visual cue that defined him as a lovable comic hero, has been toned down. The Office is known for its ambitious, dark comedy, and this might be its darkest, most intriguing story idea: demonstrating that even cute young TV heroes get less cute with age and responsibility.
An even darker undercurrent of the new season is the idea that Jim has no life beyond the office, and probably never will. Keane thinks a key moment in his downfall was the wedding episode, where it turned out that he had few friends: “If Jim and Pam couldn’t get more than four people out to their rehearsal dinner who weren’t family or co-workers, then that office space suddenly becomes the entirety of their existence.” That development makes Jim just like the other people on the show, a dysfunctional person who can’t exist outside the workplace; unlike in the early seasons, it’s hard for us to pretend that he’s normal.
Fans have reacted with a sense of betrayal: NPR’s Linda Holmes lamented that Jim “lost his sense of humour as a result of his promotion.” TV.com sent a message to Jim and Pam: “We even like Ryan more than you two. And we really don’t enjoy Ryan.” But if these viewers had looked more closely at Jim in previous seasons, they might not now be so surprised—the writers have often hinted that he could wind up like this. In the fourth season, when he was forced to try hard at his job for a change, he became a clone of Michael, with the same desperate pushiness. This season hasn’t changed Jim all that much. It’s just made his flaws impossible to overlook.
The transformation of Jim may also be an inevitable part of dealing with something that’s happened since the show began: the world economic collapse. Jobs became scarce, and suddenly it became clear, as Keane puts it, “that someone with a dead-end job is better off than all of the people who are dealing with unemployment and unable to pay their bills.” When the U.S. version of The Office began, there was a sense that someone like Jim might be able to look forward to a brighter future. Now we know this is the best he can expect, and he seems to sense it too. Maybe the problem is not that, as Dwight put it in a recent episode, “people are starting to notice how terrible Jim is.” It might be that Jim is starting to reflect how terrible the world is.