The baby rut: "Mad About You" fell into it, as did "Family Ties" and "Murphy Brown." And now "The Office" is trying to stay out of it.
Jim and Pam's baby is scheduled to arrive — as you know if you've seen any of NBC's seemingly endless commercials touting the fact — on March 4, in the show's first new episode back after the Olympics. And when the baby comes, the show is going to confront one of television's biggest challenges: how to keep the arrival of a child from bogging down the story.
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Babies create several distinct story problems. One is the invisible baby problem, where the pregnancy and the delivery are big stories, but then the actual baby fades into the background so thoroughly that the parents seem downright neglectful and its birth a road to nowhere.
This was Ross and Rachel’s experience with baby Emma on "Friends." The infant was rarely seen and even more rarely heard, and for the most part, she was notable for her absence. Invisible babies become something to be explained away in clumsy dialogue, where they are eternally at an undisclosed location, like a highly ranked government official during an emergency.
"The Office" has a pretty easy route out of the invisible baby problem because presumably, Pam will be returning to work before too long simply because the structure of the show requires it. When Jim and Pam are at work, the baby will logically be in whatever care they arrange for it, and its invisibility won't be distracting, negating the issue from the list of pitfalls.
The other problem is the baby who has only clichéd baby experiences. We've all seen the episodes where the baby won't stop crying, prefers one parent to the other, performs explosive diaper-filling stunts or won't go to sleep. We've seen parents who can't go out without talking about the baby, parents who worry too much about the baby and parents whose sex life can't recover after the baby.
The advantage that "The Office" has with Clichéd Baby Syndrome is that you wouldn't expect to necessarily see a whole lot of baby-centered stories anyway, given that it's a workplace comedy where trips to anybody's house are relatively uncommon. Maybe we can even avoid the projectile oatmeal spit-up scene. We’ve already been put through a rather agonizing (and yes, clichéd) “parents freak out about preschool expectations” episode, but most baby clichés happen in the home environment, which we almost never visit on this show.
And then there is the freakishly fast-growing baby. This happens when a show desperately wants a small, wisecracking moppet, so the show starts with a baby and then hopes nobody remembers how long ago the child was actually born. For example, there’s "Family Ties," where Andrew was born in January 1985, and then he was a baby, and then he was going to preschool in a tie by September 1986. There’s also "Growing Pains," where baby Chrissy, who was born fall of 1988, pretty much went from solid food to first grade by the fall of 1990.
The good thing here is that "The Office" is not a wisecracking-toddler kind of show. It's not surprising that a show such as "Full House" super aged Uncle Jesse and Becky's twin boys, Nicky and Alex, because its existing moppets, the Olsen twins (as Michelle), were aging out of the bracket. That was a wisecracking-kid show, and being the wisecracking kid on that show is like being in Menudo: When you got too old, somebody has to take your place. "The Office" has no need for a kid who's going to say, "You got it, dude," so it doesn't have a lot of reason to age Jim and Pam's baby and give us a smart-mouthed first-grader next season, so that's another threat neutralized.
A desperate device
Does that mean they’re out of the woods? Not really. The biggest problem that "The Office" faces is not what a baby does on a comedy, but what a baby means about a comedy, which is that they're out of ideas. In other words, the reason shows often seem lame after a baby comes is that many are losing steam already, and the baby was a desperate device to begin with.
This did not seem to be the case when Pam got pregnant at the end of last season because that season was so successful. The strong run of episodes began with Jim's proposal to Pam, continued through Michael's relationship with Holly and peaked with the excellent Michael Scott Paper Co. story line. That was an imaginative string of episodes that showed loads of potential for all the characters, and there was no reason to suspect that the baby was a Hail Mary pass. In fact, it seemed like a confident move, giving a not-yet-married couple an earlier-than-expected pregnancy that they were actually happy about.
This season, unfortunately, has been very uneven, particularly for Jim and Pam. Keeping Jim from stagnating forces him to move up, but he has to move up without leaving Dunder Mifflin Scranton, which is how he became Michael's co-manager, a story that didn’t work at all. Jim's original charm came largely from the humanity and affection in his relationships with his equally beaten-down co-workers and his transition to a manager has seemed to fracture his relationships with them in ways that undercut his character.
Similarly, at some point, Pam got sort of dour and entitled, as if her move from reception to sales threw her out of balance. That recent preschool episode cast both Jim and Pam as smug and condescending, which is absolute death for characters who are supposed to be the relatable, beating hearts of the show.
So the issue isn't really what the baby is going to do to the show because if the show goes off the rails, it’s not the baby’s fault. “The Office” in general, and Jim and Pam in particular, are already struggling storywise partly because the warmth that kept everything in balance between light and dark has been missing.
In fact, “The Office” has a chance to flip the traditional script here, and use the new baby as a way to warm up the show again. Everybody isn’t supposed to be miserable and sour all the time — that’s never been the show. And what makes people happier, after all, than a baby?
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington, D.C.