Sunday, January 24, 2010
Tom's America: The Coco Channel
H and I have been watching a lot of The Office on Internet reruns of late. I am convinced that is the best show currently on television. Maybe I'd feel differently if I were a more skilled Lost or Mad Men watcher, but I'm not, so this is where we are.
One thing that I missed the first time it aired was the way the show was attempting to draw subtle parallels with the Global Financial Crisis. The tension between the firmly fairytale-realm Michael Scott and the realism attempted by the "financial strife" plotline served to exacerbate the most common criticism of the show (which I at once am usually totally un-bothered by and have to admit I have no pithy answer to), which is that there's simply no diegetic support for the notion of The Office as real-world documentary. It's hard to accept Michael Scott never having things thrown at him on the street because all of America is watching him refuse to grow up week after week, but it's impossible to accept the behind-the-scenes meltdowns of the company being filmed and broadcast without consequence.
This is why it is so lucky that NBC has been airing a competing take on the same events. What a compelling drama we have had, in those late-night hours! What biting theatrical commentary has been passed on the classist strife of our time! The serial drama, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, has delivered in ways The Office's writers simply cannot compete with. In Jay Leno, we have a true villain, a puffed-up henchman to put The Office's Charles Minor to shame. He works so well because hating him makes us feel clever: to despise Jay Leno is to see through his mugging, eyebrow-twitching "working class shmoe" schtick. Not watching Jay Leno is its own reward, the gift that keeps on giving.
To see ourselves as The Office's hero - John Krasinski's hapless Jim Halpert, desperate to be an old-school, stand-up guy - is hollow because recent plotlines revolve around Halpert simply not being very good at his job. Whereas to feel for Conan O'Brien is to see through the eyes of the ultimate good guy done wrong. When was the last time fiction gave us a guy this hard-done by what Freud called ananke, the unmovable forces of cruel fate? O'Brien swaggered cliffward like the Tarot's Fool: wearing a grin, his little dog making wisecracks from behind the podium.
The concluding episodes of Late Night with Conan O'Brien became a glorious ceremony in which we burned our betters in effigy for their sinful excesses. That ceremony should have been allowed to conclude in earnest. The fantasy of O'Brien as latter-day Girolamo Savonarola, leading a postmodern Bonfire of the Vanities every bit as urgent as that of renaissance legend, was one that should never have been undone.
Just as I can, for the most part, accept that Dunder Mifflin is a real company in an alternate reality in which The Office is not broadcast, so I can see the Picasso that O'Brien sprayed with Beluga caviar as the real thing, as long as I am allowed to. No communion I ever attended ended with the priest explaining that there'd been a lot of distressing talk on the Internet and he wanted everyone to be clear that those wafers weren't really a dude. O'Brien's acknowledgment of his part in the pageantry of the whole affair was the only bum note in his final episode: the shock-headed psychopomp would have been forgiven had he extended the deception at least until his first post-tv interview.
And so now, with the drama concluded, we have Jay Leno on late-night television, which we had all along, and which was a sorry state of affairs. And we have Letterman, the grand old man of late-night, looking on with bemused disdain at the whole thing. And have we Conan? To say we do not would be to deny his final message to us: "Don't be cynical. I hate cynicism. It's my least favorite quality."
Do this in memory of him, for this is his show.