It’s more than smirking at the camera
The Big Tuna. Paper salesman at Dunder Mifflin, twenty-something college grad. He’s a prankster, old-school romantic, and the everyman in the nine season sitcom, The Office. Jim, played by the handsome-but-just-ordinary-enough John Krasinski, receives as much screen time as several colleagues, but stands out for his relatability. It is through Jim that we see we’re not alone in enduring the small absurdities of the nine-to-five; we are not alone in feeling confused at our choices and where we’ve ended up. Jim is a portrait of the college grad as a twenty-something and a sympathetic shoulder for the viewers entrenched in the daily war of work.
The other protagonists on The Office—for our consideration, Michael, Dwight, and Pam—play roles we can sort into familiar workplace archetypes: Michael is the unqualified and embarrassing boss; Dwight, the alien, annoying colleague; Pam, the one person around whom we can be ourselves. If you know the show, ask yourself: have you labeled one of your colleagues the Dwight of the office? The Pam? Is your boss the Michael Scott type?
If so, notice through which lens you bestow the label—Jim’s. He is the mirror off of which we interpret the other characters, major and minor. Michael’s hatred for Toby, for example, is comic because it is hyperbolic. But it reflects on Michael and not on Toby, who, compared to his boss’s antics, often seems like a voice of reason. Jim’s distaste for him, however, we understand and believe (e.g. it would be frustrating for the legitimacy of your legal and disclosed office relationship to be questioned by HR). Jim is the touchstone; he connects and relates us to the personalities in his world.
A key reason we feel this way is because of how Jim treats the fourth wall. Though The Office is a mockumentary, which means most characters acknowledge or speak to the camera, Jim looks at us more than anyone. He is the thermometer of The Office; his glances, a snapshot of the temperature. It is John Krasinski’s signature talent that with a mere expression he communicates if a situation is serious or surprising, delighting or disgusting or painfully dull. His glances spark a type of catharsis perfected by The Office: confirmation of the banality and absurdity of the everyday. When we are at work and someone says or does something we find ridiculous, we want a friend to share that moment, someone to whom we can say, “Can you believe she said that?” or “Am I crazy for thinking he’s crazy?” Jim’s glances give that to us; they are comfort that we are neither alone nor out of our minds—they bridge our offices to The Office.
Another link is Jim’s disposition towards Dunder Mifflin. In season one he says,
“Right now, this is a job. If I advance any higher in this company, this would be my career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.”
We might be fortunate enough not to have one of those jobs, or perhaps we haven’t yet realized ours is indeed one of them; but the feeling is familiar, and so is Jim’s response: he stays put. He might not like selling reams (on reams on reams) of paper, but he’s unsure what else he would do.
His uncertainty reflects a paradox of career-building: we need experience to discover or create our careers (i.e. what we like to do, credentials), yet to choose a first or second job with a future that appeals to us, we need to already have an outline of the career we’d like. (Not to mention we usually just need a job, period.) Jim’s career confusion and his ambivalence toward Dunder Mifflin reflect the dilemma that unsatisfied twenty-somethings everywhere carry in the back of their minds.
Perhaps these bridges of empathy earn Jim his popularity. Six years after its series finale, The Office remains Netflix’s most-streamed show, accounting for 7% of its 139 million subscribers’ views. For Millennials and Gen Z, The Office may have been a first peek into any workplace, real or fiction. It may have set expectations for the working world, and it might continue to be a coping mechanism for it. Yes, in the course of the show, Michael finds love; Dwight, compassion; Pam, courage; and a host of other characters win our sympathies. We can learn from all of them. But Jim, from pilot till finale, is the rock.
He reminds us we are not alone in our frustration or confusion; he shows us that although we may be faced with boredom and absurdity, little victories can buoy us through the day. While we probably should avoid placing anyone’s office supplies in a vending machine, we can take some helpful cues from Jim: make an effort to find (not necessarily marry) someone with whom we can shoot the breeze, understand when a job is just a job, realize it’s okay to not know yet what we want to do, and try to respond to the weirdness of the working world with humor—maybe with a smirk at an imaginary camera.