Jim Halpert is a Mary Sue, but at least he’s a Mary Sue of the people.
It’s a bit of an edgelord take to declare that The Office (U.S. version) isn’t actually a good show. It might even be a bit of a meaningless critique to say that it hasn’t aged well. (“This hasn’t aged well” is the “This is overrated” of the current decade; it’s an easy, catch-all critique of something without having to be very specific or provide much proof). The Office (U.S.) as a whole, complete unit is seen as great because of its brilliant peaks, with its valleys long forgotten.
Once in a while, one brave human being will take to their keyboard to point out that Jim Halpert was actually the worst. His pranks were disruptive, he was judgmental toward Michael and, frankly, he wasn’t a particularly great husband or father. But a more specific criticism of Jim — Jim the character, the product of nine seasons full of writers rooms and production tweaks, not Jim the man — is that he is a Mary Sue.
The term “Mary Sue” is derided as sexist for fairly good reasons; it tends to get thrown around disproportionately when female characters display degrees of competency that make viewers uncomfortable. One of the only prominent male characters to face the accusation of being a Mary Sue is Bruce Wayne; otherwise it’s a term most often associated with chic-lit and fanfic.
“Mary Sue” is also usually associated with self-insertion. But Jim is a different kind of Mary Sue. He’s not a self-insert for the author. He’s a combination of Mary Sue and audience surrogate; he was created for projection. He’s a Mary Sue of the people.
The show would have you believe that Jim is an “everyman.” He was clearly created for as many people as possible to identify with. He’s white, in his late 20s, seemingly grew up middle-class, is college-educated but aimless, working a job that he views as temporary and lusting after a girl who he wishes were more than his friend. In the mid-2000’s, I’m sure at least a few hundred 21-year-old guys glued to their TVs on Thursday nights stared longingly at Jim as he stared longingly at Pam and thought to themselves, I’ve totally been there.
Except they haven’t. Because Jim isn’t real. Jim is a Mary Sue. Jim is the guy they think they are. And for nine years, the show never had the guts to let Jim be anything less than a scrappy hero.
The Jim-Pam romance is fantasy-driven.
The Jim-Pam romance has been characterized by Millennials as the pop culture love of the century; spend just 15 minutes on a dating app and you’re likely to find at least one person who says they’re “looking for the Jim to [their] Pam” (or vice versa).
The plot is undeniably sweet, but there’s also a clear fantasy element about them. Not to say that people don’t ever finally hook up with their colleague crush and even start a family with them (hello, it me!); but how many more times in your life have you been “the Jim” — longing after someone you work or go to school with, maybe someone who has a partner or, doesn’t reciprocate your feelings? And how many times has it actually worked out?
(It’s also a huge contributor to the common complaint that the show’s quality diminished once Jim and Pam got together — because for most people with unrequited crushes, the will-we-won’t-we is the more exciting part. Everyone fantasizes about the perfect moment when they win their crush over. No one fantasizes about going out to lunch with their parents, paying a mortgage together or surly small-talk before they finish their first coffee in the morning).
I may have married the IT guy I worked with, but I’ve also had about a half dozen “Pams” in my life who, in fact, did not like me back, did not notice me, did not see me as more than a friend. And for those who had the audacity to date someone else, it did help me to imagine their partner as piggish, boorish, maybe unfaithful or possibly even cruel — like Roy.
Roy was, as a result of the writers’ need to lionize Jim at the right times, one of the more fluid characters. I’ve spoken at length about how writers will reinvent characters’ personalities from teleplay to teleplay depending on what the audience needs and call that character development; usually it’s to one character’s advantage, but along the way there are also characters like Roy. At times, Roy was no more than a slightly dopey, insensitive boyfriend and, above all else, a bad match for Pam. But being a bad match for someone isn’t a crime, and isn’t enough to make viewers feel like you deserve an emotional beatdown or a humiliating romantic defeat. So when Roy began to make advances with Pam, emotionally, in their secondary courtship, things could have been promising for him — but that also rendered him an obstacle that Jim had to face. And so, in his final two appearances, Roy became quick to anger, possessive and violent — the kind of man that Pam shouldn’t ever be near again, the kind of man that, even six years later at his wedding in Season 9, you never really care to see a win for.
Even recently on an episode of Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey’s Office Ladies podcast, David Denman, who portrays Roy, spoke about his time on the show. He said when he learned in the third season that Jim and Pam were finally going to get together, series developer Greg Daniels also told him that he’d be leaving the show, naturally, because he had to (in so many words) get Roy out of the way. It’s a shame, because David Denman is a strong comedic actor who livened up the ensemble as a more working-class character, but he was tossed aside to clear the runway for the Jim show.
It perhaps would have been more compelling if Roy had remained a character with realistic flaws who was not objectively villainous, whose biggest sin was simply not being well-aligned with Pam. That would have made Pam’s choice difficult. But Roy, like all of Jim’s obstacles, was oversimplified.
The show doesn’t want Jim to fail. It wants him to succeed.
Over nine years, it was rare for Jim to face an obstacle that wasn’t Saturday-morning-comic-strip levels of simplicity. His romantic rival Roy is a brute. His sitcom nemesis Dwight is obviously oblivious. Other perennial foes like Andy and Ryan aren’t meant to be relatable. And then, of course, there’s Cathy.
Cathy, a would-be mistress for Jim in Season 8, was so under-developed throughout her half-dozen episode arc that it was hard not to feel offended. I say this both as a viewer — did the writers think we were dumb, and that anyone would believe Jim would be tempted? — and as a woman. The Office doesn’t have a good track record for introducing new female characters who are competent or grounded in any way (the last, prior to Cathy, was Holly Flax), but to have someone so flat and vapid with such shallow motivations introduced solely for the sake of being a ditzy seductress feels like a bit of a kick in the shins.
If anything, the one arc involving Jim where he genuinely seems to screw up — and not because he’s just too damn funny and charming — is the short-lived, poorly received plot in which he co-manages the branch with Michael and fails to win almost anyone over. It still lets Jim off the hook pretty easily — the position is treated more like the curse, as Jim starts to learn the lesson that maybe Michael’s job is harder than it looks (and not that he might be the one causing conflict because he’s convinced he’s the most well-liked, reasonable guy on the planet). Still, it would be nice if the series took more time to explore the Jim we see in “Koi Pond,” the Jim who is so insecure over his co-managing relationship with Michael that he lets Michael writhe and flail for far too long in an office koi pond. The episode, which spends the first two acts focusing on Michael, somewhat brilliantly does a harsh 180 when the truth is revealed and it becomes an indictment of Jim’s mean-spiritedness and arrogance. It’s a much meaner version of the attention-seeking (but still loveable) Jim we saw try to infiltrate the Finer Things Club several seasons before.
But it’s pretty much put to bed when the closing credits roll. Ultimately, as confirmed by Kinsey and Fischer on Office Ladies, the show’s official position is that Jim has a future outside of Dunder Mifflin, and it’s always viewed him that way. His talking heads, which typically feature a window with a view of the outside world behind him, contrast those of other characters whose talking heads feature a view of the office behind them. This heavyhanded symbolism is, of course, by design.
A lot of this also seems so conspicuous because the show really shouldn’t have been running that long — but it wouldn’t be an American TV show if it didn’t take the concept of “too much of a good thing” and run a mile with it. Because when you get six, seven, eight seasons in, it becomes more glaring that you’ve not actually built a character with any meaningful flaws.
Jim is generic on purpose.
Much like Michael’s textbook-bad corporate job interview in the third season finale, part of Jim’s charm is that his “flaws” are poorly concealed strengths. He’s not serious enough about work (read: he’s not competitive, yet he’s consistently a top-three sales guy). He’s not ambitious (read: he’s not overly corporate, even though he still gets promoted several times throughout the series). He can’t tell the girl he loves how he feels (read: he respects her boundaries, and he gets the girl in the end anyway). He’s a “dork” (read: he’s not a meathead, even though he manages to attract several beautiful women throughout the series).
Even the show’s attempt at symbolizing Jim’s “future” outside of Dunder-Mufflin has it both ways — he’s positioned as being too good for his job and company, but still spends nine years there.
We never find out what he majored in in college, there’s nothing offbeat or atypical about his family and upbringing, and we don’t even get a ton of hints about his passions or hobbies outside of work other than being a basketball fan (which fluctuates from a passing interest to a fervent passion depending on when it’s called for). There are no known quirks or surprising revelations about who he is, unlike, say, Angela, who occasionally reveals in talking heads strange details like the fact that she doesn’t speak to her sister for a reason she can’t remember, or Stanley, whose multiple marriages become a character detail long before he gets Flanderized.
Given the show’s penchant for Flanderization, it seems intentional that Jim is kept quirk-free; he’s the guy we’re supposed to all relate to. He’s not 5’1” and married to a closeted state senator. He’s not an orphaned Pollyanna receptionist who doesn’t understand the game Bobbing For Apples.
He’s not just a Mary Sue; he’s our Mary Sue.