“The Office”: The Right Amount of Jan-sanity

Jan_trophy_r Is Jan Levinson crazy, or too crazy?

That’s the hot-button issue on this year’s episodes of “The Office,” particularly this week. Some fans — perhaps even a majority — have been ready to throw a Dundee at their 10-inch plasma TV out of concern that the producers of the show have taken Jan (played by Melora Hardin) too far off the deep end with her manic behavior, capped by her all-points meltdown in last week’s “Dinner Party” episode.

But for a couple seasons now, “Office” showrunner Greg Daniels and his staff have laid the groundwork for Jan’s eggshell instability.

After all, what was our first peek into Jan’s personal life, other than the fact that she is divorced?  Under the influence of alcohol, Jan impulsively swooped in to kiss fox-like-a-crazy Michael after he successfully landed an account in “The Client,” a second-season episode that aired back in November 2005. Within a few months, Jan was starting to turn her life upside down for Michael, bringing an overnight bag when he invited her to an office party in the season finale, “Casino Night.” The fact that he spurned her at that moment for his real-estate agent, Carol, further vexed her.

In season three, after Michael breaks up with Carol, he and Jan were reunited as a couple when she accepted his offer to go to good ol’ Sandals, Jamaica. (“Officially, I did not see her,” Michael says, barely able to contain his glee.”But I did see Jan there. In our room. At night. And in the morning. That’s all I’m going to say. Sex. We had sex. I had sex with her. I had sex with Jan.”) At the conclusion of the January 2007 episode, “Back From Vacation,” in which she showed her commitment to Michael, Jan revealed that she had been seeing, well, the Michael Scott of shrinks.

“My psychiatrist thinks that I have some self-destructive tendencies, and that, for once, I should indulge them,” she told Michael.

Jan_kiss_lThis is who we’re dealing with: a woman who has the red carpet laid out over her preexisting path to self-destruction. Talking to the unseen “Office” documentarian a month later in February 2007’s “Cocktails” (an episode that also offered interesting insight into Michael and Jan’s sexual relationship), Jan elaborated on her mindset, in one of the great lines in the show’s exceptional history.

“I am taking a calculated risk,” she said. “What’s the upside? I overcome my nausea, fall deeply in love, babies, normalcy, no more self-loathing. Downside, I date Michael Scott publicly and collapse into myself like a dying star.”

By the end of season three, Jan’s personal torment — which included a decision to get breast implants under the admittedly logical reasoning that they would keep Michael from dumping her — had seeped into her workplace. In May 2007, her boss, David Wallace, told her he was firing her, adding that “your behavior in the last two years has been completely erratic.”  Uprooted from the one stable part of her life, her day-to-day job, it’s no surprise that Jan went further off the deep end.

Jan_deposition_rThis brought us to the current season, which found Jan living in Michael’s condo and continuing to self-indulge, from interior decoration to candle-making ventures. For much of the season, Michael and Jan were making a go of it as a couple — their most touching moment was when Jan came to support a distraught Michael after he declared bankruptcy (by hilariously shouting in the office, “I declare bankruptcy!”).  But in the final episode before the Writers Guild of America strike interrupted production, Michael sided with Dunder-Mifflin (and the truth) against Jan, torpedoing her lawsuit against the company. Their drive home was, to say the least, tense.

“You expect to get screwed by your company,” Michael says. “But you never expect to get screwed by your girlfriend.”

While “The Deposition” episode aired five months ago, in the world of “The Office,” the wounds were still fresh when Michael and Jan staged their dinner party, which showed Jan at her most unstrung — belittling Michael, his possessions and his friends. Though her lines were often sharply funny — there’s no doubt that Hardin is doing great work in this part — Jan’s behavior was altogether unpleasant.

And maybe that’s the bugaboo.  “The Office” has always been an odd breed — a half-hour comedy that repeatedly produces cringeworthy moments. It’s been this way from the get-go — it’s fundamental to its charm — though even some diehard viewers are taken aback at times by how much the show can make them squirm. It used to be that Michael and Dwight were the models for bizarre behavior, but now Jan has arguably passed them by. Yet her character is so brittle at this point that she doesn’t always provide the refreshing good time that makes Michael and Dwight such a pleasure to watch.

I suspect that those who are saying that Jan has been made illogically crazy either haven’t been paying attention, or perhaps more likely, they simply haven’t enjoyed the real Jan, her flaws exposed for all to see. People know “The Office” can be dark, but Jan’s situation makes things seem too dark for some.

Jan_deposition_l For my part, I think the path of her character has been brilliant — one of the show’s many, many virtues.  And I think it’s worth taking time to salute both Hardin and her writers for this, because based on what I’ve seen, I can’t help but feel that Michael and Jan are headed for a breakup. I don’t have any inside information on this, so I could be completely wrong, but it just seems like the logical conclusion. You can only go to the implant well so many times to keep your fella … and Michael seems have reached his considerable limit for being put down … and I don’t know that Jan is capable of changing her behavior enough to keep him.

That’s not to say, obviously, that there couldn’t be any surprises left for us and Jan. However, the fact that “The Office” parted ways with Roy after spending nearly three seasons with him proves that the series isn’t afraid to say farewell to critical supporting characters.  If Jan does get written out of the show, all I can say is that I sure hope she finds happiness someday. 

— Jon Weisman

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