Like a carpenter who makes stairs
The rise and fall of The Office
The cynics among us would probably say The Office was over as soon as Michael Scott shed his microphone, uttered a final, muted “that’s what she said” and boarded a flight to Colorado and left Dunder Mifflin for good. They might say that although we didn’t know it at the time, The Office needed Michael Scott. Bringing Will Ferrell in as a short-lived replacement was only the writing on the wall, bringing in James Spader was the nail in the coffin: there would be no one who could tread that line between painfully awkward and painfully funny as well as Steve Carrell did as Michael Scott.
The ninth and final season of The Office just wrapped up shooting. It’s hard to remember a time when The Office wasn’t on, and although the last two seasons have been lackluster, The Office will be remembered as one of the best sitcoms of our generation and certainly one of the defining shows of the early 2000s.
The pilot episode of The Office debuted as a midseason replacement on March 24, 2005, largely an adaptation of its British ancestor. It wasn’t very well received, and I think this was for a couple reasons. For one, the script was pretty dark in tone, way darker than the average Office episode would become: the boss was irredeemably mean, the receptionist was trapped in an endless engagement and a dead-end job, and the likeable salesman’s only pleasure was playing pranks on his co-worker. The only jokes were at others’ expense, and came with an unenjoyable cringe.
The other reason was the TV comedy environment at the time. I went back and looked up the highest rated shows around the time The Office debuted (the best I did was for the week of January 17 – 23, 2005) and noticed that there were only two sitcoms in the top 20, and they were pretty traditional: Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men. The Office premiered less than a year after the finale of Friends, which has more in common with the former two shows than The Office. The simplest way to compare the three “environment” shows mentioned is to point out that they each have a laugh track supported by a studio audience. That shouldn’t be interpreted as “studio audiences are bad”; the best two sitcoms of all time (in my opinion) dominated NBC from 1982 to 1998 with studio audiences. It should be interpreted as “studio audiences were the norm in 2005”, and a show which eschewed not only the studio audience but typical storytelling and joketelling entirely could only be looked at as abnormal.
But by the end of the second episode, “Diversity Day”, what would become the successful theme of The Office was beginning to take shape: Michael’s desire to be liked. That root emotion first caused the offensive jokes, which Michael followed up by first trying to join Mr. Brown’s session, and then throwing his own diversity party before getting slapped. That root emotion was the genius of Michael Scott: it made him sympathetic, no matter how ridiculous or over-the-top his other actions were.
The other storyline that would define The Office also began on “Diversity Day”, with Pam falling asleep on Jim’s shoulder to end the day and turn a really bad day for Jim into “overall, not a bad day”. I think most people would call the Jim and Pam romance the main draw of The Office, but I think Michael’s character was more important to the success of the show. After all, without Michael, how would we have ended up with moments like “The Dundies”, “Office Olympics” or “Booze Cruise”?
The second season saw a significant change to The Office: everything was brighter. From the tone of the comedy to the color palette of the show itself, everything was more optimistic and seemingly more fun. And from the first episode of season two, “The Dundies”, the show began a run of sustained quality and improvement. In fact, apart from “Halloween”, I can’t think of a weak episode in all of season two. That second season had just about everything working for it: a blossoming Jim/Pam romance, a confusing Michael/Jan romance, and the introduction/continued exploration of everyone else in the office: Stanley, Phyllis, Ryan, Kelly, Angela, Kevin, Oscar, Creed and Meredith each had their own moments and backstories.
Season two also started a neat tradition on The Office: the Christmas episode. Other than the strike-shortened season 4, each season of The Office has featured a Christmas episode of some sort. Season two’s “Christmas Party” was one of the best, although my vote still goes to Season 3’s “Benihana Christmas” because of this line, referring to an iTunes download of James Blunt’s “Goodbye My Lover”: “I don’t need to buy it, I just want to taste it.”
The end of the second season came with the super-sized episode “Casino Night”, which ended on a cliffhanger with Jim kissing Pam and then the two of them staring awkwardly at each other. You could have almost seen the show ending right there: had The Office not been picked up for a third season, I wouldn’t have put it past the writers to just leave it on that uncertain note and left the audience to speculate what would have happened for the pair of them.
But happily, The Office was picked up for a third season. I look back at season three as the golden era of The Office, and thanks to the initial story arc of Jim being in a new branch of Dunder Mifflin, we were introduced to some new characters. One of those characters was Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard, who had a similar personality to Michael. So when the two characters got together after Jim’s new branch and Jim’s old branch merged, we got to see Michael react to someone much like himself, which was not only hilarious, but it gave Michael some self-awareness which made him more human.
The other new character that stuck from the Stamford branch was Karen Fillipelli, who actually made a pretty good love triangle with Jim and Pam. It wasn’t hard to see why Jim and Karen clicked in Stamford, but I was surprised how long they lasted after the return to Scranton, especially after Jim told Karen about his feelings for Pam at Oscar’s welcome back party. Ultimately there were two factors in the Jim/Karen break-up: Pam’s speech in “Beach Games”, which seemed to make Jim remember “oh yeah, I used to like this chick” and kick him back into reality; and Karen’s ultimatum before the job interview, making Jim choose between her and Pam.
The character development in season three was outstanding. Pam figured out a lot about herself: that she didn’t want to marry Roy just to be married (rebound after Phyllis’s wedding notwithstanding), that she wanted more out of her career, and that she had more leadership and confidence in her than she had previously shown. Jim, hurt by Pam’s rejection, convinced himself that it just wasn’t meant to be and tried really hard to move on. He was more successful at some times than others, perhaps least of all when a nervous glance at the camera betrayed how he felt about Roy and Pam leaving Phyllis’s wedding together.
But by the end of the third season, Jim decided that he wasn’t quite ready to give up on Pam just yet, and that season ended with Jim asking Pam, “are you free for dinner tonight?”
Do you remember when The Office jumped the shark? Go ahead and think about it, and come back when you’ve got an answer.
The Office jumped the shark in the second episode of season four, when Michael drove his car into a lake. I’d listen to arguments for the previous episode, when Michael hit Meredith with his car, then organized “Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin Scranton Meredith Palmer Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race for the Cure” when it was discovered Meredith had rabies, but at least that was an accident due to negligence. When Michael drove his car into a lake, he knew what he was doing but deliberately drove right in anyway. I won’t even listen to any arguments for the shark jumping being after that moment.
That’s not to say The Office started its decline at that moment; on the contrary, some episodes in seasons four and five are among the best in the series. But starting at that water-soaked moment in “Dunder Mifflin Infinity”, the plots became simply more outlandish and less relatable. For every outlandish plot though, there was an episode or two of normalcy; for every “Chair Model”, a classic like “Dinner Party” or “The Deposition”.
The fifth season featured one of my favorite story arcs in the entire series: the “Michael Scott Paper Company” arc, in which Michael quit his job, started his own paper company, and then managed to convince Dunder Mifflin to buy him out and hire him back. This was an episode that was out of the realm of possibility just two seasons ago, but post-shark jump, it fit right in and explored Michael’s desire to be liked and his ambition for a career that has meaning (as well as his delusion that regional manager at Dunder Mifflin meets that criteria).
And speaking of episodes that were out of the realm of possibility just two seasons ago: the post-Super Bowl “Stress Relief” which opened with Dwight faking a fire in the office and causing Stanley to have a heart attack? Come on. Was it funny? Sure. But should we have had any realistic expectation of Dwight keeping his job after that? Heck, shouldn’t he have faced prosecution? The only punishment he really received was having to get everyone to sign an apology letter. If The Office hadn’t jumped the shark by then (it had), it did at that episode.
Season six is where The Office began its slow decline. The early episodes seemed to revert back to a season one-esque schadenfreude, with a darker tone and a less positive outlook. Then we had the wedding of Jim and Pam, which wasn’t bad, but I thought it was a little too disaster-prone to be fully satisfying. And then…it’s like the writers ran out of ideas. The stretch of episodes between the wedding and the Christmas episode were among the most uneven and inconsistent episodes of The Office yet.
But credit where credit is due: the writers recovered, and the last part of season six, while outlandish at times, was pretty solid. So too was pretty much the entirety of season seven, which saw the departure of Michael Scott, but not before a good round of goodbyes. “Michael’s Last Dundies”, “Threat Level Midnight”, “Todd Packer” and “Garage Sale” brought some nostalgia and great Michael moments as he finally got what he always wanted: someone who loved him as much as he loved them. Michael’s goodbye was equally well done, and while some critics didn’t like how he exited sort of under the radar, I thought it showed maturity and gave me a good feeling about how his life would end up.
And as Michael boarded a plane for Colorado, the second phase of The Office began. Looking for a new boss, the writers tried Will Ferrell’s DeAngelo Vickers, Dwight, and yes, even Creed Bratton, before landing on James Spader’s Robert California, before backing down on that and making the new boss Andy Bernard.
Season eight, the first season post-Michael, was the weakest yet in the show’s run. Most episodes were uninteresting, some were even unfunny. Andy Bernard and Dwight Schrute were no longer characters as much as they were caricatures of themselves, which was outlandish and even a little insulting. Robert California kept all of Michael Scott’s worst qualities while abandoning his most redeeming ones. Catherine Tate’s character Nellie Bertram was (and is) flat-out annoying and unsympathetic. Some highlights of season eight were the trip to Tallahassee and “Pool Party”. Some of the lowlights were everything after “Last Day in Florida” (what happened, you might ask? Nothing).
Before season nine, the producers of The Office confirmed that this would be their last season, and so it’s given the writers opportunities to take risks they haven’t taken in years. Jim’s taken a job at an ambitious new startup, Dwight is exploring running the farm full time, and even Andy is exploring a new career post-Office. Better yet, new hires Clark and Pete added some fresh blood and intrigue to the office.
But in this season more than any other, the documentary crew themselves have been involved, creating a sort of meta show a la Seinfeld season four. Their new, more visible role has been interesting, if confusing. For example, we found out that Pam and Jim had a relationship with Brian (the boom mike guy) and his ex-wife for all those years. Why are we just finding out about it now? If we weren’t supposed to find out at all, then why lift the veil now? And if it wasn’t a big deal, was there seriously nothing worth showing in the last nine years from that relationship? If Brian’s had a crush on Pam too (presumably), where was he when the Jim-Pam-Roy thing was going on?
And even bigger than that: as the documentary prepares to air, the employees of Dunder-Mifflin have realized they’ve had far less privacy the last nine years than they realized. It’s kind of shocking that one employee (like Dwight or Angela, after one of their rendezvous) hadn’t told everyone else that they had been filmed surreptitiously. The fact that everyone was surprised was a little unbelievable.
But that’s where we are. Where are we going? I’ve thought for a few years now that The Office had to end with everyone getting together at someone’s house to watch the completed documentary together. Maybe Michael will tune in from Colorado. Maybe Jim and Pam will be newly-divorced, or newly-reconciled. Maybe Dwight and Angela will be married; or happily apart. But we’ll soon find out, because we’re way closer to the end than the beginning.
The Office has had a tremendous impact on the legacy of comedy on television, and the biggest single thing The Office has done was rendered every single sitcom with a laugh track obsolete. In particular, most new shows on NBC are minus a laugh track (or studio audience), because after watching The Office for nine seasons, the laugh track seems unnecessary and out of place.
The Office also brought back “that’s what she said”. The never-appropriate, sometimes-funny and surprisingly relevant comeback was reborn over these last nine years, and is probably The Office’s biggest pop culture contribution.
There’s one show that’s taken The Office’s mold and perfected it, and that show is Parks and Recreation. I wrote about this show last year, and I still think it’s one of the top shows on television right now. Parks and Rec never fell into the trap of making their characters caricatures, hasn’t been afraid to introduce new blood, and most importantly, hasn’t been afraid to let the characters grow appropriately. Whereas Michael Scott stayed regional manager for all seven years he was on the show, Leslie Knope has advanced not only in her deputy director role, but has also become a city councilwoman and will likely run for an even more powerful position soon. Whereas Kevin Malone has been the dumb accountant for all nine years, Andy Dwyer has progressed from unemployed to homeless to shoe shiner to campaign worker to administrative assistant. It’s built-in freshness: as the characters grow, the potential storylines change too. Unfortunately, Parks and Recreation hasn’t enjoyed the ratings success that The Office did for many years. But that shouldn’t say anything about its quality, because if anything, it’s even better.
We only have four more episodes left before The Office slips into syndication for a long, long time (and probably be available on Netflix for even longer). What else can you say about the comedy that more or less defined the first decade of the 21st century? In the immediate future, I’ll miss tuning in each week to see the latest antics of the Dunder Mifflin crew. But long-term, we’ll see more shows like The Office, and even more with Office influences. So while the characters might be different, the structures and ideas of the show will live on. But for now, in the words of Pam, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”