Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #6 - The Office (US)


This show almost didn't make.

The first season was only six episodes and it was very low rated.  Audiences weren't watching.  And the ones that did compared it unfavorably to the original British version.

And for the most part, audiences were right.  The show, while enjoyable, seemed more like a pale, watered down imitation of the genuine thing.  You had the oblivious, egotistical boss in Michael Scott (Steve Carell).  You had the everyman Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) pining for secretary Pam (Jenna Fischer) and sitting across from desk-mate from hell Dwight (Rainn Wilson).

The pieces were there, but there was very little to connect with.  Carell was very unlikable.  And Krasinski's Jim was too much of a jock to be the everyman that Tim Canterburry (Martin Freeman) was in Britain.

But even in those rough moments, you could see the germ of greatness.  There was nothing quite like The Office on American TV.  The mockumentary style took a while to get used to.  And the humor tended to be less punchlines and more the awkward humor of everyday life: stories that are only funny when told in retrospect.  But even then there was something... special.

When they reconvened for the second season, the producers wisely understood that audiences would only tolerate the foibles of the characters if we could come to care about them.  Particularly this was true of Michael Scott.  His overbearing nature was shown to be overcompensation for the affection-starved child living inside him.  Once this happened, everything started to click.  The envelope could be be pushed more and more because we cared.

From here, the humor really exploded.  It tapped into the mundane inanity of daily work life in way that was both funny and universal.  We all know a Michael Scott.  We all have had to deal with a Dwight.

And the romance factor cannot be over estimated.  Jim and Pam might be one of the best TV couples ever.  There was something honest and real about them.  They milked the will-they-won't-they for just long enough but lost none of the humor when they got together.

The supporting cast also became more prominent with some hilarious performances by Ed Helms as Andy, Mindy Kaling as Kelly, Ellie Kemper as Erin, and Angela Kinsey as Angela.  They allowed these characters to grow and fill the show with sweet insanity.

This is especially true of the character Andy.  Originally introduced as a villain, they slowly rehabilitated him to become almost the lead character.  Of course they destroyed all of that work in the final season, which is one of the series biggest deficits.

The show did veer into some vulgar territory, but usually not too much.  I was annoyed at how they kept playing up Angela's Christianity as a hallmark of her judgmental nature.  But one of the most powerful moments on the show was a moment where the Scripture is read and it is the most important moment of, arguably, the entire series.

"Office Olympics" (2x03)

Season 2 gave Michael Scott better hair and they let you see his sympathetic side.  His bad qualities were still there and he still made things horribly awkward.  But because you had greater affection for him, you could stay for the awkwardness to the humor that was on the other side.

This episode was fun and creative with the different office games like "Flaunkerton."  But what was most important was the very end where Michael received a small bit of affection from the people in the office.  And that little bit of unrequested kindness touched him deeply.  It was here that I finally understood him and could enjoy the rest of the series.

"Welcome Party" (7x20)

A lot of people believe that show jumped the shark after Steve Carrel left.  But that actually isn't the case.  Promoting Andy to the position of manager actually worked out just fine.  Andy, like Michael, was a bit annoyting but he had a soft heart.  Some also cite the addition of Robert California (James Spader) as a detracting influence.  But still, this wasn't the problem.

It was Nellie.

Nellie (Catherine Tate) became a regular member of the Scranton Branch of Dunder Mifflin with this episode and it was all downhill from there.

Here entire presence was simply unenjoyable.  I don't think I laughed at a single one of her lines.  I don't know that I fault Tate for this.  But the show which did such a good job of turning unlikable people into heroes failed here.  The more Nellie in the show, the less enjoyable the show became.

"Goodbye, Toby" (4x18-19)

There are a lot of great episodes of The Office and a lot of great moments.  There are a few things that make this episode the best.

First, it has Michael Scott at his best and his worst.  We see him being an unreasonable, childish jerk to the put upon Toby.  But we also see him at his vulnerable, likable best when he begins to fall for Holly (Amy Ryan).  

It also has some wonderful moments of office insanity where something as simple as an office party into an overwrought, crazy affair.

But the best part is the running joke about Kevin (Brian Baumgartner).  On the show he plays the typical big, dumb guy.  In this episode Dwight convinces Holly that Kevin is mentally retarded.  What makes this joke go from being awful to being hysterical is how Kevin's typical behavior on the show when seen through that lens, lends itself completely to Holly's belief.  I laughed and laughed.


I have rewatched the entire series of this show several times and each time I find something new or some little joke I never noticed before..  But even deeper than that is the humanity that beats beneath the quirky exterior.  At first the show seemed to be mocking everyday work life.

But as the last line of the series says, "There's beauty in ordinary things.  And in the end, isn't that the point?"

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