Thursday, May 16, 2013

Good bye to The Office but Not Yet


The Office is leaving the airwaves today and I'll try my best to be happy in a state of denial. I haven't watched the 30 Rock finale because, to me, if I haven't watched the end of a series, it technically hasn't happened. I will do the same  for The Office because I'm not ready to say goodbye to that show.

I first saw the British version in the Fall of 2004 when I had transferred to James Madison University as a junior and a suitemate showed me the DVDs. I instantly recognized it as a sharp piece of TV writing that could only exist in the world of British TV. Still at 12 episodes and a holiday special, it was a flash in the pan. Many might argue otherwise but I think that truly great TV coincides with longevity to some extent.

At this time, comedy on TV was in a little bit of a transitional wasteland as Frasier and Friends, the backbones of 90's comedy, had just concluded 10-year runs the past Spring and if you were female (or were unlucky enough to be romantically involved with a female who made you watch) you might also remember the Summer of 2004 as the year Sex and the City ended.

The two most popular shows left were Will and Grace and Everybody Loves Raymond. In other words, a nebbish sportswriter being bossed around by his adult parents and catty gay people (in comparison to Modern Family and Glee's more well-rounded portrayals of gays on TV)  were considered the two best options for entertainment. The next generation of shows like Entourage, Weeds and Curb Your Enthusiasm were starting to gain traction but were relegated to expensive pay-per-view channels. Arrested Development (aka the once and future savior of comedy television) was on but it was being aired at weird times (Friday nights) and it was actively being killed off by Fox. NBC clearly had so little optimism in the future of television that they're main push that Fall was the repackaged spin-off "Joey" and their only other show they had was a cheesy cartoon about lions called "Father of the Pride."

The biggest thing my friends watched was The Cartoon Network's Adult Swim which showed reruns of the newly cancelled shows Family Guy and Futurama. The biggest announcement of the year, in fact, was that that Family Guy was about to be resurrected because of it's Adult Swim popularity. Thus, the biggest TV news was a show being resurrected from the dead and not anything new.

One of the few shows I watched regularly during the 2004-2005 season was 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, not because it was novel but because it was one of the last remaining vestiges of the kind of family-oriented sitcoms I watched in my youth (plus who would have thought David Spade and James Garner would make a convincing comic duo)

When "The Office" premiered a few months later, my curiosity was piqued by Anchorman's scene-stealing Brick Tamland playing the Ricky Gervais role. The first season felt awkward, however, as Dwight was far more exaggerated than MacKenzie Crook's Garreth and Carrell's portrayal of Michael Scottcame off as obnoxious. Michael Scott was wonderfully awkward but he was just too sad of a figure and the disconnect between him and The Office, who would generally shrug him off and snicker behind his back, was too great.

A couple moments showed promise and because it literally was one of the only halfway decent things on TV, I tuned into the second season the next fall. That's when something magical happened.


The plot of the second season premiere had Michael Scott giving the Dundee Awards at the local Chili's. Go back and watch the scene and it's cringe-inducingly awkward. Michael is telling jokes that no one's laughing at, he pisses off Stanley by announcing that the meals aren't comped, poor Ryan's feeling sexually harassed after winning the "sexy temp" award, Kelly isn't laughing (she would later be flanderized to be able to laugh at anything) at the inherent racism at being awarded the spicy curry award. In the first time anyone seriously stands up to Michael, Angela flat-out refuses to accept her  "the tight-ass" award, but the moment seems overly dramatic in context.

To make matters worse, Michael is getting heckled by bar patrons and some of the warehouse guys (including Pam's fiancee Roy) decide the awards are lame and take off. In a moment of poignantly sad self-awareness, Michael realizes when to hang them up and decides to prematurely end the ceremony before things get worse. He gives his last award and just when he's about to sit down in resignation, Pam feels for her boss (who she chastised for being a jerk in the pilot episode) and comes to his rescue. Maybe it's because she's inebriated or because she feels newly liberated from standing up to Roy, but she starts cheering Kevin and egging on Michael to give more awards. The crowd follows suit and even grumpy Stanley cracks a little joke when being awarded. Pam and Jim end the night exclaiming to the documentary crew that this was the best Dundees ever.

The Office had succeeded in being awkward but that was the first time, it succeeded at having heart. It showed Michael Scott had some meaning in the lives of his underlings and that would be the core of the show.  That was when I was hooked and, even as a busy college student, treated the show as must-see viewing each week.
 

The Office changed the way I and all of us viewed TV. Instead of analyzing the show, we would analyze the characters as if they were real people.When I wrote up this ranking of emotional intelligence of the Office characters in my early blog days and posted it to an IMDB message board, it was a subject of endless debate. We weren't debating whether the characters were written well but the actual characters and how well off they were. Psychology students said to me on more than one occasion that they liked to discuss the show's characters because they were so real.

The Office was also visceral. It wasn't just cringeworthy but physiologically affected you: My heart raced, I tensed up, I yelled at the screen, I jumped up and down in anticipation.

As I graduated college after the second season of the show, Dunder-Mifflin shaped my expectations for what I would hope for in a real world office setting. I was hoping for a place where you might be able to loosely call your coworkers your family.


When I got my first office job, I went out to lunch with my new coworkers on the first day and asked "Is this like the Office?" They reacted as if they'd heard that question before and immediately started joking about who would be Jim, who would be Kevin, who would be Dwight, and who would be Kelly Kapur (not the first or last time I've played this parlor game). One of the most welcoming signs that my new job would be at least partially grounded in my experiences watching the Dunder-Mifflin gang was that the head of the payroll had a Dwight Bobble Head doll on her desk.

Like any series, The Office has had its low and high points but I've never seen a show recover from the doldrums so well as when it gave us the Michael Scott Paper Company arc in the 5th season. At the time, Michael's leaps and bounds out of social awkwardness were getting smaller and less interesting, and if ever Michael did do something stupid, it felt somewhat cyclical and contrived because he had likely already made that same mistake before. That's when the show decided to push Michael down and hard out of his comfort zone by having him hastily quit his job and take Ryan and Pam with him. In a world lacking job security, Michael suddenly became relatable.

Even in its blandest seasons (the Robert California one comes to mind), the show has always been capable of surprise which is why there was always good reason to keep watching after Michael Scott left. As film school rejects pointed out, the new developments this season as the Dunder-Mifflin staff learned about its fame made for good commentary about reality TV.
 
The internet and a number of major critics have been abuzz that The Office is not what it once was and its popularity has been greatly eclipsed by Parks and Recreations which has turned into somewhat of a critical darling. I'm thrilled that another Greg Daniels creation is finding an audience but I wouldn't call one ultimately better than the other.

Parks and Recreation and a number of great comedies have taken the airwaves at this point and many of them owe a debt to The Office. That doesn't make it easier to say goodbye to The Office. So enjoy the finale tonight, folks, I'm going to hold off a bit.  

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