The Office – The Best Show You’re Not Watching

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“Downsizing? I have no problem with that. I have been recommending downsizing since I first got here. I even brought it up in my interview. I say, bring it on.”
– Dwight Schrute

You need to watch The Office.

First a disclaimer. Despite the fact that I post regular observations on 24 and Lost, I’m not a couch potato. I have a handful of shows that I’ve dubbed ‘Must See’ (the aforementioned shows as well as Alias, My Name is Earl and Scrubs) – yet I don’t care to learn the Eight Simple Rules for Dating Your (My) Daughter or hear about How You (I) Met Your Mother. Including The Office, that totals six shows that I watch on a constant basis or 4.5 hours of television a week. If they’re not on, I’m not watching. I don’t channel surf or wander the dial. Maybe it’s all those years of bouncing back-and-forth from scrambled Spice Channel to static-soaked Skinemax in pursuit of pixelated porn that has rendered me numb to the habit. If my show isn’t on – and I’m in the need for a trivial pursuit – I’ll boot up the 360, catch up on my web news or (shocker) commune with the family.

When The Office began its midseason run last year on NBC – for a six-episode arc – I didn’t heed the call. I knew it starred Steve Carrell (from Comedy Central’s Daily Show) who I thought stole the show in Anchorman; and that the series was based on the British-version pioneered by Ricky Gervais. The series’, both American remake and British import, use the same premise. A documentary crew takes up residence in the unassuming offices of a mid-level paper company (Dunder-Mifflin) and proceeds to film the every day events that unfold in corporate America. Think of it as heir apparent to that great, underrated Mike Judge flick – Office Space.

Simply put, this is the smartest scripted comedy on television, backed up by an expert ensemble that plays their parts in a naturalistic, yet slightly skewed light that rings true with anyone who has ever glanced across a cubicle wall at some bizarre denizen sitting mere feet away. Yup, every office park has their own Gollum. The Office has Dwight.

This is a difficult post to write as I’m essentially pleading with anyone who hasn’t moved into The Office to check it out, yet I don’t want to list a litany of Top Ten Funniest Moments. You just gotta’ believe me without seeing any of the evidence in advance. So much of what is funny on-screen loses it’s power when transcribed – especially since so much of this comedy depends on the cast members underplaying all the little throwaway lines, glances and asides. In fact, in the season finale, one of the funniest moments came in a quick 3-second talking head shot where the talking head didn’t say a word, but their reaction spoke volumes. (Keeping with the documentary vibe – the show often employs ‘talking head commentaries’ on what may have played out moments before.)

The soul of the show is in a great interoffice romance (the B Plot) that is truly ripped from the headlines in that similar situations play out in office parks every day. While Steve Carrell’s Michael may draw the most attention, it’s in the flirtatious friendship between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) where we find the show’s throbbing heart.

We’ve all seen television attempts at getting the viewer to invest in the interpersonal relationships shared by our favorites. There’s even a slang term for those fans who demand coitus among characters – ‘shippers’ – as in ‘relationshippers.’ I first heard the phrase coined in the heady days of The X-Files when Mulder was macking on Scully something fierce – trying to get her to invest in an IUD while searching for EBEs.

And then, of course, there’s the Ross-Rachel courtship on Friends – which set the barometer for canned studio audience collective gasps off the charts when Schwimmer burst into Central Perk and laid one on the former Mrs. Pitt.

But the romances between Ross and Rachel, Mulder and Scully, David and Maddy or Cagney & Lacey never played out as anything more compelling than a dramatic device of the teleplay. There was never the depth and warmth and sense of mystery and excitement so intrinsic towards selling the simulated courtship – that made us demand these two ships find safe harbor together.

That’s what makes the romance on The Office so compelling. These characters transcend the idea of a television character. They feel like people we know and work with. The interoffice dynamics play out as slightly off-kilter variations of the clockwatching so many of my fellow office drones engage in every day. Most likely, it’s the documentary aesthetic that lends such gravitas to Jim and Pam – but the exemplorary writing and acting go a long way towards selling the drama.

Make no mistake, The Office is out and out a comedy, as subversively hilarious as the best of The Simpsons (both shows share a show runner in Greg Daniels) – but there is that core romance that just ties the room together.

Although I mentioned that I did not want to cite chapter and verse from any specific episode, I have to lend massive props to Steve Carrell for his teleplay ‘Casino Night’ which served as the Season 2 finale. His episode focused on the office’s annual Casino Night charity event, held within the dank confines of the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Supply warehouse. Carrell used the idea of a casino night to underscore the large bets being wagered in the key character’s personal lives – most notably in the character of Jim. Jim has had enough of his innocent flirtation with Pam and the sideline reporting of her impending nuptials to her Cro-Magnon high school squeeze – and decides he had to place his bets ‘all in’ and skip the cute innuendo with Pam in favor of telling her straight up how he feels.

In the closing minutes of the show, Jim encounters Pam, who is beaming from a successful night of high rolling and brings reality crashing right back in with a heartbreaking confessional:

Jim:  I was just….I am in love with you.

Pam: (hesitant to reveal her true feelings) What?
 
Jim: (tears in his eyes) I’m really sorry if that’s weird for you to hear, but I needed you to hear it.

Pam:   What are you doing? What do you expect me to say to that?

Jim:   I just needed you to know. Once.

Any other show – we end right there. See ya’ next Fall. Instead, we cut to the darkened offices of Dunder-Mifflin. The camera spies Pam (long shot – through a set of blinds – speaking of which – what’s the documentary film crew doing stalking the offices after hours?) Pam is on the phone with her Mom, tearfully recounting the conversation with Jim. We eavesdrop on one side of the conversation. She tells her Mom what Jim said. She tells her Mom “he’s my best friend.” She then finishes with a reply to some off-screen query: “Yeah, I think I am.” (I think I am what? In love with him?!?!?) At that moment Jim steps from the shadows – walks up to her – and kisses her. She kisses back.

And we fade out for the summer.

I’m gonna’ call it right now.

Best filmed kiss ever!!!

I know I sound like some giggly school girl – but I’ve gotta’ give credit where credit is due. Carrell’s script got to me. It was hysterically funny and beautifully moving. I knew he was a funny guy – but who knew he could handle the amore with such a deft, delicate touch.

So I implore you, give this show a chance. Grab the DVDs – Season 1 (six eps) is already on shelves and Season 2 will be released this summer. That’s the beauty of TV on DVD – you can catch up on everthing you missed. In fact, I got a backlog of the entire Are You Being Served catalog staring me in the face. I mean, they must have produced six or seven episode in that show’s illustrious 13-year run on the BBC. I don’t know when I‘ll find the time.

Look into The Office. While you’re at it, grab Freaks and Geeks too. More on that one at a later date.

P.S. That shot at the top – that’s Exhibit A of Michael Scott’s mad Photoshop skills.

“What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It’s the people. The *people*. My proudest moment here wasn’t when I increased profits by 17%, or cut expenditure without losing a single member of staff. No, no, no ,no. It was a young Guatamalan guy, first job in the country, hardly spoke a word of English, but he came to me and he went “Mr Scott, will you be the Godfather to my child?” Didn’t work out in the end. We had to let him go. He sucked.”
– Michael Scott

Comments now closed (6)

  • What’s scary is the parallels between me and Michael Scott. First we had the ep where the employees find his ‘screenplay’ in his desk and stage a dramatic reading of it – then we have the ID photo episode where everyone is so pissed at the end of the episode, that Michael resorts to PhotoShop to complete the company photo. Anyone who knows me has seen my screenplays and been subjected to my mad Photoshop skillz. Could be worse. Could be Dwight.

  • It’s definitely one of the better shows on TV, but it pales in comparison to the BBC version with Ricky Gervais. Steve Carell is good, but Ricky Gervais’ boss comes across as more likeable in his own painfully awkward, boorish way.

    Plus, he gave us “Free love on the free love freeway”. A classic.

  • Jen – spare us your Anglo-centric bias. I’d like to toss it in the drink alongside the tea we liberated off ye’ olde bloody bastards so many glorious years ago.

    I’d like to agree with you but I sat through one episode of the original BBC version and I couldn’t make out one word they said. Geez – is it too much to ask that they speak English?

  • And did the British version give us that stellar Photoshopped office portrait?

    That’s a classic!!!

  • I think the point of the boss is to not like him. Well, maybe that’s just the American version, but it’s funnier to think Michael is pure jackass and see what stupidity he comes up with next.

    Jim makes the show. The romance with Pam is good and all, but it is the harassment of Dwight that makes him great. That and the looks and expressions he gives the documentary crew. I thought it was great how they played up the jinx game he and Pam play and he couldn’t speak for most of the episode.

    I watched all the episodes last year and enjoyed it. I thought the first few this year started off slow, so I gave up on it even though it was following Earl. Ed encouraged me to pick it back up again, so I think I missed two episodes, but I did catch one in re-run. I have to agree with Ed, it’s a weekly must-see. Consistent laugh-out-loud moments every week.