An American Sitcom: The End of “The Office”

“The Office” has churned through essentially every imaginable station of sitcom-related public opinion. It has been the ill-advised adaptation of a British classic; the clear and tired rehashing of something we’ve already seen; the surprisingly solid, decent-but-not-great sitcom missing a few pieces; the very, very good sitcom built around a likable burgeoning movie star; the great sitcom of the moment; the show that is on the decline; the sad, former shadow of its former self; the beloved institution; and, finally, the show we’re going to miss, even if we stopped caring about it a few years back.

It appeared in 2005 as a carbon copy, yet another American remake attempting and failing to recreate the magic of a British sitcom. The abbreviated first season — six episodes dumped into the wasteland of March and April — featured a few promising moments, but nothing that augured the greatness to come*. It was merely a derivative show with a few entertaining elements, some likable actors and an interesting documentary-style presentation that made it look and feel different from every other sitcom on television.

(* – Just one example: Amy Adams, who would reappear later, was a bit player in one first season episode, less than a year before her first Oscar nomination and two years before she became a movie star. A future movie star and four-time Oscar nominee, buried right there without much fanfare.)

But when it returned for its second season, “The Office” was a show transformed. Greg Daniels, who created and adapted it (and who has, relatively quietly, racked up a stellar comedy resume: “The Simpsons,” “Saturday Night Live,” “King of the Hill,” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and an episode of “Seinfeld”), found a tone that worked. They largely made this happen by shifting the way they treated the star and central character. Daniels has given a lot of credit for this to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which was a surprise hit betweeen the show’s first and second seasons.

Steve Carell’s Michael Scott went from being a callous, unfeeling ass — basically, he went from being Ricky Gervais a character played by Ricky Gervais — to being a misguided, likable loser. The character himself was endlessly annoying, but he was played beautifully by Carell, who never won an Emmy for the role for reasons passing understanding. He managed to imbue the role with a lovely humanity, with the sense of this being a real person with understandable motivations, frustrations and beliefs.

This is where the show shined. Yes, it brought cringe humor into the mainstream of network television, and it helped bring the mockumentary format to television (paving the way for as-yet-unexplained uses of the format, i.e. “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family”), and its influence can be felt across the entire landscape of televised comedy, etc., etc. The thing that always struck me about this show was that if it wasn’t billed as a comedy, it felt like it could have been (at least early in its run, but more on that in a moment) one of the best dramas on the broadcast networks. These characters felt so lived-in, so real (well, not the likes of Dwight or Creed), less like a sitcom cast and more like a bunch of funny people playing funny characters.

It was this ensemble that often brought “The Office” praise, because even if the main storylines faltered, you could count on something from the supporting cast to warrant a few laughs. Some of these characters did morph into caricatures as time wore on (again, I’ll get to the later seasons issue, promise), but for a long time they felt like people unlike those you’d find on any other sitcom. On “Friends” (or its descendants like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Happy Endings”), characters are always ready with a quip and a quick joke. On “The Office,” the characters made comments that worked because of what we knew about the characters themselves. This wasn’t interchangeable humor; it was character-based.

Of course, the show’s beating heart for a long, long time was the Jim and Pam romance. John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer were great, sure, of course, and the storyline was rather masterfully done. While these characters had little to do in the later years (and I know other people feel they became unlikable, but I never felt that; I just thought they stopped being central and started seeming like they were floating around in search of a purpose or a worthwhile storyline), right up until their wedding and the birth of their first child, they had comedic highs and rather great romantic, dramatic and almost soulful lows. The will-they-or-won’t-they thing has become a bad, overused cliche, but it was one handled perfectly here.

Still, the show’s greatness came from the fact that it felt like it centered on realistic-enough characters in a realistic-enough world. Even when things got cartoonish or — to use a dreaded phrase — too sitcom-y, there was a humanity in the writing and acting that kept it grounded for years. And at one point, for about one year, it was the best single comedy on television and on the short list of the best things on television, period (from early 2006, when “Arrested Development” was on the way out, until early 2007, when “30 Rock” had pretty clearly figured itself out; though your feelings on this may vary because “30 Rock,” like “Arrested Development,” was a rapid-fire joke machine and not terribly comparable to “The Office”).

The importance of Steve Carell at the center of this operation was never more obvious than when he left the show after its seventh season. Everyone seems to have a different opinion of when “The Office” stopped being a great series. My opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is this: It had four seasons where it was either excellent (the second and third seasons) or very, very close to it (the fourth and fifth seasons). The sixth season, though, fell short of those highs. There were occasional episodes that worked (the wedding and birth episodes), but for the most part it began to feel like the show had run out of steam. Storylines were introduced without much thought as to where they would go, and characters began to feel like they were running in place. Nothing about it was bad, nothing about it was offensively stupid, but nothing was great and nothing was really memorable or up to the standards that had been established. The seventh season, which doubled as Carell’s farewell tour, was a similar story: It didn’t live up to what the show had been, but there were some episodes and storylines (the episodes with Amy Ryan’s Holly, for instance, and Steve Carell’s sublime final episode).

The eighth season saw a show attempting to simultaneously focus on its ensemble while also giving us James Spader’s bizarre turn as the company’s CEO and, at the same time, turning Ed Helms’s Andy into the new Michael Scott. It didn’t really work. The show was clearly spent. That’s why the news that it would go off the air was welcomed by fans like me; at the very least, having an endgame in mind could help it go out on a high note. This season has not been the show’s strongest, and it felt just as meandering as the last few years have been.

But as they approached the finish line, there did seem to be a new energy in the storytelling and the actors. Maybe I’m only saying this because I recently shotgunned several episodes in one sitting. I had lost interest right around the time we got to the episode that was a backdoor pilot for a spinoff centered on Dwight (Rainn Wilson) — not enough interest to ditch the season recording or delete the episodes, but whenever I sat down to watch a show, the slowly-accumulating episodes of “The Office” never even entered the discussion. With the finale approaching, my wife and I decided to run through the half-dozen episodes that awaited us, and they were…really enjoyable? Not all of them, nor every storyline, of course. Seemingly every decision the show has made with Andy since Steve Carell left has been ill-advised (it got to the point where, when he missed a stretch of this season to film the third “Hangover,” I couldn’t remember where he was or if he was still dating Erin) (oh, since I mentioned her: Erin, the phenomenal receptionist played by Ellie Kemper, was the best thing about the show’s last four years). Yet the penultimate episode, focusing as it did on the relationships that powered the show when it was at its best (Jim and Pam, Jim and Dwight, Dwight and Angela), worked wonderfully. It reminded me of why I once loved this show and why it was once essential watching. 

Still, the main reason “The Office” still exists is the same reason “Chuck” lasted for five seasons and “Parks and Recreation” is heading for its sixth: It premiered on NBC after “Friends” ended. “The Office” debuted during the 2004-2005 season, NBC’s first without “Friends,” a season that saw the network try “Father of the Pride,” “Committed” and the immortal “Joey.” The network kept churning out new shows that summarily flopped, and so, improbably, they kept having to air shows with dedicated fan bases and relatively meager ratings (namely: “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Community”).  Somewhat improbably, even as it lagged behind pure garbage like “Two and a Half Men,” “The Office” did actually become something resembling a hit for NBC. Its popularity with the all-important 18-to-49 demographic — the only one advertisers care about, because people in that range buy things — and its success in syndication rendered it the unlikely elder statesmen of the NBC comedy world.

Sure, the show isn’t going out at its peak. Few shows do. Maybe they appear briefly as flashes of brilliance and get axed before their time (“Arrested Development,” “Freaks and Geeks,” et al), or they air a few really good years and a few meh ones and then eventually trundle off (“The West Wing”), or — for quite a few shows — they exist, never approaching greatness, filling space for some untold number of years before moving on to do the same thing in syndication. The fact that “The Office” became tepid after its midway point doesn’t lessen just how good it was for those four seasons, the same way the first handful of “Simpsons” seasons will always be among the best things ever created on television, regardless of the fact that nobody remembers a single thing about any “Simpsons” episode produced after 1999. In the long run, these weaker years don’t serve to lessen what came before. It was, and will always be, among the best comedies ever made. Not a bad turnaround for a show nobody thought they wanted.

 

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