After a hard day at work, there is no better way to relax than by relaxing at a coffee table and watching TV. What better way to get your mind off the job you just left than to watch a TV series?
Except for The Office. NBC’s mockumentary sitcom, which concludes its ninth and final season on Thursday, flipped the TV-as-a-distraction-from-real-life paradigm by setting the action in precisely the type of workplace many people long to escape. This clever gambit proved to be a success and showed that a weekly TV show can be the ideal medium for telling stories about the current work culture.
The show is set in Scranton in Pennsylvania in the office of an almost obsolete paper company. At first, the characters didn’t grow but remained static. These people were only passing time, one long meeting at a.m., just like their dead-end jobs. Reality TV shows stories about narcissists who are even more prominent than they appear on the screen, and The Office helped viewers feel better about their professional lives. It showed a workplace that had a more boring decor and had more irritating coworkers.
Season One was a six-episode series that premiered in spring 2005. It tried to imitate the tone of the British series with the same name. It didn’t translate well. However, the creators of the Renewed TV Shows found a new voice by season two. It was a more positive take on work and daily life than the British series. The result was two of the most memorable seasons of television comedy history.
The show was a white-collar escape from the daily grind. It created funny and meaningful stories out of office-worker problems. Lagging sales threaten Dunder-Mifflin Scranton’s existence. Jim, an underutilized salesman, discovers that the company branch manager is just as interested in selling paper as he is in playing video games. Ryan, a hopeful temp worker, quickly learns that his boss doesn’t have much to teach him about modern business. Stanley Hudson described his workday to a colleague by saying, “This is an emergency.”
The second and third seasons of The Office also explored the trials that can arise when people share the same space because of necessity, rather than choice, but try to make meaningful social connections. Jim and Pam’s unavoidable, but innocent, flirtations became an unstoppable romantic force. Michael’s inability of taking the temperature of the room was a sign that he wanted to be loved; Dwight’s gruff facade couldn’t conceal the fact that he would be lost without his coworkers.
The Office was always doomed in this regard. Its original theme, office work is a sucky job, was only funny if its characters don’t grow. The early episodes were so dryly funny and relatable because the names and seasons of the meetings changed but the paper-pushing remained unchanged. Just another cog-in-the-wheel syndrome only engenders pathos if the wheel spins indefinitely and the cogs stay put. Writers can’t use “Office Olympics” or awkward sexual harassment training sessions to create bonding experiences. This is to show how far white-collar drones will go to survive another day. Television is a place where things must change.
So the Office developed characters and their stories outshone the show’s emphasis on survival in a corporate environment. The show struggled to move from a story about a dysfunctional workplace to a comedy set in an office by Season 5. The series was subject to many changes, as characters changed and moved on, but the creators tried to keep it relevant. The episodes began to focus on the lives of individual colleagues (like Dwight’s adventures at his beet farm) as well as their relationships outside the office (like Angela’s relationship with a state senator). These plot twists were good for character development but they removed the focus from everyday paper salesmanship, which can be boring, and did not produce the same effective situational humor. The Office was often seen as the shell of something once wonderful throughout its long fall. This is perhaps why Ricky Gervais decided to end his Office after just three seasons.
The Office is ending soon. The writers explored new territory in the final season by allowing one of their characters to interact with a member of the fictional crew that has been filming Dunder Mifflin for many years. This raises questions about the reality of transforming real life into a TV show. Dunder Mifflin employees were shocked to see some promotional footage for the documentary The Office: An American Workplace. It’s not surprising that these relatable, modern characters feel violated in a culture that allows us to control our narratives through the curation and updating of status updates on social media. This storyline was innovative and refreshing, but it was too late in the show’s life to save it. Perhaps, another, younger mockumentary ( Parks and Recreation?) will emerge. The fourth wall will be shattered.
While there have been many great sitcoms with similar formats since 2005, few have achieved the creative heights The Office once did. The show’s early seasons featured compelling stories about how a performance review session can lead to a part of the soul dying. They also maximized the humor, storytelling, and timing of every frame. The Office leaves us with memories of TV comedy at its best, even though it didn’t live up to its pioneering explorations of contemporary workplace culture in its later seasons.