Michael Scott had just hit Meredith with his car. Jim and Pam were already together. That’s where I started with The Office.
I don’t normally begin television shows in the middle. In fact, I’m pretty doctrinaire about avoiding spoilers and slogging through a series’ early growing pains to understand the foundation on which later stories and character developments will be built. But a friend had invited me to a watch party for the Season 4 premiere. I was hard pressed to say no.
And it cracked me up.
Oddly enough, some fans point to the fourth season as the beginning of the series’ decline – when it stopped being a realistic if fractured look at modern office life and descended into the wacky adventures of an increasingly cartoonish workforce. But the laughs got my attention. Every week, Michael Scott had some great line that tickled my funny bone until the next episode aired. From something as weird as “You don’t know me; you just saw my penis.” to confused statements like “New ideas are fine, but they’re also illegal.” to the even more whimsical pronouncements like “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!” each episode had more than its fair share of entertaining and quotable bits.
But while the buffoonery of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute drew me in, it was the show’s emotional core – best exemplified by the relationship between Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly – that made the show something special. When I first watched them hold hands and pick out ridiculous items from a garage sale, I had no idea of the strain and struggles the characters had been through to get there. I just saw a cute couple who had a fun repartee and seemed to really enjoy each other’s company. That was what kept me coming back.
The roots of The Office’s slanted yet affectionate take on its subject matter can be found in King of the Hill, another series co-created by Greg Daniels, the key creative personality behind the American adaptation of The Office. Daniels obviously owes a tremendous debt to Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and the writers and actors who made the British version of The Office such a success. But it’s the creative voice that Daniels forged with Mike Judge1 in his animated slice of life in small town Texas that provided the base for the American version of The Office to not only distinguish itself from its English predecessor, but also to thrive on its own terms.
Both shows featured quiet little towns filled with regular, if quirky, denizens, who were far removed from the glitz and glamor of bigger cities. Both featured a certain insularity – a view of the show’s setting (Scranton Business Park for The Office and Arlen, Texas for King of the Hill) – as its own self-contained, occasionally confining, ecosystem. Most of all, both featured and focused on the daily lives of average people simply trying to navigate their day-to-day challenges.
The greatest similarity between the two shows is their scope. Think small. Whether the latest episode’s grand emergency was one of propane or one of paper, neither show had much at stake beyond the characters themselves. The creative focus was always on developing each little facet of a diverse cast of personalities and letting the relationships among them dictate the narrative as the series explored their everyday lives
It comes with that territory that both shows had to fend off accusations that they were too slow or too boring. In reality, both series simply made their hay, as The Office’s finale underscored, by exploring the ordinary.
Despite that fact, the situations portrayed on The Office were far more universal for the typical viewer. It was therefore able to connect with a larger audience in ways that King of the Hill never could.2 Daniels was able to take that same flair for the beauty and honesty of regular people in regular situations that he had explored on King of the Hill and filter it through Gervais’s and Merchant’s vision of a typical workplace.
While not everyone can relate to the quirks of small town Texas, almost everyone has felt like the last sane man in the office.3 Everyone’s had a boss who seemed more than a little off. Everyone’s felt themselves surrounded by coworkers with enough peculiarities to raise eyebrows. Everyone’s had that one ally who seems like the only other person in the building who sees the place for what it is.
That’s a big part of why people connected with The Office, and a big reason why the show was able to continue on despite some creative missteps. People felt like they were Jim or Pam. People felt like they knew Michael, Dwight, Ryan, Kelly, Andy, and Angela. Because each of those characters were endowed with a piece of something very real from the near-universal experience of working in that kind of environment. When that perspective was reflected on screen, with the right blend of ridicule and affection, it was endearing in a way that typical workplace sitcoms barely graze, let alone capture.
That’s why knowing so many spoilers about the show’s major plot points did not dampen my enjoyment or enthusiasm for the show. In contrast to a series like Battlestar Galactica, it really was more about the journey than the destination. The characters, at least in the early goings, were not just likeable, but felt genuine and fully realized. Each episode was an opportunity to check in on some old acquaintances for half an hour. Even when there wasn’t much going on, it was just nice to visit.
That’s a large part of what made it so easy to root for Jim and Pam, even knowing the big payoff to their initial courtship. Some of that ease comes the from the classic setup of a boy pining after a girl whose boyfriend doesn’t truly appreciate her. But a bigger part of it came from the real chemistry that the two characters built in the early seasons of the show.4 Shared pranks around the office, mutual disdain for Michael Scott’s latest folly, and the subtle hints of a deeper connection that peeked through their staid exteriors, made them more that just another TV couple. The strength and veracity of that central relationship was able to sustain the series, often by momentum alone, long after the two finally came together at the end of the third season.
But it also dulled the show a bit. Jim and Pam had always been portrayed as perfect for each other. When they finally got together, there was an initial, tremendous catharsis for three seasons of missed connections. And their repartee as a real couple was still as endearing as ever. But eventually, once the show’s creators had removed the obstacles to their becoming a couple, the audience was left with a less exciting story of two nice people having a mature, adult relationship.
Every time the pair seemed headed for cheap sitcom conflict – an overly-friendly classmate in art school or the compulsive purchase of a home – the show stuck to its guns and had each issue resolved quickly and cleanly in favor of Jim and Pam’s mutual love and understanding.
Instead of sitcom drama, viewers watched the truth – a couple that is fulfilled by their relationship and their everyday lives is not nearly as compelling as the star-crossed lovers separated by the seemingly insurmountable roadblocks to their being together. This holds true even if that peaceful, happy relationship is what those characters are supposed to have been aspiring to. The audience, for better or worse, watched their prince and princess for five seasons past “Happily Ever After.”
It was a Catch-22. Witness the backlash and recriminations when the show finally introduced some real, post-courting conflict between Jim and Pam in the series’ final year. It was, even in the more modest expectations afforded the show’s later seasons, a bit difficult to swallow.5 How do you introduce long-lasting conflict to these people without resorting to eye-rolling sitcom cliches or worse, hurting the core idea of the pairing – that these two people unquestionably belong together.
The beauty of the Jim and Pam relationship is that they were both an ideal, in the sense that they clicked better and had fewer problems than any actual couple ever could, and they were also real. Even when they were kidding around in a grocery store, they felt like genuine human beings who happened to be caught on camera. They were able to connect with so many people because the audience both bought them as real people and rooted for a love that could, in the bounds of a twenty-two minute sitcom, still be perfect.
Their boss, Michael Scott, is more than few clicks shy of perfection however, and he harkens back to another character from a show that Greg Daniels had worked on previously. The Homer Simpson doll carefully placed in the Scranton Branch is no coincidence. The patriarch of Dunder Mifflin and the patriarch of The Simpsons have much in common.
Both can be inappropriate; both can be exceedingly thoughtless and self-centered; both can have a surprising amount of competency when the situation calls for it, and both are, at heart, well-meaning idiots. Both Michael and Homer love their families and hope for the best for all of them, even if they don’t quite understand the means to achieve that or fully comprehend how their “children” see them.
That’s what gave Michael Scott a leg up on David Brent, his counterpart from the UK series. While Brent’s antics might have become grating beyond the baker’s dozen of episodes the original series ran, Steve Carell imbued the character of Michael Scott a great deal of heart and with a sense of vulnerability underpinning the bravado, that helped sustain the show for the seven seasons he headlined it.
And that’s what I keep coming back to with The Office. Heart. Television is full of “found families.” Sitcoms, especially workplace sitcoms, begin to run out of steam when their edge and excitement falter in favor of a lovefest. The Office went a good long while without descending into that. In fact, that was almost the point.
Michael was obsessed with the idea of the office as his family. Until Holly came along, he could not come to terms with the fact that these were just people who worked together, many of whom were not necessarily his biggest fans. It was, after all, just an office. But gradually, over the course of several years, the employees began to have affection for each other – not love – affection, even for Michael.
They were a family in a much different sense than the feelgood huggery of an 80’s sitcom or even the closer ties of the group on Community. They were people who had been in each other’s company for a number of years, and in that time, developed a certain arms-length camaraderie. That was more than enough.
That’s also why the “heart” worked. It wasn’t shoved in your face. It wasn’t out in the open. It wasn’t made the focus of the entire show. It would pop up in unexpected places: a surprisingly sweet peptalk from Michael to Jim on the booze cruise, a reluctant Jim consoling Dwight after a breakup with Angela, a touched Pam hugging Michael after he expresses his appreciation for her art. It was also bolstered by the show’s many slow-burning friendships between characters like Andy and Darryl, Stanley and Phyllis, or Angela and Oscar.
When I think of The Office, I’ll certainly remember the show’s biggest moments: the kiss at the end of Casino Night, the various proposals and weddings, Michael’s fond farewell. I’ll also remember the show’s comedic high points: Jim’s elaborate pranks, Michael’s numerous inappropriate responses, Dwight’s hilariously overzealous sycophantry,6 and the many enjoyable quips from the show’s deep bench of great characters.
But what I’ll remember most are those little, real moments. The moments that felt genuinely captured by the faux-documentary crew rather than staged for a T.V. sitcom. The moments where you felt a real, often surprising affection for a set of characters that may have made you cringe five minutes prior.
We related to these characters. We liked these characters. And in some ways we felt like we knew these characters, from similar experiences in our own lives and from detailed personalities sketched out over nine seasons. There was a kernel of truth at the core of each character in the series, and in the end, that’s why it’s so hard to see them all go and what made The Office one of the best shows on television.
- Judge co-created King of the Hill, and was the driving force behind cultural touchstones like Beavis and Butthead as well as one of my personal favorite comedies, Office Space.↵
- Despite running for thirteen seasons, given its ratings and paucity of real estate in the public consciousness, King of the Hill was never really a hit. That fact notwithstanding, I would argue that it’s one of the more underrated shows in the past twenty years.↵
- Having grown up in a smaller Texas city, the trials and travails of Hank Hill and his compatriots resonated pretty strongly with me. I knew people like that. I could easily place those personalities and situations, however exaggerated, in past experience. I maintain that King of the Hill is still funny and at times heartwarming even if you lack that frame of reference, but not quite as endearing without it.↵
- Comparing the UK and US versions of The Office is like comparing a short story to a novel. It’s unfair and the two are trying to accomplish different things in the same medium. Despite that admission, and as someone who likes both series, I still find Jim and Pam’s journey more satisfying than Tim and Dawn’s, if only because the former had more time and space to develop their story.↵
- I didn’t want this column to be a referendum on the The Office’s last season, but it’s fair to say that there were many issues with execution, not just with the idea of the conflict, that rightfully rankled fans of the show. I would still posit that several waves of writers on the series foresaw the hornets’ nest they would be poking with any attempt at discord between Jim and Pam.↵
- I feel bad that Dwight’s gotten the short shrift in this piece. Let it be said that Rainn Wilson brought the perfect tone to a character who could have easily become lost in caricature. Even when the show made the character (and the show as a whole) wackier and wackier over time, Wilson always brought Dwight back down to earth with his performances both comedic and dramatic. He deserves all the accolades he’s received for being a vital part of the show’s success over the past nine years.↵