TV's Best of the Decade: No. 15 -- 'The Office'
After the 'Coupling' debacle, it's amazing NBC attempted another UK remake. Well played.
How successful was NBC's formula for "The Office"? It was later lifted for a British series, containing almost all of the same characters and elements. Of course, as so often happens, the British remake was much less successful and was cancelled after only 12 episodes, which must have been extra frustrating since "Tim" and "Dawn" (the British names for Jim and Pam) didn't even have time to hook up, much less get married.
Tee-hee. That was fun.
In college, when Gus Van Sant remade "Psycho," one of our film editors at the school paper thought that it would be funny to write an entire fabricated review from the point-of-view of an undergrad sorority girl who went to "Psycho" because she thought Vince Vaughn was cute and wasn't even aware that there was an Alfred Hitchcock original. If memory serves, we didn't get a single letter or e-mail setting us straight.
When approaching the American version of "The Office" and trying to explain why it stands as one of the very finest comedies of the Aughts, there are three very obvious ways of attacking the material.
As encapsulated by Sepinwall: There's "Getting a Remake Right" or "Successfully Resolving Sexual Tension" or "The Greatness of the Mockumentary Format."
Now, I can add "Pretending To Be Stupid and Thinking That NBC's 'Office' Was the Original."
Unfortunately, I'm probably going to end up mostly talking about The Big Three when I explain why "The Office" stands at No. 15 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade... They may be cliches, but they're cliches for a reason.
From the top...
Getting a Remake Right
"The Office" launched on NBC in 2005 with a pilot that was nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the Ricky Gervais original. It was a strategy that proved how little NBC had learned from the recap of "Coupling," which tanked immediately using the same gimmick.
By the second episode, though, the NBC "Office" began to find its own voice, not that "Diversity Day" sent the show off for smooth sailing for the rest of its run. It took a while for Greg Daniels and the writing staff to find the ways in which Steve Carell's Michael Scott wasn't David Brent, the ways Rainn Wilson's Dwight wasn't Gareth, the ways Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) weren't Tim and Dawn. While others might say that things clicked earlier (or later), I think you can point to the middle-of-Season-Two trilogy of "Christmas Party," "Booze Cruise" and, particularly, "The Injury" as the point where you no longer found yourself thinking of "The Office" as "The New Office."
Is it a coincidence that that turning point took place within a few episodes of "The Office" surpassing the total episode haul for the British original? Probably not. The British "Office" was basically a two-scribe affair, with Ricky Gervais turning around 14 half-hours (including the Christmas Special) over two-and-a-half years. With the American "Office," Daniels assembled a team of writers so overwhelmingly talented that there wasn't enough room to contain them behind the camera, turning people like Mindy Kaling, B.J. Novak and Paul Lieberstein into that rarest of double-threats, Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild nominees.
But being a writer wasn't mandatory for seeing your part expand from background scenery into a valuable piece of the Dunder-Mifflin ensemble. Over 100-plus episodes, we've had the chance to actually embrace Stanley (Leslie David Baker) and Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) and Angela (Angela Kinsey) and Phillis (Phyllis Smith) and Meredith (Kate Flannery) and Creed (Creed Bratton) and Oscar (Oscar Nunez) and Daryl (Craig Robinson) and when more recognizable guest stars and supporting players like Ed Helms, Rashida Jones and Amy Ryan entered, they just blended right in, even if they also happened to be starring in major motion pictures or basking in the glow of an Oscar nomination.
And talk about making the most of potentially only seconds of screentime! Some of my favorite moments from the show's run have included Kevin's chili recipe, Stanley's reaction to Pretzel Day, a slew of drunken Meredith indiscretion and nearly every word out of Creed's mouth.
The British "Office" with its limited run, just didn't have the time to create a universe this big and this versatile. The best way to do a remake right, then, is to give your remake its own life as quickly as possible. NBC's "The Office" did that in spades.
Successfully Resolving Sexual Tension
The new "Office" team pushed hard on the Jim-and-Pam relationship right from the beginning, skipping the endless teasing around Tim-and-Dawn. I'm not saying which choice was better, more subtle or more effective, just noting that a choice was made that viewers were going to want to root for Jim and Pam to be happy and we did, almost immediately, thanks to Fischer and Krasinski.
The writers pushed the relationship to a head in the "Casino Night" episode, one of several highlights written by Carell. The show then imposed enough roadblocks and complications to last part of a season before deciding to just commit. Even with a temporary separation last season and a few minor fights and roadblocks, Jim and Pam have been together and happy for a long time and in a very good hour-long block, they were married this season. The writers just weren't interested in turning "The Office" into the "Jim and Pam Will They Or Won't They?" show. It was a model that many more shows should probably take, rather than just escalating the tease, year after year. If your characters are meant to be together, get them together and worry about the consequences as you go. Don't fabricate hallucinations or dream sequences as a way of condescending to your fanbase. And if the characters *weren't* meant to be together, don't squish them together just because they're of the opposite gender and they share screentime together. Yes, "House" and "Bones," I'm looking at you. And yes, "The Big Bang Theory," I'm eying you warily in case you decide that just because Kaley Cuoco and Jim Parsons have comic chemistry together, they may someday, in a moment of creative desperation, have to get paired up.
Jim and Pam have become the heart of the show, another thing that has permitted the supporting players to remain wacky and allowed Michael Scott to frequently be unrepentantly unchangeable. The best evidence of how valuable Jim and Pam have become came in the "Mafia" episode this season, when their honeymooning absence seemed to single-handedly cripple the episode (both creatively and for the characters).
Total number of Emmy wins for Fischer? Zero. Yes, she has a nomination (only one), but I still cry "Shenanigans!"
The Greatness of the Mockumentary Format
This is the one that's hardest to defend because the mockumentary format adds almost nothing to "Modern Family" and, in the first six episodes, nearly crippled "Parks and Recreation" with its uselessness.
While it's mostly been used for off-handed humor, with Jim breaking the fourth wall over and over again, the writers have occasionally found new ways to utilize the documentary crew's access, or lack thereof, to depict emotional moments in unexpected ways. One need only look at Jim's gas station proposal to Pam, seemingly shot from across a freeway, to see the technique at its very finest.
For reasons best understood by everyday TV audiences, viewers seem to appreciate the mockumentary format, or at least they seem to find it preferable to the straight-forward single-camera aesthetic. Maybe it's because the mockumentary format gives characters who might otherwise be unlikable the chance to let down their guard and explain themselves to the audience? Maybe there's the extra wink-and-nudge of characters acknowledging the format's artifice? Maybe that's why people other than just critics tolerate Michael Scott, but could never warm up to the Bluth Family on "Arrested Development"? I can't say for sure.
So that's my explanation of the greatness of "The Office" as filtered through the Big Three.
In the end, I appreciate that the show has decided it doesn't need to be the same thing every week. The two-part Wedding episode this season was big, broad humorous moments. It wanted you to laugh out loud and root for these characters, even in moments of awful embarrassment, like Michael's revealing wedding toast. But for several episodes last season, the Michael Scott Paper Company Arc, "The Office" decided it almost wanted to be one of those Showtime or HBO shows that are classified as comedies because they run 30 minutes, even if they aren't actually comedies at all. The Michael Scott Paper Company Arc was all about revealing character details and, in the process, it led to possibly series-best work from Carell, Fischer and Novak. Those episodes realigned the characters and set up new dynamics that are still paying off this season, but at the time people wondered why "The Office" wasn't funny and why Stringer Bell was being so hard on Jim.
Similarly, I don't know if the impending bankruptcy of Dunder-Mifflin is likely to be hilarious, but the show has earned the ability to look at some of the realities of our current economic crisis in a way that doesn't cheapen the millions of people who have lost jobs of this nature in the downturn. The mid-November "Shareholder Meeting" was almost cathartic in its outrage at corporate largesse and it also had a few laughs.
While not spectacularly popular overall, the strength of "The Office" in the core 18-49 demo shows that younger viewers are growing more and more ready to accept ambiguity in their comic tone, that they'll wait through the darker, character-driven episodes for the brighter, pratfall-heavy installments.
And that's why the British decided to steal the format!
Anyway, that's why "The Office" is No. 15 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? "The Odd Couple" for the Aughts? It's probably the cheapest and least popular show on this list...