Thursday, May 16, 2013

Everything I have to say about "The Office"

I was 17 when the first season of "The Office" came out. I remember the advertisements on NBC. Starring Steve Carell with... unknowns. Seriously. Rainn Wilson? John Krasinski? Jenna Fischer? Who are these people? Now I can't imagine a world without Stanley, Kevin, Oscar, Angela... let alone Jim and Pam.

But, let's go back to that first season. Here's the thing... I refused to watch it. I had already bought the first season of the UK version of The Office with Ricky Gervais and I thought it was hilarious. Drop dead hilarious. I later got my hands on season 2 and the Christmas Special and I was a genuine fan of the UK Office. Now NBC is going to try to remake it? Give me a break.

Steve Carell's star was just rising at that point. I remembered him mostly from The Daily Show and his roles in Anchorman and Bruce Almighty. There's no doubting he was very funny, but this was before he really broke out with "The 40 Year Old Virgin" which came out later that summer. So, to me, the US Office really had no chance. More established actors have failed in that position Carell was in. What was he going to bring to that regional manager position?

Of course, what I failed to realize at the time was a few things. First of all, Greg Daniels was spearheading this American Office. I did not know who that was nor did I care at the time, but if I had done my research I would have felt much better. This is the guy who co-created "King of the Hill," wrote for "SNL" during the late '80s, and was a writer on "The Simpsons" for a few years. This guy had solid credentials, later solidified even further with "Parks and Recreation."

But the other thing I did not realize was how easy it was to adapt the British Office into American sensibilities. After all, they wound up becoming two very different shows even if they started very similarly. The pilot episode of the American Office was almost a carbon copy of the British series. Almost to a tee.

Come to think of it, it's almost amazing how much I revered the UK Office because it only lasted 14 episodes. While Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant did a remarkable job of making the show re-watchable, Greg Daniels and his team of writers were able to really expand on what Gervais/Merchant started. Even if you think the American show lost its luster after the third season, that's still about 50 episodes right there. Fifty episodes of solid television.

And it's to my opinion that the show, honestly, was pretty damn good until around season 6. The moments Dunder Mifflin became Sabre was when it started to crumble for me. The show was barely getting by making Jim Halpert co-manager but the wedding episode and baby episode were very memorable even if it all kinda entered "Friends" territory. NBC desperately wanted those episodes to be "Friends" moments, no doubt. But "The Office" could never be the ratings juggernaut "Friends" was. Why? I don't know, but it just couldn't. It still had solid ratings throughout its run and has remained one of the few bright spots, ratings-wise, in NBC's lineup. But, "The Office" wasn't the "event" type of show like "Cheers,"  "Seinfeld." and "Friends" were. I consider "The Office" to be among the best shows of the 2000s, but we all know that the finale isn't going to have gangbuster-like ratings. It's never been that kind of show. But you know what? It never needed to be.

Indeed, "The Office" was a show that hit its peak very quickly. That first season had the difficult task of living up to its British counterpart, but when the second season rolled around it very quickly forgot that there ever was a British counterpart. Instead, the show's writers were giving us reasons to care about Jim/Pam, and making us love and hate Michael Scott. Some say Jim and Pam's "will they/won't they" storyline was what carried those early seasons, but if Michael Scott's character did not work, the show would've fallen apart. Steve Carell never won an Emmy for his performance as the clueless boss, but he should have. He wasn't as mean as David Brent, but that was exactly what made him work. He was a moron, but only because he was so lonely. Once you realized, "wow, Michael Scott really thinks the office is like his family," it really started to make sense. In fact, the character of Michael Scott wound up becoming so rich that when Carell abruptly left towards the end of season 7, it just wasn't the same. Some thought the supporting characters could pick up the slack with the help of Will Ferrell and, later, James Spader. But, if anything, they just reminded us how valuable Steve Carell was. When you watch those first seven seasons, even the latter two seasons which weren't as good, that comfort of seeing Michael Scott, you can feel that. The show simply worked when Michael Scott was there. Not every episode revolved around Michael Scott, but Steve Carell was able to blend goofiness and stupidity while simultaneously remaining lovable. He did it so well that we took him for granted. The other characters took him for granted. The look on their faces when Michael announces that he's moving to Colorado with Holly seals it. They were silent. "I wish Michael would leave," soon became "What? You CAN'T leave!"

There was something about Jim and Pam, though, wasn't there? The funny thing, and this might be tough to admit, but their love story actually indirectly mirrors Ross and Rachel in "Friends." Ross longs for Rachel all throughout season 1. Then Ross gets a girlfriend and suddenly Rachel longs for Ross in season 2. Then they wind up together. Of course, then they broke up and "Friends" went back and forth with this couple over and over again. With "The Office," the feeling is a bit more mutual from the get-go, but Jim, as Phyllis would say it "really had it bad for" Pam. I mean, watch those season 2 episodes again. It's all too evident. And it's not that Pam didn't feel the same, it's that she couldn't find the courage to get out of her relationship with Roy. That relationship that seemed as if it would never go anywhere. They're engaged but forget about getting married. They used to have a date set, but now they don't. Roy kept messing with Pam's emotions, but she stuck with him because she was loyal. Still, she couldn't ignore the attention Jim gave her everyday.

What made that second season so great was those emotional climaxes. Whether it was the "Booze Cruise" or "Casino Night," the writers did such an amazing job of having all these little storylines, but bringing the Jim/Pam storyline to center stage when it mattered most. That moment with Jim and Pam on that boat where they are just staring at each other in silence is one of my favorite moments in TV. It said everything about what they felt about each other, but nothing was actually said.

And of course, "The Dundies" signaled the escalation of their relationship when Pam started drinking a little too much and got a little too hands-on with Jim. She was acting on her impulses. It's as if she always had the impulse to kiss Jim or to say what she felt, but just couldn't. Remember when she said, "I have a question" but followed that with "...I just wanted to say thanks"? Those little moments are what made season two such a joy to watch. And as that season continued, Jim's frustration and the inability for Pam to break it off with Roy continued to mount the tension until "Casino Night" when they finally kissed. What should have been a special moment was mired by the fact that it was simply too late... Pam's getting married to Roy, Jim's going to Stamford. It felt real at that moment. No, it's not in Pam's character to suddenly break off her marriage just like that. Remember in "Frasier" when Daphne literally left the altar to be with Niles? Yeah, that was the moment I stopped watching "Frasier." Things like that don't just happen in the world of "The Office". That was reflected very accurately in that episode.

Then the writers did a smart move. Pam does break it off with Roy, but in between seasons 2 and 3. Now Pam's single, but Jim's in Stamford. And thus begins my all-time favorite season of "The Office." The season where the show really made its peak. Season 3 was so much more complex than season 2 and yet it was equally hilarious. At first, it juggled Jim's situation in Stamford with the office in Scranton. Then, it ingeniously integrated the Stamford branch with the Scranton branch, something that was signaled during the first two seasons. The writers made it work. And they added a major character in the mix: Andy Bernard. Karen Fillipelli was also a great character and it's a shame that her character was toast once Jim broke it off with her because Karen was never a villain. Karen was a hard-working careerwoman who understandably developed a crush on Jim. Because Jim is adorable. Who, other than Angela, wouldn't have a crush on Jim? He's just that kinda guy.

Karen, I'm sure, had too much self respect and control to wind up having a thing for a guy at her office. But of course Jim had to come around and ruin that for her. One wonders what would have happened if Scranton and Stamford had never merged. Would Jim and Karen have gotten married? Would Jim eventually be able to forget about Pam? When Jim's buddies in Philadelphia offered him a job that would finally get him out of Dunder Mifflin, would Karen have stuck by his side the entire time? I think so. Karen, it seems, is much more independent than Pam is. She liked Jim, a lot, but she still wanted to move up in her career. And I'm sure if she was married to Jim, she'd want him to be successful too. Would Jim have gotten more out of that relationship? Maybe. But, of course, that's just speculation. As fate would have it, Jim and Pam were simply meant to be together and Jim was meant to be at Dunder Mifflin for as long as Pam's there... until the series finale.

I love season 3 because adding Karen to the proceedings made the tension between Jim and Pam even more palpable. Now Pam is the one actively pining for Jim and Jim is the one stuck in a relationship with someone else. Some of my favorite moments of season 3 are actually between Jim and Michael Scott. The moment were Jim and Michael are sitting together at the Christmas party and Michael is lamenting having lost the Benihana server, the two have a nice little moment together with Jim assuring Michael that she was just a rebound, with words that strongly implicate his feelings towards his own relationship with Karen. It's nice at the beginning, but soon you just go back to thinking about the one who broke your heart.

Jim and Michael Scott had a lot of great little moments like that together. In season 2 on the "Booze Cruise" when Michael flat out tells Jim not to give Pam up. And that hilarious episode "The Secret" when Michael starts imitating Jim's looks, wanting so badly to be his best friend. Then in season 3 at "The Convention" where Jim shows up at Michael's hotel room and they have another heart-to-heart regarding Jim's feelings towards Pam. Those moments were what really showed a lot about Michael's character. Michael was, as a matter of fact, someone you could confide in if you got to him at the right moment. When his guard is finally down and he's not too concerned with being the entertainer all the time, he's able to really show that extra dimension to his character.

Season 3 inevitably ends with Jim and Pam finally ending up together. It's a great moment when Jim interrupts Pam's interview in the conference room and asks her out. Her tears felt so real, it's hard not to get choked up while watching it. It's a vast improvement than in the pilot episode. Jenna Fischer has wound up becoming such a wonderful actress, but when Michael fake fires her in the pilot episode, it wasn't Jenna's finest moments. Her cries and her "You're a jerk!" line just felt flat and a little too forced. But watching her in that final moment of season 3 will make your forget about that pilot episode instantly.

The writers didn't seem to know what to do with Jim/Pam afterwards. There was never that tension anymore after season 3. Jim and Pam from seasons 4-5 were a young couple in love. With a show built so much on this emotional tension between the two characters, having them finally get together felt like a let down. The writers never managed to get that tension back. There was no merger. Nobody was leaving anybody. You had Dwight breaking up with Angela, but over a bunch of silliness. While Rainn Wilson had a lot of great moments and Dwight's character really started to be more three-dimensional in season 4, you simply didn't care as much about the Dwight/Angela storyline. The Andy/Angela/Dwight love triangle had a lot of laughs, but it wasn't until Michael/Holly in season 5 where you started to realize what made the show so unique.

The show's greatest strength has always been its romance. Those real moments between characters that go past typical sitcom tropes. Michael had relationships before Holly, but his relationship with Jan was too farcical to have any emotional resonance. But with Holly, he really seemed to have found his match. But after six episodes, Holly was gone. Gone way too fast. That was a huge mistake. While Holly leaving lead to some nice moments, like at the end of "Business Trip" where Michael unloads at David Wallace for forcing Holly to transfer to Nashua. I loved that moment because that was one of the few times you saw Michael really let out his true feelings to someone else, especially to someone like David Wallace. They really should have let that relationship build during season 5 because I really think it would've made season 5 another classic. Instead season 5 was a lot like season 4. It had some really great episodes, some good episodes, but it was clearly a notch below seasons 2 and 3. The one shining highlight of season 5 was the Michael Scott Paper Company storyline, but again, that seemed way too short lived. They finally broke the format a little bit with the Michael Scott Paper Company but seemed way too desperate to bring the show back to the status quo. The fifth season ended on a great moment between Jim and Pam, but it was the first sign that The Office was going into "typical sitcom fare" territory.

By shortening the Michael/Holly storyline in season 5, I feel like her return in season 7 just didn't wind up being as emotional as it should have been. The writers were really trying to force the idea that they were soulmates who were meant to be, but overall, they made Holly's character seem rash and a bit flighty. Why even have her be in a relationship with her then-boyfriend AJ at that point? It just created an unnecessary obstacle and you knew they were going to end up together ultimately, especially since we all were aware that Steve Carell was leaving that season. We all knew Michael and Holly would end up together, and it was nice that they did, but the fumbling of that storyline was a sign of things to come and once Michael finally left in "Goodbye, Michael" the show would never be the same.

Season 8 was just plain unwatchable. I mean, I watched it, most of it. But man, it wasn't easy. Robert California just sucked the life out of everything. His character was just too aloof and added nothing except frustration to the show. There was no storyline, there wasn't anything substantial going on. It was really hard to watch.

Another thing that started to get old by this point were all the office relationships. Kelly and Ryan was always just played for laughs, so whatever. But Dwight/Angela and Jim/Pam were just going nowhere at this point. Jim and Pam were just... a married couple. That's fine. I can live with that. But what they replaced Jim/Pam with was... Andy and Erin. Now that we know what eventually happens to them in season 9, I feel so jipped. Because Andy and Erin was, at times, a really cute storyline. Erin was a quirky, lovable character. She was always the brightest spot on a show that was going downhill. Andy started off being a great character. The smug Cornell grad who wasn't a great salesman and was a nuisance to both Jim and Dwight. He integrated so well with the rest of the Scranton branch because his character stood out enough and was funny. He was annoying and best in small doses. But, overall, Andy was a solid character from seasons 3-7.

Then they made Andy the branch manager and that was that. Andy, very quickly, became the most annoying character on the show. By the time season 9 rolled around, you just wanted him to leave the show. They started off by mirroring Andy's manager antics with Michael Scott's, and then they made him a giant douche who doesn't care about anyone but himself. And then the Andy/Erin storyline just crapped out.

Jim and Dwight always had an interesting dynamic that I feel was left mostly unexplored in the latter seasons. Their relationship definitely evolved from merely being foes to becoming an effective team (albeit with wildly contrasting personalities, which made it all even funnier). They showed in season 3 that they're actually a killer sales team, but that was never explored again. Occasionally you'd see Dwight let his guard down with Jim or Pam, but when they finally made Dwight kinder to Jim towards the end of the series, it left you wondering... "where is this coming from all of a sudden?" Because Jim and Dwight working together actually made for some hilarious moments. Like in season 5 when they have to throw Kelly a birthday party, or in "Customer Survey" when they find out Kelly is the one giving them bad reviews in their customer surveys. A lot more comedy could have mined between them, but they stuck to the old "Jim and Dwight are foes" antics for way too long that when they finally started working together towards the very end, it felt like a missed opportunity in those last few seasons.

"The Office" peaked early and slowly started to get worse with each season. And yet, I found myself watching regardless. I stuck with the show since season 2 because I loved those characters so much. Watching "Finale," I find myself wishing for more Michael Scott. I wanted more Stanley, more Toby. I wanted to see Karen again, or even Roy. These are characters that I'll think about for a long time. Now that Jim and Pam's story is said and done, despite my reservations about the latter seasons, I think it's the best love story ever portrayed in a sitcom. It just grew so naturally. Even when the drama plateaued in the latter seasons, it was still nice to see these people find each other and be so close with each other. Some relationships can last and can hang in there for the long run. It may be boring at times, but life is boring sometimes too. I just wish they had more to do in those last couple of seasons.

I'm glad they made more references to the documentary crew in season 9 and how it stuck close to the UK Office by having the documentary actually come out. That's how it should have been and they did that right. Still, it was weird seeing all these references to the documentary after 8 seasons. In the first two seasons, they referenced the camera a lot, but by season 4, they nearly forgot about them. Nevertheless, it was cool in a meta way to see the characters reference their past behavior, at the end of season 9, based on what they watched in the documentary. A nice touch.

But "The Office" is going to be one of those shows that I will revisit again and again. I will repeatedly wonder about the possibilities between Jim/Karen or Dwight and Pam's best friend (whatever her name was). I will continue to laugh at David Wallace's bemused expressions at Michael's antics. Or every time Michael says "That's what she says!" The show peaked early, but that peak was extraordinarily high. And the characters are so lovable that I can forgive just about everything else. "The Office" as a whole is amazing to me because it had so many characters and yet they each had their own footprint on the show.

Creed's weirdness, Kevin's stupidity, Oscar's smugness, Angela's bitchiness, Pam's sweetness, Jim's pranks, Michael's silly antics, and... pretty much everything about Dwight was great. In fact, the writers seemed to have the most fun at being creative with Dwight and his family's rituals. What got the biggest laugh from me in this last season was watching his family take out shotguns and shoot his aunt's grave to... make sure the dead is really dead. And again, in the finale, having Angela and Dwight stand over their graves while they get married.

Michael's re-appearance felt special, but in a painfully realistic way, felt so quick. The fact is, he's moved on. He had two lines in the finale and was typical Michael Scott, but he's done with being the center of attention. So while I was craving for more Michael, I understood and respect the way it actually played out. And I'm glad Pam and Jim are finally moving on from Dunder Mifflin. That was the least realistic thing about the show for me was this couple staying at Dunder Mifflin for... the sake of the show? Don't they want to do bigger and better things? The finale proves that they do.

I loved Seinfeld, I loved Arrested Development, 30 Rock, The Simpsons, but "The Office" is the only sitcom world I'd actually want to live in. I really wish I could work with those guys. That's how realistic those characters are to me. "The Office" was a small show with big characters. How will I get over the fact that "The Office" is finally gone forever? I don't know, but it will be hard. That's what she said.

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