TV: The Office

Amazingly, I managed to miss The Office while it was enjoying its robust nine-season run on NBC. After all, I’d seen the British version, found it quite satisfying and complete, and anyway I’m easily annoyed by Hollywood’s tendency to unnecessarily remake and Americanize perfectly accessible properties from overseas. Well, it turns out I was depriving myself; thanks to streaming and the show’s eminently bingeable nature, I devoured all two hundredish episodes over the course of a couple of months, and it’s an addictive, memorable workplace comedy.

The Office chronicles the mundane-yet-zany lives of a group of office workers at the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of Dunder Mifflin, a northeastern paper supplier. Scranton’s branch manager is the spectacularly incompetent, utterly unselfaware Michael Scott (a brilliant Steve Carell). Michael runs the office with a blend of low comedy, petty self-interest, and good-natured laziness, his questionable reign aided and abetted by loyal but mildly sociopathic assistant Dwight Schrute (an equally brilliant Rainn Wilson). Amidst the dolts, cranks, and malcontents populating the office are two relatively normal people: disaffected salesman Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and soft-spoken receptionist Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer), who serve as sensible gateways onto this ridiculous world, while also evolving into the epic romance at the show’s heart.

Initially, The Office isn’t really about anything much beyond the low-grade frustrations of ineffectual bosses, annoying co-workers, and decidedly unmeaningful work. Indeed, as workplace comedies go, it couldn’t be much more low-concept, on paper (ahem): a show about a boring job, in a run-of-the-mill Rust Belt setting, in a frightfully dull industry. But in its occasionally mean-spirited mission to send up the Boring Day Job, it ends up being a strangely heartfelt celebration of same: a window onto the small, quirky little survival strategies of marking time in corporate America, and the unexpected, familial connections that develop between unlikely colleagues. As a veteran of more than a few years of mundane office jobs, I found plenty to relate to in the shenanigans of Dunder Mifflin, and that accessibility is surely key to its popularity and longevity.

Every workplace sitcom requires certain elements to succeed, and chief among them are a stellar ensemble and a sharp writing staff. The Office has both, in spades. The great cast is led energetically by the scene-stealing comic wizardry of Carell and Wilson, and the preternatural charms of Krasinski and Fischer, but there are no weak links down the roster: best amongst the supporting cast, perhaps, are Angela Kinsey (as mean-spirited, Christian busybody Angela) and Oscar Nuñez (as gay, intellectual accountant Oscar), but the whole cast gets in on the act. It also has great writing, much of it from the ancillary cast: B.J. Novak (as douchebag temp Ryan), Mindy Kaling (as garrulous, shallow customer service rep Kelly), and Paul Lieberstein (as mealy-mouthed HR rep Toby) all do double duty as prolific regulars on the writing staff. This cast-crew hyphenation gets more and more pronounced as the show progresses, and perhaps the series’ created-family vibes were fed by the obvious creative investment, as actors became directors and co-writers and producers. Meanwhile, the office becomes a veritable hotbed of comic talent, proving grounds for the likes of Ed Helms, Rashida Jones, Ellie Kemper, Craig Robinson, and Zach Woods, among others, as well as scores of soon-to-be-familiar faces.

The Office isn’t without its stumbles. Recurring instances of fat-shaming and transphobic humor are among the more jarring issues. Often the humor leans too heavily on mean-spiritedness, as the characters cruelly prank each other or relish their colleagues’ sad moments, glaring flaws, and tragic failures. The show also undergoes some awkward chemistry changes in later seasons with the introduction of characters like Robert California (James Spader) and Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate), great one-off, small-dose roles that balloon uncomfortably as their runs are unnaturally extended.

Still, considering such a lengthy, high-volume run, The Office remains a remarkably consistent comedy right through to its highly satisfying, surprisingly powerful finale. It won’t oust Parks and Recreation as my favorite modern comedy, in light of its punching-down elements and padded length. But it’s not that far behind, thanks to its many wickedly funny episodes, convincing central romance, and the touching, insightful way it taps into the hidden magics and unexpected friendships that develop (when we’re lucky) amidst the stultifying confines of a dead-end day job.

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