The Office: An Appreciation

Nobody cares -- or should care -- what a sportswriter has to say about The Office. But the show has dominated my life for nine years and it goes off the air today. So, here are a few thoughts on why I think The Office is one of the best shows ever on television, and how the second-last show perfectly summed it all up for me.

* * *

In sports, people talk all the time about team chemistry. I’ve written about this hundreds of times and, yet, I still can’t quite put my finger on what team chemistry means. Sure, there is some obvious stuff. Some teams have players who like each other a lot. Some teams have a sweet blend of vocal leaders and loyal followers. Some teams have diverse talents that mesh into a greater whole. Some teams just have a lot of fun together, and because of that maybe they play with energy and enthusiasm even in the low ebbs.

Some people believe team chemistry is overrated and perhaps even nonexistent as a factor in winning. Others think it’s the most important thing in sports. And team chemistry -- to those who believe in it -- has a bit of a mystical quality, an ineffable value that players and managers and general managers and coaches and owners and fans stutter around. “When it came down to it,” the Hall of Famer George Brett said of the 1985 Kansas City Royals, “we knew we weren’t going to lose. We’d had better teams. But there was something about that team that just … we knew someone was going to come through. We didn’t know who it would be. But we knew it would be someone.”

The Office has great chemistry. That is my best explanation. I have watched every single episode for the last nine years -- most of them two or three times. I am obsessive about the show. This is strange because, as I’ve written here before, I watch almost no other television. I don’t feel good about that. I wish I did watch more television. I find myself constantly in awkward conversations explaining that I have never seen a single episode of “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones,” or, well, just about any other show. I can’t tell you how many times I was in lost in conversations about “Lost.” But for now, anyway, my life just doesn’t make room for those shows.

I never missed The Office, though, not once, not when traveling, not when on deadline, not ever. I have built my schedule entirely around it. Why? It had to be the chemistry.

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Let me tell you when I really got hooked on The Office. The first year or so, I watched the show more out of obligation than joy -- I was a fan of the British version of the Office, and I was a fan of Steve Carell, and so I wanted very much to like the American version.

I have to admit: I didn’t like it that much at first. It felt forced and kind of pointless … like that Psycho remake. Why remake Psycho? And why do an American version of The Office? The British version was just about perfect. It was hilarious, and it was awkward and it had surprising heart. At first, the American Office was entirely derivative … character for character … Michael Scott as the clueless and narcissistic boss David Brent, Jim Halpert as the likable but unambitious Tim Canterbury, Dwight K. Schrute as the weird suck-up and office-punching-bag Gareth Keenan and Pam Beasley as the pretty-but-timid receptionist who is trapped in her own life, Dawn Tinsley. The American Office was just a lesser version of the real thing.

But in the second season of The American Office, there was a show called “The Client.” In the show, Michael Scott was trying to win over a big client while his boss, Jan Levinson, was there to watch him screw it up. It was a typical Office setup for Michael Scott/David Brent hijinks, and you knew we were destined for some uncomfortable laughs. Only then, halfway through the show, something odd and surprising happened. It became clear that Michael Scott, in his own weird way, was actually GOOD at this selling business.

This was a revelation to Jan … and to the rest of us. Let’s be honest: David Brent wasn’t good at anything. That was the whole gag. He was a complete and utter zero wrapped in self-absorption. But watching Michael Scott sell, you could see he knew how to connect to clients, he had good timing, he had a feel for when to close the sale and when to back off. It really was NATURAL in the truest sense of the word. That was the best part. Michael had no earthly idea how he did it. That seemed to me an absolute stroke of brilliance.

And in one show, Michael Scott (as played brilliantly by Steve Carell) became one of the great characters in TV comedy history. He was still narcissistic, still kind of an idiot, still as clueless about money and love and friendship and almost every other aspect of life. But he was also talented and likable … just not in any of the ways he thought.

When that happened, the show became its own. Michael Scott was no longer David Brent. He became an American archetype. I imagine everyone in America knows a Michael Scott. And, like the fish at the poker table, chances are if you don’t know one, you ARE one.

* * *

The British Office, at its heart I think, was about the way Tim loved Dawn, the way Dawn loved Tim, and how they simply could not ever do anything about it. Dawn was in a bad relationship she saw no convenient way to leave. Tim was a desperate underachiever who did not like himself quite enough to believe happiness was worth fighting for. it was a beautiful and sort of haunting parallelogram in a cold and repetitive office world. All the craziness around them highlighted the uncertainty within … we really didn’t know if Tim and Dawn would ever get together.

At first, the American office tried to simply repeat the formula. Jim loved Pam. Pam loved Jim. Pam was in a bad engagement. Jim did not know how to tell her. Just like Tim and Dawn.

But there was something about it the Jim-Pam early years that just didn’t quite work. My guess is that Jim -- as played by John Krasinski -- was simply too confident and handsome and charismatic to pull off the Tim character. In the first season, in a show titled “The Hot Girl” Amy Adams plays woman selling purses, and Dwight and Michael are hopelessly smitten by her. Jim, at one point, simply goes in, charms her and starts dating her (and later, on a boat, just dumps her cold). By the third season, the gorgeous and smart Karen (Rashida Jones) falls hopelessly for him. The idea that he was a wallflower who could not get himself to tell Pam how he feels was just not believable.

The writers figured this out quickly and made the Jim-Pam quandary something else entirely. Jim is so hopelessly in love with Pam, he does not know what to do. He knows she’s engaged, and knows it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for her to untangle herself. He does not want to make her unhappy. He sees her life more clearly than she does. He tells her that he’s in love with her. And, when she makes it clear she doesn’t have the strength to fight for herself, he asks to be transferred to another office.

Then Pam, too, found her voice after those early faint-hearted years. She did gain the strength to fight for herself. She broke things off with her fiancee. She went to art school. She and Jim got together. And whenever the writers tried to put barriers in their way -- a co-worker who decides she wants to get Jim to cheat on Pam, a cameraman in the documentary who has fallen in love with Pam, a new job that takes JIm away to Philadelphia -- it didn’t work to me. I guess it’s this: Jim and Pam, unlike Dawn and Tim, did not thrive on angst. They thrived on happiness and working through things together and happy endings. My favorite show of The Office might be the one where Jim and Pam got married. There really wasn’t a lot of anxiety or trouble in that one. It is probably the happiest television show I have ever seen.

* * *

I suspect that no American comedy has ever highlighted so many characters. Maybe Soap. But here, just off the top of my head, I can not only name 15 characters -- let’s see if I can do it: Michael, Jim, Dwight, Pam, Andy, Erin, Meredith, Creed, Stanley, Angela, Oscar, Kevin, Toby, Darryl, Phyllis, Kelly, Ryan, how many is that? -- but give you a pretty decent description of each of them. How can a comedy do that? I watched all three of the Star Wars prequels and, as the famed review said, still cannot tell you a single thing about the Natalie Portman character other than she was pretty like Natalie Portman.

But I can tell you all about Ryan’s self-absorption or Stanley’s love of pretzels and affairs or Angela’s cats or Kevin’s band or Creed’s weird counterculture life.

That is probably the thing that makes The Office unlike Seinfeld or Cheers or M*A*S*H or Mary Tyler Moore or any of the great comedies of the past. The Office, at its best, was very, very funny like those. The Office, at its best, took on hard subjects like those. But, unlike those shows, it really never had a main character or set of main characters. Sure, Michael Scott was at the center of it all, the person who kept the show together, and it wasn’t ever quite the same after Carell left. The core of the show was Jim and Dwight and Pam.

But, in the end, The Office was about the many people people of the office, all of them. The wonderful office novel “Then We Came to the End,” by Joshua Ferris is written in the first-person plural -- the narrator is “We” and “We” represents the entire office. I think The Office was like that too. Oscar did not have as many lines as Jim. Phyllis was not a focal point like Pam. Erin was not at the heart of plots like Dwight.

But the show was just as much about them as about the so called stars. The show was not about one or two or even 10 people, but about that familiar office, where the accountants (for some reason) always figured numbers by hand, where salespeople hardly ever seemed to be on the phone, where the high-maintenance customer service rep falls for the salesman who, for some reason, never made a sale. It is about people dealing with weddings and layoffs, home office directives and a copier that breaks down a lot. It is about a place where the meetings are pointless and the party committee fights and and people have jobs that even they don’t understand (“I’m interested in finding out what you do here,” the new HR Rep Holly says at one point to Creed. “I welcome that conversation,” Creed says. “What DO you do here?” she asks, and he excuses himself and hides).

That might be what I mean by great chemistry. The Office, like the best teams, had a different hero every week.

* * *

Dwight K. Schrute was unquestionably the toughest character for the show to harness. He is a Battlestar Galactica nerd who also grew up on a beet farm with oddly Amish qualities. He is a shrewd and cynical salesman (he buys up boxes of what he knows will the hardest to find dolls at Christmastime – a princess with a unicorn horn in her head – and sells them at 10 times the retail price to desperate parents) but who also falls for just about every prank that Jim pulls on him (such at the time Jim convinces him that he’s getting faxes from his future self). He is the conquering ladies man (he sleeps with one of the bridesmaids before Jim and Pam’s wedding) and also oddly uncertain about women and sex (especially in early episodes – this was when they tried to make him more like Gareth).

His character shifted constantly throughout the nine years – it seemed like he was such a powerful character (especially in the hands of actor Rainn Wilson) that nobody quite seemed to know what to do with him.

So leave it to Dwight K. Schrute to provide what I think is the show’s final surprise … and lasting essence.

As mentioned, I thought the show really lost its footing after Steve Carell left the show. I suspect every Office fan thinks that. There were bright moments. But, more, there were numerous efforts to find new bosses -- these included turns by brilliant talents like Will Farrell and James Spader and Kathy Bates* -- and none of them really worked.

*In an earlier effort, Idris Elba -- who played Stringer Bell on The Wire -- was briefly the boss, and he was a great character both for the instant and irrational dislike he took toward Jim and for once looking into the camera and, deadpan, saying: “I am aware of the effect I have on women.”

The show tried to find a character that fit the talents of Ed Helms’ Andy, and that more or less was a disaster (one of the great lines of the last season was Kevin, perhaps as a mouthpiece of the writers, telling Andy, “You’re too charactery to be a lead, and you’re not fat enough to be a great character actor”). The show tried to find a good place for Erin, but they never quite could find that blend of ditzy and lovable and sensible that had sometimes made her a great character. The show tried to create a new tension for Jim and Pam, but as mentioned they were not built for angst and, anyway, you always knew they’d be fine in the end. The show kept striving, but it seemed like without Michael there to center The Office, there were more misses than hits.

But … there was that one final surprise. Dwight and Jim, from the beginning, were enemies. That was the drumbeat of the show. Jim thought Dwight weird and oddly unfeeling. Dwight thought JIm a slacker who didn’t stand for anything. Jim played pranks on Dwight time after time -- once gift wrapping his entire desk, once setting his phone so that it forwarded to Jim’s phone, once popping the bouncing ball that Dwight was sitting on in the office to exercise while at work. I thought that was my favorite, but Brilliant Reader Schuyler pointed out that my favorite is when Dwight said he was going to sit down at work. Then Dwight started leaning on a crutch, and Jim saw it and walked over. “You know I have to do this,” he said as he prepared to kick out the crutch. Dwight simply nodded and said, “Yes,” before collapsing to the ground.

Dwight got the better of JIm at times too … like the time he freaked Jim out by relentlessly pummeling him with snowballs or the time he proved to be the only person who could hold Jim and Pam’s baby and calm her down enough to sleep (“He has a gift!” Pam admitted, and Jim was forced to serve Dwight’s whims).

The point is they kept hammering away at each other, the way people in offices do. And then, after eight or nine years, something weird happened -- something that seems to me true to life. They suddenly realized that they were actually friends. They were not the sort of friends who hang out with each other or share interests. No, they were real friends, the sort who root for each other and, in the biggest moments, count on each other.

“You’re a good assistant to the regional manager,” Dwight says with tears in his eyes after they shared one of those moments.

“Not as good as you,” Jim says, equally emotional.

“That’s true,” Dwight says.

That turned out be the biggest surprise. It turns out the heart of The American Office, unlike the British version, wasn’t the office romance between the unconfident salesman and the faint-hearted receptionist. It was Dwight and Jim, nine years of pranks and irritations, nine years of working next to each other, nine long years, and the crazy ties that bind.