The Thing That Made The Office Great Is the Same Thing That Killed It

Its TV-as-catharsis approach to the monotony of office work was groundbreaking, but the show's premise wasn't built to last more than a few seasons.
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There isn't a more quintessentially American form of relaxation than resting your feet on a coffee table after a long day at work and turning on the tube. After all, what better way to take your mind off of the job you left just a few hours earlier than by watching a TV show?

Unless, of course, that TV show is The Office. NBC's mockumentary sitcom, which concludes its ninth and final season on Thursday, flipped the TV-as-a-distraction-from-real-life paradigm by setting the action in precisely the type of workplace many people long to escape. The gambit worked brilliantly, and proved that a weekly television show could be the perfect medium to tell stories about contemporary work culture—for a while.

Set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the sales office of a nearly obsolete paper company, the show's characters at first didn't develop as much as stagnate. Like their dead-end jobs and the dead-end lives that inevitably spring from such jobs, these people were just passing time, one prolonged meeting at a time. Just as reality television soothes a viewer's inner narcissist by telling stories of even more pronounced narcissists wreaking havoc on their surroundings, The Office made its audience feel better about their professional lives by showcasing a workplace with even drabber décor and more grating coworkers.

Season One, which premiered in the spring of 2005 and consisted of only six episodes, tried to replicate the tone of the British series of the same name that inspired it. It didn't translate well. But by the show's second season, its creators had found an original voice—a more optimistic take on work and life than that of the acerbic British series—and what ensued were two of the most fascinating seasons in the history of television comedy.

In its early years, the show offered white-collar catharsis by making funny, meaningful storylines out of everyday office-worker woes. At Dunder-Mifflin Scranton, lagging sales constantly threaten the branch's existence. Underutilized salesman Jim learns that a company branch manager cares as much about a video game as he does about selling paper. Hopeful temp worker Ryan quickly discovers that his boss has little to teach him about modern business. Stanley Hudson describes his approach to the workday by telling a co-worker, "This is a run-out-the-clock situation."

The second and third seasons of The Office also meditated on the tribulations that arise when a group of people who occupy the same space out of necessity rather than choice try to form meaningful social connections. Jim and Pam's innocent yet unavoidable flirtations turned into an unstoppable romantic force; Michael's inability to take the temperature of the room belied a desperate desire to be liked; Dwight's gruff exterior couldn't hide the fact that he'd be a lost soul without his coworkers.

In this sense, though, The Office was always doomed to produce diminishing returns. The original theme it explored—office work sucks—is only funny if the characters never grow. What made the early episodes so dryly funny and morbidly relatable was that the seasons and the names of the meetings changed, but the paper-pushing remained the same. Just-another-cog-in-the-wheel syndrome only engenders pathos if the wheel spins indefinitely and the cogs stay put. But writers can only use constructed bonding experiences, like an awkward sexual harassment training session or an impromptu "Office Olympics," so many times to illustrate the lengths to which white-collar drones will go to survive another excruciating day. In television, things have to change.

So The Office's characters developed, and their individual stories gradually outshone the show's focus on survival in a corporate setting. By Season Five, the show was struggling to transition from a narrative about a listless workplace to a comedy that just happened to be set in an office. Changes ensued, characters came and went, and the creators kept trying to keep the series relevant. Episodes began to revolve around the colleagues' individual home lives (like Dwight's adventures on his beet farm) and their relationships outside of the office (like Angela dating a state senator). While such plot twists made sense from the standpoint of character development, they took the focus away from the monotony of everyday paper salesmanship and failed to generate the same exceptionally effective situational humor. Thus, throughout its long autumn, The Office often came across as the shell of something once great. (Perhaps this is why Ricky Gervais pulled the plug on his Office after only three seasons.)

By Season Five, the show was struggling to transition from a narrative about a listless workplace to a comedy that just happened to be set in an office.

And so the end of The Office comes not a moment too soon. In its final season, the writers ventured into new territory once again by allowing a character to interact with a member of the fictional crew that has been filming Dunder Mifflin all these years, raising questions about what it means to distill real life into a television show. Upon seeing some of the promotional footage for the documentary The Office: An American Workplace, Dunder Mifflin employees are taken aback by the personal details revealed on screen. In a culture where we control our own narratives through the curation of photos and status updates on social networks, it's no surprise that these modern, relatable characters feel violated by a camera crew wresting that control away. That storyline was refreshing and innovative, but it came too late in the show's lifespan to rescue it. Hopefully, some other, younger mockumentary (Parks and Rec?) will eventually fully explore what happens when the fourth wall breaks.

Several great sitcoms in similar formats have aired since 2005, but few have reached the creative heights The Office once did. During those early seasons, the show's creators penned compelling tales about how a performance review session can cause part of the soul to die, and maximized the humor and storytelling of every frame and well-timed reaction shot. So even though its later seasons never lived up to its groundbreaking early explorations of contemporary work culture, what The Office leaves us with are memories of television comedy at its best.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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