The Unfulfilled Promise of 'The Office'

NBC's long-running, quietly groundbreaking sitcom The Office ends its gentle roller coaster of a run tonight, capping off nine season. Will we miss The Office? Sure. But I think what we really should celebrate, or mourn, is what The Office represented, an era in television it helped usher in that seems, much to our dismay, nearly over.

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NBC's long-running, quietly groundbreaking sitcom The Office ends its gentle roller coaster of a run tonight, capping off nine seasons with a retrospective followed by a jumbo-sized finale episode. Will we miss The Office? Sure. It had moments of greatness early in its run, and though it sharply declined in quality as it lurched on without its leading star Steve Carell, who left after season seven, the show remained a pleasant and sometimes emotionally engaging diversion. But I think what we really should celebrate, or mourn, is what The Office represented, an era in television it helped usher in that seems, much to our dismay, nearly over.

It's a little silly perhaps, to talk about a period of a few years on one network as an "era," but what The Office brought about on NBC in 2005 was something special. It signified, in the fertile, exciting, prosperous mid-aughts, that something new and good could appear on network television. While many grumbled, and still grumble, about The Office being a lesser version of a beloved (and brilliant) British series, the American version quickly became very much its own thing, and it was a good thing. Clever and weird and warm without being treacly, Greg Daniels and his staff of young writers (among them Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak) created a show that breathed life into the creaky sitcom format. A sense of possibility hovered in the air, a sense that maybe network television could break down some of the strict barriers it had created.

The Office's style was idiosyncratic, offbeat, and clever in a contemporary, almost hip way that sitcoms hadn't been in a long, long time, if ever. It felt very of-the-moment, and people seemed to like it! It was a water-cooler show, shaggy John Krasinski became a thinking person's sex symbol, the genius of Steve Carell burned bright and far-reaching. If this cool, sometimes cerebral, always deftly observant show could become a hit, then what else might come along. A precious few had started to detect the winds of change in 2004 when Arrested Development won its famed Emmy for its first season, but The Office truly confirmed it, more loudly and effectively. Things were going to be different, and better, from here on out. For sitcoms, at least. On NBC, anyway.

After The Office — which was smart and sharp but always accessible — came 30 Rock (perhaps slightly less accessible?), Parks and Recreation, and Community. NBC became a fertile place for intelligent sitcoms, a rare phrase. It was exciting! Sure CBS was still farting around with Two and a Half Men and ABC was pals with Jim Belushi, but NBC was funny, really really funny. Obviously nothing is permanent in TV, but it did at least seem that a sturdy new style and, I don't know, comedic philosophy had been established when The Office got big. Which is why it's so disappointing that we saw what we saw at this week's upfronts. All the progress that The Office and its aesthetic offspring made and promised for the future has, seemingly, been rolled back. Instead of more smart, inventive shows we've just got a heap of junky family comedies and crass relationship sitcoms. What happened?

Well, The Office did pretty well in its day, but Modern Family is doing better, Chuck Lorre's shows even better still. (Big Bang Theory at least.) And let's not even talk about the ratings for 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Rec. While NBC certainly made some scratch off The Office and supported it for a long time, it's not running a charity. It can't be a home for wayward quality TV shows. No network is. It's frankly better business to do something with slightly, or not so slightly, broader appeal. The Office, for all its seeming ubiquity, had distinctly niche appeal; Big Bang and Modern Family do not. So that little movement came close but ultimately failed, and now it's back to the old ways. And while at least the single camera change seems to have stuck, there were definitely a good deal of studio laughs heard in this week's promos. What's old and boring is new again.

So what should be a bittersweet occasion, saying goodbye to the show that reminded us that sitcoms could be smart and different and interesting, is actually just bitter. We were promised change, and we got it for a while, but it didn't stick. Oh well. I'm sure some other show will come along and revitalize or reinvent in some exciting way and we'll forget all about old Scranton. But right now it feels like we're not just watching The Office fade away; it's taking the future with it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.