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.)