Tuesday, May 21, 2013

REFLECTIONS ON DUNDER-MIFFLIN: FINAL THOUGHTS ON "THE OFFICE"



I don't know of any show has more divided my household than "The Office". I recognized it's greatness nearly right away, but still nobody else in my family likes it, and I've never understood why. I personally believe that everybody who doesn't like something that's good, should be forced to sit through it until they like it, but for some reason, I've been advised not to do this, for several reason. Something about a Geneva Convention and Freedom of Choice, or some political bullcrap, but besides that, I've always wondered why this show in particular has caused such a split among people. Seriously, there are people who get it, and people who don't, and I truly believe that those who have chosen to not accept it until now, just don't fully understand the show.

Case in point, I talked about the show a few months back, when they introduced the Sound Guy character, Brian, into the on-camera story involving Jim and Pam's marital troubles. When I discussed this moment with my mother, who I know has seen many episodes of the show, whether she wanted to know, I then had to explain to her, that the show is being documented. It's been on nine years in America, and was created by Ricky Gervais in the UK two years before that, and she didn't figure out that the concept of the show was that, a documentary was being filmed of this office. Not understanding that, or why it's shot with the moving handheld camera from distance angles and such, is a very key aspect to understanding the show and the comedy there-in, and unless you had seen the British version on BBC America, you wouldn't have seen a sitcom with this kind of style and formula. Now, the single-camera sitcom structure's being stolen from everybody to some extent. "Modern Family" just blatantly stole it in fact. 

When it first was announced that "The Office" was getting an American version, I was skeptical at first, because I actually had seen the British version, and didn't quite get it myself. At that time, it was so unusually-structured that it took a couple viewings, to understand what was happening myself. Actually, when I was watching BBC America, way back to when I last has cable because of another show that NBC was making an American version of, Steven Moffat's "Coupling". Most of you know the name for his work since on "Doctor Who", which is still, waiting on my Netflix (I know), but the British version of "Coupling" is one of the funniest shows I've ever seen in my life. Still is. Basically, that show was "Friends" meets "Sex and the City", only it was twenty times smarter and funnier than both of those shows, and for all intensive purposes, it looks and seemed like a perfect natural fit show to be remade in America, and of course, "The Office", did not. We all know the results now, "Coupling" flopped badly, as it should have, it didn't transfer well. "The Office", wasn't an immediate hit either, but it caught on eventually, and despite bad ratings, it became a hit on itunes of all things, proving a fanbase that wasn't being counted in the Neilsen's. 

The show had things going for it. For one, it was character-based humor, not plot-based or gag-based, so they created rich characters. Very rich, and they kept doing it too. Few shows were able to be so successful by continually adding and subtracting characters. Steve Carell's departure was the biggest blow, and even during the look back, they seemed to have decided to just completely skip over the entire part with James Spader's role as Robert California, which slowed down season eight. Yet, look closer, Ed Helms became a star in his own right, wasn't on the show until the 3rd season, Rashida Jones's character came and went flawlessly before moving her to "Parks and Recreation". Melora Hardin's Jan character, change and evolved drastically from when we first saw her character. One of my favorite characters is Erin, the Ellie Kemper character, who came in after Michael and Pam left to temporarily start his own competing paper company. Temporary character? No, she became one of the show's most interesting ones, with an incredible backstory that developed over years. I can never forget the Secretary's Day Lunch Michael took her out to, where she found out about about Andy's previous relationship with Angela, and she hid her face with her hair, which she explained that being an orphan, was her equivalent of a room for her to hide in when she was a frustrated teenager. They never stopped growing characters, or introducing them even, and none of them were ever simple, and a slight nod to the camera spoke volumes.

They also, weren't all young and good-looking. I always find myself thinking about this, when I see some TV shows, where clearly, they're looking for the next "Friends", and cast all young and reasonable good-looking people. I always think of Tina Fey's observation in her book "Bossypants", that "Friends" was the exception, and that no other successful TV show, casted with that formula. Sure enough, very few shows needed a cast of irregulars more than "The Office", and then got it. Big, tall, smart, dumb, heavyset, skinny, multiple races, multiple personalities, gay, straight, etc. No show absolutely had to have a more contrasting cast than "The Office," and they did, and all of them were talented actors. Much less of the show is improvised than people think, and there isn't much harder on television than making a show that seems natural and improvised when it isn't, especially in comedy. You don't need just good comic actors, you need great actors, period. Actors, who are multi-talented as well. Many of the cast actually worked as writers and/or directors on the show. (Many of them, like Paul Liberstein, and Mindy Kaling were writers first, then became cast members.)

Another issue that had to be overcome, was the setting. Historically, TV shows and movies, set in an office, never do well, and are considered cult hits at the most. There's no real good explanation for why things like "Office Space" and "Clockwatchers", weren't hits at the time they originally came out, but the traditional thinking has been that, nobody wants to see a show about working in an office, because it usually ends up too close to their real life work. With all entertainment being escapism, why would somebody who's just been working all day in a dreary office job they don't like, with a boss they can't stand and co-workers that get on their nerves, why would you want to go home, turn on the TV, and relive it?

It's a fair point actually, but then again, if you can't find comedy in your average day-to-day life, then you really can't find comedy at all. The banalities of day-to-day life, and the things we do to try and get us through the day, whether it's meetings, or pranks, or falling in love, or whatever, it's all comedy. Thinking back on "The Office," as I've been since it had its emotional series finale last Thursday, I couldn't help but think that NBC knew enough to give this show the credit it really deserves. (Especially since, they kinda skimmed over the "30 Rock" finale, which should've been bigger than it was) In many ways, it basically rejuvenated a struggling network, as well as reinvent the kind of comedy that situation comedies can have. Based in a plausible reality, it was one of the few shows that could constantly switch from comedy to drama so seamlessly. It was consistently one of the best shows on television, even during it's worse year. The humor in the show really effected me, I'll say that. It's a different way to look at a joke. A guy, wears a funny hat, that's not funny. Guy doesn't know it's a funny hat, now you got something. That's where comedy usually starts, but where "The Office" came in was, "Can you believe this guy's wearing that crazy hat?" That where it starts, but then it goes beyond that. "Does he understand how crazy his hat is?" and then it asks, "Why doesn't he know..." The joke doesn't end, it keeps evolving. This is the real key to "The Office", like a documentary, it's not simply looking at the surface layer and letting it be, it's going beyond that, and digging in to the emotional cores of it's characters. We're discovering them, just as the workers are discovering them, just as the documentaries crew is learning about them.

Few shows are this unusually layered, or are even given the chance to evolve and grow as "The Office" did. I guess all shows that last awhile grow and change, but never has a show ever been so much about the changes over time that the people go through. Remembering "The Office" from the first episode, the unrequited love, Michael's fake firing pranks, and Jim jell-o-ing Dwight's stapler and all, it's amazing just how vastly different the lives and the characters were at the end. You see a place one day, you follow it, walk past it, go inside it, nearly every day, and then suddenly, you turn around, and it looks nothing like it was before, but it's still just as good as it was when you first see it. That's the legacy "The Office" will leave behind. It wasn't just a show where the characters changed and grew over time, it was a show about, how the characters changed and grew over time.

Actually, no, it's also about how we changed towards them as well. The audience watching the documentary's raw footage. That's the things, no previous show, so well incorporated its viewers into the show. The nods and winks to the camera, made us apart of "The Office", didn't they? Maybe I can understand why it might've been a little too much for some to comprehend, but I think the more you look, the funnier the show gets, and the more you begin to care about the people at Dunder-Mifflin, Scranton.

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