Why I Watch The Office

Monday31 October 2005

Given that this is my favorite show on television at the moment, and likely to be one of my favorite ever at the rate that it’s developing, a post of this magnitude was inevitable. The Office is right in so many ways, and that’s reflected in the length of this entry. Think of this as a very long-winded thank you letter.

  • It’s very, very funny.

    Humor can be a strange thing. What many people don’t seem to realize is that if someone doesn’t think something is funny to begin with, you’re going to have a very difficult time convincing them otherwise. Attempting to impose your sense of humor on someone is nothing more than a colossal waste of time and effort and is only going to make that person resent you, and that’s not something you want — that is, unless we’re talking about this show. If someone doesn’t think The Office is funny, then there is obviously something very wrong with them. People like this don’t deserve your company. You should welcome their resentment.

    All kidding aside, this is the funniest show that I have seen on television in a long time. In fact, I’m not sure if any show that I have ever watched has been able to deliver the laughs as consistently and as well as The Office. NewsRadio is the closest thing that comes to mind, but even that was a different brand of humor . Although there are traditional punchlines in The Office that you will get immediately, there are other elusive aspects of its humor that are more difficult to pin down. I hesitate to call them punchlines because there’s nothing instant about them. No, these are the jokes and jabs that you don’t notice until the third or fourth viewing, and often times, they’re the ones that really stick.

    There’s nothing on television right now that even comes close. Conan, maybe, but his pale, anorexic figure gives him an unfair advantage. Besides, he’s a talk show host so he doesn’t count.

  • It’s more than a comedy.

    This one’s a big deal for me. Character development is paramount: ultimately, it’s what separates the merely entertaining shows from the ones that I really care about. Sports Night, Freaks and Geeks, Firefly, Lost — they were all anchored by outstanding character development (or still are, in the case of Lost). The Office hardly looks like it belongs on such a list given its complexion, but you would be selling the show woefully short by passing it off as just another comedy.

    I remember watching the original British version of The Office. It was never the humor of it that hooked me in — there were moments when I simply wasn’t able to grasp the comedy of David Brent and company. No, the reason why I kept coming back to the show was to see how the Tim and Dawn situation would eventually work itself out. Like just about everyone else who had seen the show, I was rooting for Dawn to ditch Lee and get together with Tim. The creators were aware of this and gradually shifted Tim and Dawn from a background element to something very much at the forefront. By the time I arrived at the Christmas Special, the Will They or Won’t They? saga had become the main attraction of the show, not just from my point of view but quite literally: the anonymous camera crew that had guided us through two seasons now had a voice, and it was offering Dawn another shot at what she had left behind.

    We now have Jim and Pam to root for in the American Office, to even greater effect than Tim and Dawn in my opinion. The writers have paced this relationship well, keeping the tension alive with well-placed, often subtle interactions between the two in each episode, but never advancing it too aggressively. There are always obstacles keeping them apart, and part of the appeal to tuning in each week is watching it all unfold. It doesn’t hurt that John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer have managed to develop their characters into an irresistably likable duo. There are plenty of reasons to want to see them together and precious few not to, unless you’re secretly pinning your hopes on the forbidden love between Jim and Kevin. Rrawr.

    Aside from Jim/Pam (Jam?), the US version has an extra thread of development that the original lacked, and that is the emergence of Michael as a relatable character rather than an incorrigible buffoon. Brent was a fabulously conceived character. He was able to conjure up a social awkwardness to any scene thick enough to cause even the most hardened soul to shrivel up. I suspect most of his scenes were conceived in the following manner:

    • Writer A : This is a pleasant scene.
    • Writer B : We’ll add Brent. Reshoots scene with Brent.
    • Writer A : I have never been more offended in my life.
    • Writer B : Smashing. Let’s have some tea.

    Michael has a similar way about him, but he’s a bit easier to deal with. The writers of the American Office seem to have made a conscious decision starting in Season Two to dial down his wilder side in order to allow him to develop as an actual person. This change has created a divisive line among Office followers with some favoring the new, introspective Michael, and others wanting the Michael of old back. Personally, I approve of the decision — he’s still plenty unruly, but he’s less of a caricature now and more of a character that you can empathize with, not just laugh with (or at). You get the impression that although the employees in the office can’t stand him most of the time, deep down they really do care about their boss. Or maybe just drunken Pam does.

  • Making the camera an a active participant of the scene, not just using it as a viewport.

    Steve, Rainn, John, Jenna and B.J. may receive top billing on the show, but I believe the camera deserves recognition as a vital player. Characters act differently when they know they’re being filmed — anyone who’s listened to the commentary tracks on the Season One DVD will have a bit of extra insight into using the camera as a tool to influence a scene. It’s a welcome departure from the standard format where the camera serves merely as a window to the action.

    Take Dwight, for instance: he plays to the camera every opportunity he gets. This is especially noticeable during his scenes with Michael. It’s pretty clear that although Dwight has an abundance of (misplaced) respect for Michael, he would like nothing more than to be in his position, and he never hesitiates to let the camera know it. If it’s been recorded, then it must be true.

    Jim and Pam also show great camera awareness. Jim is a natural performer and seems very much in his element as he’s being filmed, but Pam seems apprehensive of it at times. The camera serves a powerful inhibitor in her case, and I can’t really say I blame her: it does seem like it’s out to get her, always catching her at a vulnerable, embarrassing or otherwise inopportune moment. There are certainly times when the camera appears to have a mind of its own, flicking back and forth from person to person as it attempts to follow a conversation, or zooming in on someone’s reaction to what someone else said or did.

  • Best facial expressions ever.

    This is one the things I enjoy most about the show. I have always been a fan of actors with expressive faces. There is something about contorting one’s face to say something that can make it so much more effective than simply saying it out loud. The range of emotions that some of these actors are able to convey without uttering a single word is impressive.

    Jim and Pam (there they are again) are especially noteworthy in this regard — both of them have produced some particularly memorable expressions. I’m re-watching The Dundies as I type this out, and I’m at the point in the episode where Pam has been asked by Michael to pick out the highlights from past award shows. The expression on her face as she’s forced to relive her Longest Engagement Award in front of the camera for all to see is telling in a crushing sort of way. In that brief moment, you share in her depression and you forget that this is a comedy, or even a television show that you’re watching. It’s moments like this that define the show and remind me why it’s my favorite show on television.

    It’s not all serious, though. This is a comedy, after all, and no episode would be complete without one of Jim’s trademark looks. There are far too many to choose from, but I offer his reactions to Michael’s “gay” comment in Basketball and Phyllis’ question about office one-night stands in Sexual Harassment as prime examples of his talent.

  • Fantastic supporting characters.

    What a phenomenal supporting cast. Angela, Kevin, Oscar, Toby, Meredith, Phyllis, Stanley, and Kelly are all fantastic. Were Michael, Dwight, Jim, Pam and Ryan to somehow fall off the face of the Earth, we would still be left with an equally capable and entertaining group. It would be just like a line change in hockey except they would be employees at a paper company.

    What’s makes this even more amazing is how well the creators of the show have been able to develop the secondary characters given the time constraints. The average running time of an episode is between 20 and 21 minutes, and still each cast member is given an opportunity to shine. How do they do it? It must be magic. That, and hiring actors who are capable of getting their point across with a single sentence, glance, or glare.

    There’s so much that I could say about each of them, but then we’d have a thesis on our hands, not just than an unmanageably long posting. Suffice it to say that Lost isn’t the only show on television with an ensemble cast. I say we square them off against one another and see who’s left standing. A battle royale pitting the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 against Dunder-Mifflin’s finest… now that’s something I would pay to see. Fifty bucks says Dwight defects to Team Lost after Locke shows him his suitcase of knives.

  • The actors have made themselves accessible to their fans.

    This one is super-neat. Take a look at Pam, Angela and Toby at MySpace. They could be responding to you as they’re filming a scene. I mean, how cool is that? We all know about actors who make appearances at conventions and other special events, but I’ve never known any to embrace the public in this manner. When you post a comment, you know that they’ll be reading it the next time they pull up their page, and that’s just an awesome thing to know. They’ve made themselves available to answer questions, divulged inside details on each episode, even posted pictures of themselves hanging out on and off set. In doing so they’ve removed barriers that traditionally separate celebrities from their fans, and I applaud them for it.

Shows like this don’t come along too often. I’ve actually been surprised by the quality of television as of late — there are a number of shows on the air right now that are really quite excellent, but none of them offers an experience quite like The Office. It’s hysterical at times, heart-rending at others. Though the hilarity of it all, you’ll find yourself caring very deeply about the characters, more than you probably thought possible from a half-hour comedy. Tell me, can you say this about any other show on television?

That is why I watch The Office.

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I completely relate to what you wrote in the first paragraph. I found myself checking the messege boards during first season when there was rumor of it getting cancelled. I specifically wrote to NBC just to let them know there are people out there that LOVE the show. I advocated for "The Office". Told all my friends how funny it is. I don't normally join groups or post on fansites, but for this show to keep it on the air I will.

1Posted by kelly on November 4, 2005

Since you mention the "top billing" in this post, here is a question. Since episode one, BJ Novak has been in the opening credits, but for the most part his speaking roles are tiny. I know he is also a head writer, but I wonder if he was supposed to have a bigger role, and they just couldn't find stuff to put him in? I mean Kevin and Stanley talk more than Ryan most of the time. Any thoughts?

2Posted by Joe on November 6, 2005

Joe,

That's a good question. Despite his presence on the opening credits, he does receive a disproportionately small amount of screen time. The other four main cast members all have pretty well defined relationships with one another:

  • Michael/Dwight (boss/minion)
  • Michael/Pam (boss/indignant receptionist)
  • Jim and Pam/Dwight (pranksters/butt)
  • Jim/Pam (sensitive admirer/reluctantly engaged)

    They have been developing something between Michael and Ryan -- what that something is exactly remains to be seen -- but there hasn't been much of a dynamic between him and the other three characters. Actually, that's not entirely true: there were some great exchanges between him and Dwight in The Fire.

    But yeah, I do think that the potential is there for more Ryan-centric storylines -- they've certainly laid the groundwork for it. I suppose something has to give when you're constrained to a 20-minute show.

3Posted by James on November 6, 2005

The relationship between Michael/Ryan is something like (envious middle adged manager with man-crush on exciting young new guy/temp whos just looking for $10 and hour and doesn't care about his work at all), and between Ryan/Dwight it's (again, new guy who doesn't care about job/insanely jealous guy who desperately wants all of Michael's attention). But neither of those relationships are as well defined or as rich as the previous 4 you mentioned.

It seems like they've tried to pull in some topics for Ryan but haven't finished them. His reaction and acceptance speech at the Dundies was uncomfortable. He was (and continues to be) clearly uncomfortable with Michael's advances, although I believe they are purely non-sexual from Michaels side - just a "man-crush", a la George Costanza. But Ryans commentary after the got the award - "I.... i really don't know what i'm going to do with this.... I have other things to think about", or something like that - that was kind of weird. I'm thinking Ryan is thinking he might be gay, and the way Michael is acting makes him uncomfortable. I dunno, probably overanalysis.

4Posted by Joe on November 7, 2005

James, I love this "Why I Watch the Office" essay. If I didn't know better, I'd swear I wrote it. I'm not used to getting so invested in TV shows (spending time on message boards, etc.), but since I first heard they were doing a US version with Greg Daniels and Steve Carell at the beginning of this year, I've felt so perversely dedicated to it. Glad to see someone like yourself who's so dedicated and understands what makes this show great is able to put together such a wonderful site for it. The show recaps are outstanding. Excellent work!

5Posted by bp on November 9, 2005

Great essay. I told a friend today, "The Office is so much better than everything else out there, it's not even fair."

6Posted by Robert Penner on November 17, 2005

[...] UPDATE: Holy crap.  I just read the reasons why the person who writes Northern Attack watches The Office.  Wow.  Wow.  A million times more indepth and spot on than mine.  So forget my crappy post and go read the real deal.  It even included a part I thought of, but forgot to mention: the accesibility of the characters.  3 or 4 of the actors have Myspace pages where they blog, respond to comments and/or emails, post pictures, and all kinds of other things.  Not too many shows have actors that give that much back to their fan bas and I applaud them for it. The Colbert Report I look forward to seeing this show more than The Daily Show these days. Colbert’s ability to ad-lib in-character is very impressive. I love the running gags: [...]

7Posted by Salt in the Wound on April 28, 2006

"Writer A : This is a pleasant scene.
Writer B : We’ll add Brent. Reshoots scene with Brent.
Writer A : I have never been more offended in my life.
Writer B : Smashing. Let’s have some tea."

I'm not sure if this was meant as a joke, your bit about the two writers of the original office putting together scenes with Brent. I think there was a lot more heart in the british show than you are giving credit, even in addition to the Tim/Dawn thing. Sure Brent had a huge ego and wasn't good with people, but he did need them, in the end of series 2 he just breaks down. Brent is not just in there to be offensive. He's just awkard and extremely insecure. very much like Michael Scott. Except, I think Michael Scott is even more childish than Brent. When i'm viewing the two programs, it seems that Brent is appealing to the audience through the camera and Scott is trying so hard to appeal to his staff in the bullpen. Different styles.

8Posted by Sruti on July 21, 2006

While reading this I found myself saying over and over, "that's so true!". I recently started watching The Office after a friend introduced me to it. Over the past two weeks, I've watched every episode and I have liked it more and more with each episode. I want to go through them again because, as you said, there are jokes in there that don't come out until two or three views. If anything, I think that really defines excellent comedy - the fact that it's not in-your-face all the time.
I myself do not watch a lot of television (my two other favorite shows are Seinfeld and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, which I was stunned when you mentioned Conan in this write up), and I am weary of new shows - there is just so much crap TV out there now.
The Office is really an amazing show, like you say, one minute I find myself laughing hysterically, and the next I find myself really feeling for the characters. The Jim/Pam development is beautifully and tastefully done. The end of the Boys and Girls episode in season 2 is so well done - no words are spoken, and it's so quick, but the point is driven home.

9Posted by Joe on July 28, 2006

You're insane. Basically, you've just summed up every Office fan's reasons.
How'd you do it? HOW!?!?!
Anyways, I am SO greatful that you have created this wondeful site, and have devotes so much time/energy to putting it up, and really EXPLAINING episodes, and quoting...and...
if I keep going, this'll be one HECK of a comment.
But, thanks. :)

10Posted by Elena on September 5, 2006

Thanks for writing about why "The Office" is so great.
I would have never known about this site if not for hearing Jenna mention it on the DVD commentary.
I love the "attack you with the North". Michael is so clueless, but has no clue that he's clueless -- or does he?.
Hate to drag politics in, but I think people find Michael Scott so true is because George W. Bush is our leader. He's our boss (sort of) but we're not sure how he got there and we know people smarter than him.
The show is brilliant and well-written and well cast.
As Michael would say, it's "incalculable".

11Posted by Dave W. in ME on September 20, 2006

I loved reading why you love the office. I couldn't of said it better. I hate to admit it, but I just found it. My husband had watched it and talked about how funny it was, so I asked for season one & two on DVD for Christmas. It is my favorite show. It's rare that the entire cast is so likable, but it's true, I love all of them. Of course the story lines of Jim and Pam are my favorite. I can't wait each week to see what the interaction is between them. I recently lost both of my parents suddenly, and the show is the bright spot of my week. I too only know of this website because of the DVD commentary, and I thank you for it!

12Posted by MJ on February 6, 2007