What Makes ‘The Office’ Great (Especially in the Age of Social Distancing)
The difference between being good and being great is that greatness stands the test of time. Good baseball players make the All-Star Game, great players make the Hall of Fame and those who saw them play tell children what it was like to watch them play. Such as it is with TV shows.
When I started binge-watching The Office a couple of months ago, I did not except to fall in love with the show, but I did. So, I decided today, on the show’s 15th anniversary, to try to figure out what makes The Office so great and timeless.
I had been familiar with some of the memes, GIFs, and signature one-liners, but had resisted the urge to get into the show out of a sort of stubbornness (my inner Stanley Hudson, if you will) and was unimpressed with what little bits and pieces of episodes I had seen previously. Looking back on that, it makes sense. The episodes I experienced where from season 8, the most forgettable of the nine. Still, I decided to look past that and finally decided to give in and see what all the fuss was about and start from the beginning.
I went into The Office aware of the show’s reputation for cringe humor. This cringeworthiness is evident not just boss Michael Scott’s social awkwardness, but also very un-PC attitudes towards his employees. Often the two go hand in hand. Talking about the political incorrectness, Steve Carell has said that it would hard to make the show today.
It’s not just the break from overly-politically correctness where we allow ourselves to laugh at things that are so clearly out of bounds in real life that makes the show funny. It’s the fire drill at the beginning of the episode Stress Relief followed by the the roast of Michael and Michael’s “Boom. Roasted” comeback. It’s be remembered we all have the sense of humor of a 12-year old boy every time a “that’s what she said” joke is told. It’s Kevin spilling his chili, Pam’s drunken reaction to winning a Dundie, Jim pranking Dwight, Michael’s seemingly irrational hatred for Toby, burning his foot on a Foreman Grill, and Creed.
But, ultimately it’s the show’s heart that sets it apart. There are many comedies, but The Office’s mockumentary-style makes it feel like your invested in these people’s lives and you can see yourself, your friends, your co-workers, and maybe even your boss in these characters.
The character of Michael Scott works because while he is socially awkward and insensitive, he means well. He’s the well-meaning buffoon who just wants to be liked. He just wants to make friends and have a family and views his employees as the best way to fill that void in his life.
He tries to fill it with empty romantic relationships, but while they may give his the status of being in a relationship that he so desperately wants, they do not make him happy. He goes through many of these relationships throughout Carell’s seven seasons on the show, but finds only Holly Flax, the one he ends up marrying, understands and appreciates his quirks.
Even his employees grow to like him, despite his flaws. When he’s getting ready to leave for Colorado, his employees sing for him recounting the “9,986,000 Minutes” he’s spent at Dunder Mifflin.
When I started watching, I expected the famous memes and “That’s what she said” jokes, but I did not except to get emotional when Michael leaves to marry Holly. Michael Scott isn’t a real person, he’s just a character, after all. One reason the emotion of his final scene works so well is because it’s not just Pam saying goodbye to Michael, but Jenna Fischer saying goodbye to Steve Carell. The actors weren’t acting in that scene. Jim was correct when he told Michael that, “ sometimes goodbyes are a bitch.”
It has been said that the difference between America and Britain is that America is eternally optimistic, while our British friends are more cynical. This is evident in our comedy and respective versions of The Office. When an American is told to “always look on the bright side of life,” we tend do think things could be better, that there is room to improve. We see this in Michael’s character. He may be a buffoon, but post-season 1, he has redeeming moments, he’s there for his employees when others aren’t, such as the time when he was the only one to genuinely appreciate Pam’s work at the art show, even displaying one of her paintings in the office for the duration of the show.
The British image of “always look on the bright side of life” is epitomized by the crews of HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry singing the Monty Python song of the same name from The Life of Brian awaiting rescue after having their ships shot out from under them. If Michael was just shown to be a bad person and bad boss, we would not have cared when he left, we might have even said “good riddance.” Or we would not have even gotten to say that because the show might have ended before that. Indeed, the change to Michael’s character post-season 1 may have saved the show. He may have been funny in the cringe-inducing kind of way that we see in Diversity Day, but he would have been the bad guy who nobody was sad to see leave.
The show that re-popularized “That’s what she said” is also the show that reconciled the show’s main romantic relationship, not with a steamy make out session (this trope is mocked and played for laughs in The Office through the Kelly-Ryan relationship) as Hollywood is one to do, but with a Bible verse. Pam does not reciprocate Jim’s hug in Paper Airplane until she has a flashback to the preacher at their wedding reciting 1 Corinthians 13.
Again, Jim and Pam are not real people, but if you didn’t get emotional watching that after watching them for nine seasons, then something is wrong with you. As with Carell’s goodbye scene in season 7, the emotion in Jim and Pam’s reconciliation and Pam realizing she is enough for Jim works because it’s real. The note Jim hands Pam was written by John Krasinski to Fischer explaining what the previous nine years meant to him. Fischer called Krasinski’s note “perfect.”
Many people do not like season 9 and to be honest, it was not the greatest, but the ending to the Jim and Pam story line was a great human moment. I can understand why some people did not like the idea of introducing a bitter, almost marriage ending disagreement between one of TV’s all time great couples, but while romantic relationships can be tremendously rewarding, they can also be tremendously challenging.
Jim and Pam are meant to portray real human beings, not a nothing-ever-goes-wrong fairy tale. I had a pastor in college say Shrek was the most realistic romantic love story he could think of. I humbly suggest the last couple of episodes of The Office for the difficulties that come with relationships and the beauty that comes with reconciliation.
Elsewhere, as the show ended, Dwight Schrute becomes regional manager, fulfilling his ambitious desire for power. Even the esoteric, power hungry beet farmer has developed a strong bond with his “subordinates.” Even perpetual prankster Jim.
The most unexpected friendship raises a question for all of us: if the up-tight and judgmental Angela Martin can become close friends with the openly gay Oscar Martinez, during her hardships of being homeless after Oscar had an affair with her then-secretly gay husband, then what excuse do we have?
That is what makes The Office great. Some of the greatest characters in TV history gave us nine seasons of every possible human emotion. They taught us how to laugh with, cry with, and even fall romantically in love with each other. Speaking of Biblical references and examples, go back to the earlier seasons and who would ever have thought that Angela and Oscar, Jim and Dwight, and Pam and Michael would, by the end of things, would give us an on-screen lesson on what it means to love your neighbor as yourself?
Addendum: At the end of the series finale, Andy Bernard tells the camera, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”
I originally wrote this article not long after finishing binge watching its subject matter and scheduled it to be published weeks in advance for today, the 15th anniversary of the show’s debut. Since then we have all learned about “social distancing” amid the COVID-19 outbreak and I’m sure Andy’s sentiment rings true for most of us in these dark days.
As someone who usually writes about politics and the news media, these can be depressing days where the news the full of sickness, death, and talk of an economic depression. I’d take all the D.C. circuses including Donald Trump and Joe Biden engaging in petty political food fights with all the nastiness that a presidential election entails, compared to this. I’d take that seven days a week.
To escape the world of COVID-19 as much as possible, I found myself returning to Dunder Mifflin and I’m not talking about getting advice from Dwight’s toilet paper antics in China (Now that’s irony). I’m talking about laughing along with the rest of America at the episodes Stress Relief and Dinner Party as well as reliving the emotional pick-me-up of Jim and Pam’s wedding in Niagara. Sure, the employees of Dunder Mifflin could drive each other crazy, but they did become a family over the course of nine seasons, as Michael always wanted. And that’s how we’ll get through this: with our families, both our literal, biological families and those closest to us who might as well be.
When this is over, whenever that happens to be, the next time you do something as simple as going to work or take a walk in the park, remember the show’s very last line, which is Pam saying to the camera, “there’s a lot of beauty in ordinary thing, isn’t that kinda the point?”