Monday, July 17, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 14: The Office

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls
Part 13: Everwood

Like Seinfeld, The Office finds much of its humor in the mundane. A lot of its appeal comes from the little moments that all of us can relate to as being part of our own jobs, whether it's dealing with a co-worker who makes a nuisance of himself by flaunting every bit of his limited authority, or the silent battles waged over the thermostat setting.

For me, the earliest connection I made was that the office manager I dealt with daily was EXACTLY like Michael Scott, right down to the fact that he saw himself as an entertainer as much as he did a supervisor. It was so spot-on that it was almost painful, but it's not one of the reasons this show is on the list.

For the first season of the show, Michael Scott seemed like a clueless, self-centered buffoon... and those were in his better moments. In his worst ones, (the sensitivity training session in "Diversity Day" comes to mind) he was a straight-up asshole and incompetent. It took little time to provoke the question: "If he's so stupid, how did he get this job?"

The Office brilliantly answered that early in season two, with an episode called "The Client." Michael and his boss Jan have to take an important client to dinner. It's impressed on us that this is an account they can't afford to lose. This client covers their entire county and if they lose him, it could force Dunder-Mifflin to downsize the branch. Yes, that means everyone's jobs are essentially in Michael's hands.

By now, we've seen Michael's immature antics screw up enough times that we completely empathize with Jan's cringing when Michael interrupts her "all-business" pitch with entreaties to order an "awesome blossom" for the table. By the time he's singing the "I want my baby-back, baby-back, baby-back ribs" jingle, Jan looks like she wants to crawl under the table in embarrassment and we're right there with her.

It's not until near the end of the meal that we look at this moment and Michael in a new light. The client keeps falling back on "budget cuts" as a major concern for him. We come into a conversation later in the night, as the two men are apparently bonding over their local histories.

Spent my whole life right here in Lackawanna County and I do not intend on moving. I know this place. I know how many hospitals we have. I know how many schools we have. It's home, you know? I know the challenges that this county is up against. Here's the thing about those discount suppliers, they don't care. They come in, they undercut everything, and they run us out of business. And then, once we're all gone, they jack up the prices.

He's spent the whole night getting the conversation to this point. The client agrees. Jan tries to interject and Michael promptly shushes her. He knows that her help isn't needed, and seconds later, the client agrees to meet them halfway. And all of that is because Michael knew how to appeal to the guy on a personal level, not a business one.

That moment takes the oddity of Michael's leadership and immediately explains it. No matter how bad he is as a manager, he knows how to read people and spent the whole night softening the guy up for that pitch. We understand that he must have been a great salesman and that this success is probably what got him promoted to branch manager. It's the Peter Principle in action - he got promoted one level past his competence.

Michael's characterization now had an internal logic it was lacking before and the show would play off of that many times in the future. It underlined how there was real thought that went into the crafting of these oddball characters and that the show wasn't writing purely for the joke.

The Jim and Pam relationship is an even more potent instance of that. I recently had a conversation with my wife about the faction of fandom known as "shippers." These are fans that are intensely devoted a particular pairing on a TV show, generally to the exclusion of interest in any other aspect of the show. Some of these fans take the show particularly seriously, which leads them to attack competing couplings and often attack the writers responsible.

My wife couldn't comprehend being so invested in a show's couples that a person would react that extremely. We tried to figure out if there were any shows where we felt an intense connection to a particular couple's storyline. As I said, "With Dawson's Creek, I preferred Joey with Pacey and really hated the idea of her with Dawson, but it never mattered enough to me to go on the attack about. On Buffy, I think the idea of Buffy and Spike is sick and degrading her her character, but I'd never send a writer death threats over it."

And she came back with the one couple she remembered being really invested in: Jim and Pam.

Jim and Pam's relationship is one of the perfect TV slow-burn love stories. It starts as Jim's one-sided crush on his engaged officemate, then gradually shows interactions that hint that Pam might be in love with him and not realize it. The writers break that stasis by having Jim confess his feelings and leave and then spend an entire season rebuilding that relationship before following the courtship through to marriage.

It felt real and relatable. I think everyone's had feelings for someone who was unattainable at one point and so Jim's agonizing crush struck a familiar note with most viewers. The show's documentary style also invited the viewer to feel a certain intimacy with each of the characters. We're seeing stolen moments, some where the players don't know they're being filmed and some when they don't realize what they're revealing. There were times that we'd see something Jim said or did that he didn't realize was caught on camera, and then he'd either lie about it or minimize it in a confessional interview.

The Office - at its best - understood people in general and its characters in specific. The humor had to feel more naturalistic than in a typical sitcom and many of the laughs were observational in nature. Dwight's point of view was always so different from everyone else's that it would be impossible to reassign most of his lines to any other character. Same goes for Michael, or Phyllis, or Kelly, and so on.

It's a lesson not dissimilar from Seinfeld's ethos - find the little things. If there's a difference in execution it's that Seinfeld would mine minutae for story, whereas The Office did so for character, which in turn would drive story, and long-running story arcs. There are few relationships as perfectly built as the Jim/Pam trajectory in Season 2. That's how you make an audience fall in love with a couple.

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