Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of THE OFFICE

Previous Pilot breakdowns:
Veronica Mars

Continuing my series of breaking down pilot episodes, today's archived tweet-thread changes things up by examining a comedy, the American version of THE OFFICE. You can find the original tweet-thread here. This pilot was written by Greg Daniels, based on the British series created by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant.

A reason I wanted to do a pilot like THE OFFICE is the other two I did were "premise pilots." They're clearly Chapter 1s of a long story. THE OFFICE is - mostly - a story that could have happened at any point in that season. We come into an already established situation. There's definite value in writing a pilot that shows exactly what a typical episode will be, rather than just setting up the premise.

And we're off. Mockumentary concept in place from frame one. Michael's meeting with Jim about his sales. Michael's phone call establishes: he's the manager, his company sells paper products, and he's awkward. Self-consciously looks at camera.

Next, Michael addresses the camera, taking us on a tour and filling in exposition. "People say I am the best boss... You're hilarious." He has a "World's Best Boss" mug. Which he bought himself. That's a great little detail. Then we met Jim, who CLEARLY couldn't care less about his job. Michael comes in and tells an outdated joke. Jim is clearly tired of it but endures it. Dwight plays along.

Michael is caught without an agenda in meeting with his boss Jan. Problem: moments ago we've seen him tell Pam to throw it out. And Pam has to say that. In front of Jan. The reaction shots of Pam and other reacting in horror are critical. They show us the characters are as horrified by Michael as we are.

A series of shots shows the rumor about downsizing spreading through the office. Good quick way to meet everyone.

Temp Ryan arrives. Michael has a new audience for all his "Hilarious" jokes. Another reminder that EVERYTHING Michael does is playing to the camera.

Dwight bickers with Jim that some of Jim's stuff is spilling onto Dwight's desk. Instantly we know, he's THAT guy. Then we get kind of a soft break to Act One, Dwight talking head about not being scared of downsizing. Not a huge plot twist.

Michael's looks to camera are often unconscious, checking to see if they got this. Jim's are communication, "You're seeing this, right?"

Dwight says he's "Assistant Regional Manager," Michael corrects, "Assistant TO THE Regional Manager." That dynamic is fully formed in a few words.

Pam is shy, but when Michael puts her on the spot after lying to the office about downsizing, she corrects his account.

Jim knows Pam's favorite yogert. Pam is beaming when she finds out he knows that. Again, sets up THAT relationship.

Jim pranks Dwight by putting a stapler in jello. Shows Jim takes more pride in the pettiness of his pranks than his work. Also, by EATING jello when Dwight gets mad, he shows he's not above pushing buttons in a petty way. Jim always has to spike the ball.

There's a Pam/Jim exchange at the desk that's shot from a distance, implying they don't know they're being filmed at that moment. It's also we learn that Pam is engaged to Roy, who doesn't give her permission to go out for a drink with the rest of the office.

Talking head: Jim is asked if he'll be invited to the wedding. He doesn't answer. Shows the documentary crew KNOWS the story they're chasing.

Michael pulls a "prank" on Pam, accusing her of theft (of post-it notes, he eventually says) and saying he's gonna have to let her go. Michael thinks he's being funny, Pam gets upset. Michael's joke is way out of line for a boss. Even HE seems to get that when he claims Ryan was in on it. Scenes like that are an effective way of cranking up the awkwardness of what it's like to be stuck with a boss like Michael. (Been there).

Pam has another moment with Jim that's interrupted by Roy. It's worth noting who gets the most screentime with each other.

And we close the show on Jim having put Michael's mug into jello. So it's a plot-light ep. Barely an A story, but the format allows that. The story mostly is: the branch is worried about downsizing; a new office temp arrives. It's a framework to hang all the character moments. It also means these characters HAVE to come out fully formed. And Michael aside, everyone here is entirely in line with their later depictions. Michael evolves into being more of an oblivious goof than a semi-malicious one. He's got a bit more affection for these people and that makes it easier to like him. You feel sorry for the kid in school who no one wants to play with. That's Michael. You don't like the bully.

Another slight change later on is that Michael eventually seems to be playing more to the office than to the camera. It's a BIT less vain.

Ryan the temp initially appears to be the "normal" guy who will react to the insanity. Eventually they transfer that to Jim entirely. In the pilot, he's mostly there to be someone for Michael to "show off" to. Carell pretty much has to PLAY annoying without being TOO annoying to watch. That's a hard needle to thread, writing-wise. It's why the supporting cast is critical so we can imprint on people.

Similar challenge is writing a boring character who is funny to the audience. It's why Grandpa Simpson speeches were probably hard to come up with on THE SIMPSONS.

Closing thoughts: for shows like this, objectives are:

- What's the setting?
- What makes this setting relatable? (we've all had boring jobs.)
- Who is the PERFECT lead character to embody that setting, and how do you give him or her the room to demonstrate it?
- And what are the running story engines? (downsizing, Pam/Jim crush, Jim/Dwight prank war, Michael impressing Ryan.)

Other Pilot Breakdowns:
Homicide: Life on the Street

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