My Problems With The Office, conclusion
I’ll admit that when I saw the documentary approach to The Office, I was mostly left cold. In retrospect, I’ve never been sure why it didn’t appeal to me. It certainly did for Parks and Recreation, which I felt was one of the great comedies of the last decade, if not of all time and it worked well for me in Modern Family, a series I mostly ignored when it was on the air, but every time I see an episode in syndication I get a pang when I realize what I missed.
For some reason, though, the way The Office did it never quite worked. I got the feeling that almost everybody on the series was playing to the camera in a way that just never appealed to me. Jim’s knowing glances to the fourth wall (which I’ll admit could be amusing) reminded me to much of the work of Jack Benny, who could say so much with just a look at the camera. The difference is, when Benny did, he was lampooning himself. When John Krasinki did it, it seemed a little mean.
There were some things, I’ll admit, that I really liked about the series. Most of it applied to many of the background characters. Kelly Kaling and Angela Kinsey were both incredibly good at being two polar opposites; Mindy utterly irrepressible in the face of her job; Angela incredibly repressed in just about everything (well, except her cat.) I thought just about everything that came out of Stanley’s mouth was funny — in retrospect he may have been the most relatable character on the show, someone who just wanted to get through the day and had no patience for his bosses shenanigans. And I really like the naivete of Ed Helms’ early work as Andy, someone who seemed so eager to do what he wanted.
And yes, like everybody else in the world, I loved Jim and Pam. How could you not? Of all the people at Dunder Mifflin, they were the only ones who seemed genuinely interested in life outside their jobs. Jim was never really happy at his job, which is probably why he did everything he could to divert attention from work. And Pam so clearly wanted to do more with her life than be a secretary and it was actually wonderful when she managed to break free of that desk.
And the flirtation that went back and forth between Pam for the first three seasons was adorable and unlike so many romances that fizz out when they finally hook up, it actually became more lively and entertaining when they were together. A lot of this has to do with the chemistry between Krasinki and Fischer that was always there. There are very few relationships on television that actually work all the way through. (Another reason I never really liked one of the final episode arcs, but since I never saw it, I’ll let it go.)
So it’s obvious that there were parts of The Office that worked very well. Why then, did it never add up to real greatness for me? I really don’t know. Full disclosure: one of the greatest joys I ever found watching the Emmys came in 2011 just after Steve Carell had left. In this three minute segment, the workers at Dunder Mifflin were upset at the ‘new people’ who had come to work there after Michael had left. Most of these people were either stars of Emmy nominated or popular series. Among my favorite segments: Aziz Ansari’s Tom from Parks & Rec trying to get Stanley to cheer up (which he didn’t) Jesse Pinkman walking in to see Creed (the office’s clearest criminal) and Creed openly buying crystal meth from him, and a segment where Peter Dinklage’s character from Game of Thrones was seen speaking Dothraki, followed by Leslie Knope doing the same. I’ve rarely laughed that hard at any segment before or since.
So why couldn’t I enjoy the series either when it was on the air or in syndication now? When it comes right down to it, unlike so many of the great sitcoms of that era — I think not only of Parks & Rec, but 30 Rock and, when it was at its peak, Arrested Development — how mundane it was. All of the funniest series on the air at the time offered absurdity and Easter eggs if you paid close attention. Most of all, even in their lunacy, they offered escapism. The Office’s humor was literally based in the average job that so many of us have. In retrospect, that may have been the main reason The Office was so popular, while the series I’ve mentioned were critically acclaimed but barely watched. The series I listed have had a great afterlife too — believe me, their fans are legion as well — but none have had the consistent fanbase of The Office.
Perhaps in that sense I’m more of an elitist than a working stiff. But I’d still rather spent an afternoon watching Leslie and Ron spar in Pawnee in the parks department or see Liz Lemon try to control Jenna and Tracy than watch Jim perform pranks on Dwight at Dunder Mifflin. And I still prefer Leslie and Ben’s love story — or for that matter, any of the wondrous romances that unfolded in Parks & Rec — to any of those — yes, even Pam and Jim’s that came to life in Scranton. They were truly moving and there were none of the contrivances to keep them apart after they got together. Maybe the satire is more obvious than the humor on The Office, but I’d rather hang out with them than got to work there.