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Six Ways The Office Mattered

Tomorrow, we can talk about how good or bad The Office's finale was. Today, let's remember some of the ways it influenced the sitcoms that came after it.

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Chris Haston / NBC

If any TV show is lucky enough, it will last to the point when it will seem tired, repetitive, business as usual. The Office, which ends its last season after nine years tonight, may arguably have reached that point; however well it ends, it will have been punching the clock for a long time. But it’s worth remembering, however much we’re used to the show’s style and comedy now, that network-TV sitcoms were a different breed when the American version of the show came on the air in 2005.

Tomorrow, we can talk about how good or bad its finale was. Today, let’s remember some of the ways it influenced the sitcoms that came after it:

It Adapted Scripted TV to the Reality-TV Era.

The Office’s mockumentary format had been used before it in movies, like Christopher Guest’s comedies. But to NBC’s primetime audience, its signifiers–the confessional interviews, the cameras rushing to keep up with the action–were more immediately familiar from reality TV, which in 2005 people were talking about replacing sitcoms altogether. Instead, The Office–and then shows that followed it, like Modern Family–used these tropes as a new language for telling stories and explaining characters.

Like many of the accomplishments of The Office (USA), this one was preceded by The Office (UK). And Arrested Development had a quasi-documentary format in 2003. But maybe one of the reasons it didn’t last longer was that audiences weren’t used to the format yet. Whether or not The Office did it better, it at least had better timing.

It Brought Back the Single-Camera Sitcom.

For non-TV-geeks: What’s a single-camera sitcom? A show that’s shot, like a TV drama, with one camera at a time, allowing it to use various locations and settings and to look more “movie-like.” (A multi-camera comedy trains multiple cameras on a stage set, usually with a live audience; think Friends or The Big Bang Theory.)

You’d think that single-cameras would offer more creative options, but since the heyday of M*A*S*H they were superseded by multi-cams, which looked like theater and offered the helpful cue of audience laughter. Before The Office, shows like Undeclared (and, again, Arrested Development) were funny, but to an audience used to multi-cams, they didn’t feel funny. By drawing laughs from interviews—and broad slapstick—The Office showed audiences they could laugh even when the TV didn’t tell them to.

(Update: A commenter on Twitter pointed out after I posted this that Scrubs was doing single-cam successfully on NBC earlier–true, and that wasn’t the first show to use single-camera either. The same could apply to many of the points here—as with pretty much every TV trend, no single show does it alone—but The Office happened to be a hit show at the crux of a lot of them.)

It Brought Drama Back to Comedy.

Here’s another way The Office harkened back to sitcom traditions of the early ’70s, when Norman Lear’s hugely popular comedies could also deal with dead-serious issues (without Very Special sentimentality) and M*A*S*H killed off Col. Henry Blake. The Office wasn’t political per se, but it was one of the first big comedies since Roseanne to present its characters with big stakes and to treat them seriously when it needed to.

Michael Scott was ridiculous and inappropriate, but he was also sympathetic; when his heart broke, yours did for him. In the office, there were mergers and business downturns, and people were genuinely worried about losing their jobs and not having money anymore. The Office showed that it could be escapist without being, entirely, an escape.

It Helped Mainstream the Cringe.

There were a few actual jokes in The Office, and plenty of pranks and slapstick. But from its early episodes, The Office specialized in a kind of humor–a scene that’s so uncomfortable you have to laugh–which used to be the specialty of cable comedies like The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

This had partly to do with The Office’s semi-dramatic strain (see previous item); it got many of its laughs by worrying the tender boundary between absurdity and pathos. It didn’t do this alone, of course; in the movies, there were movies like Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which elevated Steve Carell’s stature just as The Office was getting started. But The Office as much as any TV show was responsible for making so-painful-it’s-funny humor standard procedure on network sitcoms.

It Showed That Comedy Stories Didn’t Need to Be Simple to Be Popular.

The Office debuted in midseason 2004–05, the same season that Lost revived the idea of complex, even convoluted, serial storytelling in a broadcast network drama. The Office may not have had flash-forwards (that would come with sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, which debuted the next fall), but it was more dedicated than most big mainstream comedies before it to ongoing stories: Pam and Jim’s courtship, the various corporate changes at Dunder-Mifflin, Michael Scott’s romances, Jim’s attempt to start his own business.

The series also proved itself willing to complicate the way it presented its characters. It had sympathetic leads, antagonists, buffoons, and eccentrics, but it was also willing to flesh out and dimensionalize its whole ensemble. Michael could be an ass, but he was also driven by a deep loneliness he felt from childhood. Angela was a prude, but became sympathetic when her closeted politicina husband abandoned her. Characters revealed tics and traits over the years, like Oscar’s pedantic streak. And maybe most refreshingly, even as the show gave Pam and Jim a genuine, stirring romance, it also occasionally reminded you that their coworkers thought the lovebirds could be kind of irritating.

It Brought Hard Reality—a Little—to the Workplace Sitcom.

True, the employees of Dunder-Mifflin often seem to be too busy holding Office Olympics or paper-airplane contests to actually keep a business running. But the show’s storylines did keep a foot in the modern real world of white-collar paper-pushing and economic anxiety.

The employees dealt with the benefits package (as when Dwight chose a healthcare plan in the first season), sensitivity-training sessions, and human resources consultations. There was an awareness that–like many of our workplaces–the Scranton branch was subject to the vicissitudes of a larger company and larger economic forces. It was merged with another branch, which led not only to the Jim-Karen-Pam love triangle but to downsizing and layoffs. The corporation once nearly went under, then was upended by a poorly executed buyout by a printer company. Possibly the series’ best arc, in season 5, came when Michael started a rival paper company, which ended in a small triumph–a modest buyout–but also dashed Michael’s romantic illusions (like the rest of his, drawn from pop culture) about the plucky little guy winning big.

The Office was in the tradition of workplace comedies that are about “surrogate families”–its big stories were about friendship, personal challenges, romance. But to its credit, it never forgot that, in the end, sometimes a job was just a job.

5 comments
antonmarq
antonmarq

Like all reality shows, sitcom should go the way of the dinosaurs. All they do is contribute to the growing mindlessness of our society.

AdamWill
AdamWill

I wish Sports Night had arrived a few years later, when it might have found an audience... it's another one that might have been just a little too early with its style of filming and mixture of drama and comedy.

machiney
machiney

How about The Wonder Years? 1988, single camera.  And that show was hilarious.  But I guess you could argue it was more a half hour drama than a sitcom.  I guess that's what I love about shows like that -- they are hard to categorize and label.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@machiney Again, just to be even more explicit than my parenthetical update: The Office was not the first show to use single-camera (M*A*S*H, as I mentioned, and it comes up throughout earlier TV history). But by the '80s and '90s it had become the exception rather than the rule, and The Office was pretty instrumental in changing that—to the point where, some recent seasons, we've seen more new single- than multi-cams.

Omagus
Omagus

I don't want to beat a dead horse but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Malcolm in the Middle used single camera before both The Office and Scrubs.