Andy Greenwald has a reflection on what he calls “the most influential comedy of the last decade.” Since Steve Carell left, the show has not been the same, but that does not mean it wasn’t great in its prime.
It may not be pretty, but it’s somehow fitting that The Office should end this way: humbled, overlooked, and, increasingly, unloved. No one was paying much attention when the series debuted in 2005 and, in retrospect, it’s easy to see why. It was a prickly, initially slavish adaptation of a culty British comedy, shot in a jarring, shaky-camera style that appeared more suitable for Cops or a drunk uncle’s home movies than Must See TV. NBC thought so little of it that only six episodes were ordered and then promptly dumped in the midseason swamps of late March. The pilot featured a cast of relative unknowns ventriloquizing Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s cringe-inducing dialogue and, when subsequent episodes lost half the audience, the show’s prospects seemed thinner than Steve Carell’s pre–movie star hair. It was a fluke box office smash that kept it alive; it was a network-wide dearth of better options that eventually made it a hit.
Greenwald goes on to speak of what made The Office great.
When it was good, The Office was truly great. In contrast to the aspirational noisiness of other sitcoms, this was a show that celebrated the smallness of everyday life, the quiet indignities and tiny failures that mar our days and the shy smiles, raised eyebrows, and harmless pranks (well, mostly harmless) that give us the resilience to do it all again tomorrow. The Office thrived on the paper-thin edge between resignation and giving up, a task that would have been impossible had showrunner Greg Daniels not made the key decision to declare total independence from the English source material after the uneven first season.
There had been romantic sitcoms before The Office, and workplace sitcoms, too, of course. There had even been sitcoms starring Steve Carell.4 But no comedy before or since better captured the temporarily inflating rush of impractical desire, probably because no American comedy has ever been so unafraid of acknowledging desire’s black sheep cousin, regret. It’s what made Michael’s hapless quest for happiness feel heartfelt, not foolish, and imbued Dwight’s slow rise to power — and last week’s achievement of it — with the sort of recognizably human emotions the black-belted beet farmer would never cop to feeling.
And it’s what fueled the show’s essential story line for the best years of its life: the gradually romantic evolution of Jim and Pam from work spouses to actual spouses. Yes, the ham-fisted shenanigans of the final season made it plain that The Office had punted for years on the inevitable flip side to this fairy tale: Jim and Pam had gotten each other but they’d given up their hopes and dreams in the process. But I think it’s worth remembering just how bracing and essential those flirty looks and missed connections once felt, how understated and remarkable Jenna Fischer was in a role that so easily could have rankled with cuteness or veered into doormat. The end of Season 3 remains one of a handful of perfect television moments from my lifetime: Pam is doing a talking head to the camera assuming Jim, whom she’s lost to the wiles of Rashida Jones’s Karen, has gotten a corporate job in New York. Then Jim bursts into the room, a little flustered and a lot excited. He asks Pam out on a date. She accepts. He leaves. She turns back to us, asking “I’m sorry, what was the question?” And her skyscraping smile fills the screen in a way that standard sitcom laughter never could.