One of the virtues of series TV is that it goes on. The writers can roll out stories over time; no need to condense plots or stunt characters. No need to force a conclusion. When a character gains weight — or maturity, or a conscience — it happens over months or years, in a more lifelike fashion.
And one of the curses of series TV is that it goes on. And on and on and on. NBC’s “The Office,” which wraps up its nine-season run on Thursday, has stayed far too long at the fair, as most fans would probably agree. The hugely influential show, along with Ricky Gervais’s original UK “The Office,” changed TV comedy for the better, but then it succumbed to the bane of American TV — the endless more-more-more of anything good or popular, the twisting of characters into pretzels to simply keep them in motion, the cheap substitutes after lead actors depart. “The Office,” like too many good shows before it, including “Frasier,” “The X-Files,” “M*A*S*H,” “Roseanne,” and “House,” leaves us wanting less.
But eulogies need to take stock of an entire life, not just the final days, and there is so much to honor about “The Office” before its flailing last few seasons. The show, initially run by Greg Daniels, was a rule-breaker of the first order, foiling viewer expectations and ushering the non-punch-line-based TV sitcom into vogue. Along with Gervais and Stephen Merchant of the 2001 “Office,” Daniels and his company redefined comedy for mainstream American audiences, creating a perfect blend of Christopher Guest’s wry mockumentary style from movies such as “Waiting for Guffman” and the cringe humor of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Garry Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show.”
The first rule that “The Office” broke was to successfully remake a British sitcom at a time, in 2005, when Americans had already remade and screwed up “Cold Feet,” “Men Behaving Badly,” and “Coupling.” It had been decades since Norman Lear had transformed “Till Death Do Us Part” into the classic American sitcom “All in the Family,” and the anticipation of yet another transcontinental failure set many industry and critical eyes rolling.
Daniels defied expectations, though, by respecting and interpreting “The Office” for American viewers, rather than by simply knocking the life out of it and dumbing it down. He stayed true to the style of Gervais’s brittle vision, making only slight character changes for a country of viewers who generally require a few redeeming qualities before they are willing to watch a person on a weekly basis. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was softer than Gervais’s David Brent, but no less of an offensive bonehead.
The American “Office” also broke a few basic rules about the American network sitcom up to that point. It was a kind of anti-sitcom. The rigid timing, focus, and choreography of TV comedy was such that there were no overlong silences, no peripheral activities. Sitcoms were an exercise in artifice, to a great extent, punctuated by jokes and laughter. Think of “Will & Grace,” a groundbreaking show of a different stripe; every second was accounted for during its 22 minutes, every beat determined, every inch of screen space intentional.
“The Office,” on the other hand, was riddled with those weird, ordinary awkward moments that we all encounter in daily life. The show’s uncomfortable pauses could be painful, and an entire character, John Krasinski’s Jim Halpert, seemed to emerge out of those crevices. The camera, freed up by the mockumentary premise, would land on his face, where you could see him secretly enjoying the idiocy and anxiety surrounding him. And it was in those gaps that he met and bonded with Jenna Fischer’s Pam. Krasinski became an expert at the non-stagey deadpan.
And the people at Dunder Mifflin — great suggestive name, that — were truly uncomfortable to be around. Kevin was a dimwit, Kelly a shrill narcissist, Dwight a petty tyrant; they were like a tone-deaf and downbeat version of the “M*A*S*H” gang, with Dwight and Angela as Frank and Hot Lips. They said stupid things that were not telegraphed as punch lines. Eventually, as the show began to lose its bearings in an effort to fill seasons of episodes, the writers made them all more lovable, more conventional; but initially, they weren’t exactly cute.
Likewise, Michael Scott began as a pompous, clueless dude whose verbal diarrhea went beyond the normal scope. He offended women, gays, people of color — you name it — without the happy resolutions that generally arrived on typical workplace sitcoms such as “The Drew Carey Show,” “Just Shoot Me,” and even “Scrubs.” Usually the boss has an “aww” moment where he learns his lesson and is met with understanding. Not Michael. His sexual innuendos and racial offenses just landed flat. He made his employees squirm, as he lectured them about racial sensitivity or life as a former convict. His beyond-offensive presentation as “Prison Mike,” in an episode written by Gervais and Merchant, was a series peak. Later on, of course, as the writing stretched thin, he became more sympathetic.
Even the look of the show broke rules. The office of Dunder Mifflin itself is a study in blandness, like too many real offices. There is little to no color, no stylistic flourishes that suggest positivity and personality to viewers. Like everything else, the set was not candy-coated. Even the people were kept ordinary. Fisher was made to look average, not another one of TV’s typical sitcom “babes” such as Jennifer Aniston or Courteney Cox.
The past few seasons, particularly since Carell left, have been spotty at best, and they have compromised the show’s legacy. Jim and Pam, one of the least tiresome sitcom couples for many years, whose wedding episode was a joy, have finally become a little irritating — only because the writers have strained to keep drama in their relationship by putting their marriage in jeopardy. Same with Ed Helms’s Andy, who was thrown into a state of character inconsistency when the writers made him into the boss against all odds.
The one right move in recent months has been the pulling back of the curtain, to reveal the film crew. It has been a meta-touch worthy of the most meta of sitcoms, “30 Rock,” as the “Office” workers have begun to see footage of themselves. The twist may not make it easy for the other TV mockumentaries that have followed in the wake of “The Office,” including “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family.” “The Office” has turned our attention to what is supposed to be invisible on mockumentaries — the cameras and the microphones. But really, that’s the kind of unorthodox move that made “The Office” such a revelation in the first place.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.