Editorials, Television

Death of a Salesman: On the Decline of The Office

By Alec Lindner

Imagine you have this friend who got sick. It happened slowly. At first, he just had a cough. Maybe you thought he had bronchitis or some shit. But it got bad. It quickly became apparent that something was seriously wrong. This guy got sicker by the week, and every brief sign of hope was quickly shot down. Now, things are bad. It’s become apparent this guy’s life is over. He’s not even really alive at all anymore; he’s kept breathing only by the wonders of technology. He’s hooked up to machines twenty-four hours a day, can’t speak, and probably isn’t even cognizant anymore. He’s a zombie. Now, after seeing him like this and observing his quality of life, you realize that this isn’t right. You shouldn’t force something to be alive that nature itself is clearly pushing toward death. As painful as it would be for everyone involved, it’s time to pull the ol’ plug.

This is how I feel about The Office, one of my absolute favorite shows. The Office is probably the first show I started to seriously follow on my own outside of the stuff I watched as a kid or to which I was introduced by my parents, and has been a huge influence on my tastes in comedy. It encouraged me to look further into the bold new world of single-camera comedies, and has probably been the most important influence on my television tastes; I can trace a line from The Office to my discovery as a wide-eyed kid of Arrested Development and, of course, the original Office, which led to a deep appreciation for great TV. If I had chosen to follow Family Guy or 2.5 Men instead of The Office back in 2006, I think I might have become a radically different person than I am today.

I’m writing this article in the wake of two events. First was my decision to stop watching The Office. No matter how bad the show had gotten, I kept tuning in week after week right after Parks and Recreation. This was mostly due to convenience, unlike other once-great-but-derailed shows such as Dexter, into which I would have to sink twelve hours a season on tiny, blurry MegaVideo stream (*pours out a 40*), The Office would just limp onto my television at 8:30. But a few weeks ago, I just decided to turn the TV off. I had gotten the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for Christmas, and I was in the middle of the AI Colonel’s freak-out in MGS2, and I just decided that I would rather play that than sit through more of the latter-day Office’s “wackiness.” I didn’t make any sort of symbolic stand against the show, it just bored me more than I could withstand. The second, and ultimately more important, occurrence was the news that The Office may actually be cancelled soon. The news that Dwight Schrute may be spun off onto his own show hit the tubes recently, as did the news that Mindy Kaling, one of the most important creative voices on the show nowadays, may leave to star in a FOX sitcom. As terrible as that Dwight Schrute spinoff sounds (he runs a farm with a clan of Wacky Relatives), it’s worth the toll if it finally convinces the NBC execs to let this old show rest in peace.

It’s easy to argue that The Office isn’t hurting anything by staying on the air and giving its stars a paycheck, but this isn’t true; it’s tarnishing its own legacy. Like The Simpsons, we now must use an asterisk when describing The Office’s greatness; future discussions of great television comedies will not include The Office, but The Office (Seasons 1-5). Every mediocre season the show churns out adds another unworthy chapter to The Office‘s masterful tale of finding hope in office drudgery; it would be like if F. Scott Fitzgerald tacked on an addendum to The Great Gatsby in which Nick Carraway meets a wacky black guy, a krazy Korean shopowner with an exaggerated accent, and a funny fat guy, and they buy a van and drive around the country solving mysteries, with Jordan Baker added back in the mix for the commercially necessary will-they/won’t-they romantic pairing. The Office is a story; any unnecessary chapters warp that story. The Office’s continuation also keeps the talented people working on it from moving on to new things. I had a discussion with A&NIPCW’s own Nathan Smith about the mediocrity of How I Met Your Mother’s later years, and I mentioned that the worst thing about the show’s continuation is that it has curbed the careers of the very talented Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris, and Alyson Hannigan, all of whom could be doing better things if not anchored to a sitcom three or four years past its prime. I feel the same way about The Office. Steve Carell realized that The Office had nothing more for him to do, and his costars are motivated more by the steady paycheck than the challenge their roles bring. The writers on the show could be writing a newer, fresher show, and the show’s terrific actors, the secret to its success in rising above its lowly status as a remake, could find new projects. Plus, I really want to see Creed in something else. The man is gold.

So what exactly happened to The Office? It’s commonly agreed that the show was good in seasons 1-5 and bad from season 6 onward. I used to agree with this assessment; however, season 8 did a funny thing: it managed to make seasons 6 and 7 look good by comparison. I recently burned through season 7 when it was added to Netflix, and I was surprised by how much better it was than I remembered. Sure, it may have been broader and more unsubtle than the golden year-era Office, but at least it had recognizable jokes and plotlines. Seasons 6 and 7 may have shat out such turds as “Mafia” and “Christening,” but it also gave us such gems as “Scott’s Tots (I know it’s divisive, but it’s a top-10 episode for me)” and “PDA.” So for the purposes of this article, I’ll say that The Office was a good show on decline in seasons 6 and 7, and only terrible in season 8.

The first recognizable instigator of this decline was the departure of this guy:

That’s Greg Daniels, original showrunner for The Office. This was the guy who turned the horrible idea of remaking one of the greatest shows of all time into the best comedy on American television. He made the US Office work not just because he’s a terrifically funny writer, but because he has a keen eye for characters; it was only when Daniels began to flesh out the odd characters surrounding the main four, something Ricky Gervais never bothered to do in his Office, that the show stepped out of the shadow of its big brother. This is why Daniels’s departure affected the show so radically. When Daniels left (he left the showrunner seat after season 4 but stayed active in the show through season 5), the show lost not just a sharp writer, but the person who set the tone and feel of the show. Greg Daniels has a knack for developing characters and situations that feel complex and real yet subtle; King of the Hill worked so well because Daniels balanced Mike Judge’s broad social satire with likeable and complex characters, and, while the show was low-key enough that it never truly went off the rails, it suffered when Daniels shifted focus away from the show and the characters became more broad. Daniels was a great fit for The Office because the show needed a sense of subtlety and tact not typically found in hit network comedies; it was about finding hope in the drudgery of the lives of office drones; the characters needed to feel like real people, not sitcom characters; and, above all, the show needed to feel real. Daniels’s sensibility fit this perfectly; his version of Scranton, Pennsylvania felt real and his characters were complex and subtle. He didn’t just create a sitcom, he created a small world. The Office started to decline when Daniels left because it lost his sense of subtlety. The writers reduced the show’s characters to their most basic description. Kevin’s only recognizable characteristics became his stupidity and obesity. Dwight became more and more monstrous so that he felt less like a real person and more like a character that would be at home on The Big Bang Theory. Overall, the show felt less real and more like a sitcom. The situations became dumber; in the first season six episode, Michael accidentally reveals that Stanley is cheating on his wife in a zany storyline that could have come straight from According to Jim or something. The best example of loss of complexity came in the fourth episode of season six, “Niagara,” or the Jim and Pam wedding episode. Jim and Pam’s relationship had been successful because it had felt real; the relationship between the two felt organic and was handled tactfully; their wedding, the resolution to their six-year long relationship arc, however, felt overly sitcommy. Andy rips his scrotum and Pam has to take him to the hospital! Why did this happen? Why don’t they just call an ambulance or ask for help from the hotel staff? Who gives a fuck, let’s have some dick jokes! Kevin has stinky shoes and wears tissue boxes and an ill-fitting toupee to the wedding! Holy shit, that fat motherfucker is dumb! Hahahaha! Look, for Jim and Pam’s wedding ceremony, the cap to one of the most memorable storylines in television history, they’re recreating a year-old YouTube meme! Hahaha, I get that reference! Greg Daniels actually received a cowriter’s credit on this episode, but this shit never would have been produced under Daniels’s more nuanced tenure as showrunner.

But perhaps the most obvious indicator of the show’s decline was the departure of the office’s fearless leader, Michael Scott.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Michael Scott is probably the most influential television character of the past decade. Even a person who has never seen The Office could most likely identify Michael, and he’s spawned countless ripoffs and homages; Leslie Knope and Phil Dunphy from Modern Family started out as Michael Scott: Woman and Michael Scott: Dad, respectively, until their shows fleshed them out better. Part of the reason the American Office succeeded was because Michael was a profoundly different character than David Brent: whereas David was a fundamentally bad person who forced his unwilling workers to be an audience to his horrible comedian persona, Michael was essentially a child in an adult’s body, with all the good and bad that came with that. It may have meant he was obnoxious and stupid; but it also meant he was hopeful and optimistic. I think this is why the show ultimately chose to give Michael a happy ending, symbolically approving of the character: even though he was trapped in a dreadful office job, he never gave up hope, even when most of his better-behaved workers did. This quality in Michael not only helped to make him a great character, but was an integral part of the show. Michael’s role on the show was that of a catalyst: while his workers were content to do their jobs and go home, Michael’s crazed ambition pushed the plot forward every week. When Michael leaves the office in season 5’s excellent Michael Scott Paper Company arc, Toby remarks, “Michael is like a movie on a plane. You know, it’s not great, but it’s something to watch. And when it’s over you’re like… how much time is left on this flight? Now what?” Even though the lives of the people in the office would be easier without Michael around, they would also be more boring. A good example of this comes in season 2’s “Office Olympics.” When Michael leaves with Dwight to close on his condo, the rest of the office holds a lo-fi Olympic Games complete with paper medals. It’s a funny story, but it’s only a b-plot. At the end of the day, the employees of Dunder-Mifflin simply go back to work; nothing has changed. Michael was essential to the show not just because he was a great character, but because he was essential to giving the show momentum. This has been the main reason that season 8 has been so terrible. While seasons 6 and 7 at least featured recognizable storylines, season 8 has simply taped a somewhat quirky office every week. Because Michael Scott isn’t around to force his employees to do anything, each episode feels less like a story than unedited security camera footage. While it’s easy to describe The Office as a show about a realistic office, it’s really not that at all; it’s about of a group of people stuck together by the fact that they work in the same place. Their story is worthwhile because of how their lives are affected by their boss.

It’s easy to point to how crew changes have hurt the show, but I’d also like to argue that something more abstract has helped bring about The Office’s downfall: its success. In its best years, The Office succeeded because it was a low-key comedy. It should never have to have been a huge blockbuster, but, unfortunately, it was on NBC. Because NBC has been the lowest rated network out of the big four since the turn of the century, they couldn’t let The Office just be a minor hit; it had to become the centerpiece of the network’s programming. It had to launch new shows and, in 2009, it had to air after the Super Bowl. This hurt The Office in a few ways. First, it contributed to the loss of subtlety in the show; tentpole shows tend to be loud and broad because audiences aren’t attracted to quiet humor. Season 2 or 3 Office couldn’t have followed the Super Bowl because the show was too low-key in those days. As The Office was tasked with keeping an entire network afloat, it had to act out more for attention. More importantly, The Office lost its edge as it became successful. Mainstream audiences don’t really appreciate dark or bittersweet humor, something on which the show thrived in its earlier seasons; they just want to be able to turn their brains off and laugh. The Office became something like Friends; about hanging out with our wacky pals at Dunder-Mifflin. All the characters became happy and satisfied, because who can have fun with Jim moping about longing for Pam? In its early days, The Office was about finding hope in the drudgery of the life of an office-drone, but the show’s success meant that the characters mostly had to get over their problems so they could generate huge laffs each week. And finally, The Office’s success means that NBC couldn’t just let it die at a natural point, such as when Michael Scott left. While it may have made sense to a more successful network to put the show in syndication and start on something fresh, NBC needs The Office because it doesn’t have any other successful shows. And that’s one of the most tragic things about the show’s horrible eighth season: it isn’t being kept alive for its own artistic value, but for the money it makes. The Office may still be a moneymaker, but creatively it has flatlined.

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One thought on “Death of a Salesman: On the Decline of The Office

  1. kotocko says:

    I just really appreciated how well written and totally accurate this article was. Couldn’t agree more! I was re-watching The Office after it had been released on Netflix… and I was trying to find the exact moment of the decline… and it really is Season 6. Jim and Pam’s wedding was bizarre in how unrealistic it was… a relationship that grew out of awkward office conversations and sharing sodas in the break room.. etc.only to flower as an old and tired Chris Brown (very dated, indeed…) internet reference.
    One thing that I’d noticed also is that the characters start to just be utterly nasty to each other, such as those nasty comments from Angela about the pregnancy.. that transcended the realm of normal office conversation, even if these co-workers knew each other really well. I just found things to be a bit more antagonistic, instead of the mundane, simple interactions of the previous seasons, it seemed that the writers had to insert new, interesting, mean-spirited exchanges that didn’t make sense.. to keep things interesting, I guess??. A true testament to the decline in quality.

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