The Office: Beauty in the Ordinary
If you don’t like The Office, I can’t imagine you’ve actually seen it. I would encourage the curious but uninitiated to move it to the top of the stack. You won’t regret it. Here’s why.
SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW
For better or worse, I finally watched it.
For worse, it’s now over. We all know the feeling of saying goodbye to characters we’ve spent a long time with, be it a novel, a TV show, a video game, or some other form of narrative. There’s no more story to be told, and it sometimes feels like losing a close group of friends. There is no treatment for this affliction. It is the bittersweet essence of great storytelling.
For worse, the legacy of this show is sometimes tainted by the absence of an iconic character after the seventh season. I know several fans who stopped watching after Michael Scott left, but I’m afraid those fans may have missed the point of the show. I struggle to imagine those themes didn’t impact them. I’m sure, had they continued watching, they may have found that the remainder of the series was worthwhile.
For better, The Office takes its place among the iconic progenitors of the television narrative medium. Many have tried to emulate the formula with nominal success. Like most narratives of this type, nothing will quite capture the beauty of the original, but it will extend the life of the format. The Office contributed to the medium in the same way Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, or I Love Lucy did. The impact this series has had on television will be felt for generations.
For better, I cried the very moment the finale ended. I cried like I haven’t cried in a long time. This may not seem like a positive point, but I yearn for this response to a story. I admit there were tears at moments throughout the series, but nothing quite hit me like the ton of bricks that was the final moment — the shot of Pam’s old drawing of the building as she said one of the most profound statements in the series, a quote I think sums up the entire theme of the series…
From the very first episode we are introduced to the eponymous Office’s new temp, Ryan. In a room full of exaggerated characters, Ryan plays the straight man. In this way he becomes the perfect representative for the audience. He sees how ridiculous all of the other characters are and says what we are all thinking. This is not uncommon in television.
However, as development continues, the audience begins to learn a lot more about the characters. They begin to flesh out into human beings with quirks and aspirations. In a way, they become family with one another and, in turn, family with the audience.
As the series continues to progress, Ryan’s view of the rest of the cast narrows even further. He gets promoted above everyone at one point, only to fall and eventually become the most revolting background character in the series. Much later in the series, it appears as though Ryan could be replaced by Andy Dick and no one would even notice.
With every episode I continued to believe that Ryan represented who we were before we learned what little value lies in first impressions. It’s the lesson The Office sets out to teach us. Every character seemed like a stereotype or a walking quirk with no personality at first, but eventually it’s Ryan alone who has nothing of substance to give.
As the series continued, it only drove this point home further. The things that seem, at first, ordinary are actually quite beautiful under the microscope. The culture of office work takes on its own personality as people learn that the environment around them is what they make of it. More characters evolve from caricatures real people with complicated emotional motives. No matter how quirky or downright frustrating each character may seem, he or she gets his or her time to shine.
The show never shies away from this reality. The show doesn’t hold your hand or allow you to protect your prejudices from its scrutiny. At every turn, you are challenged to reassess what you think you know about people, about relationships, about how to accept the world around you. No character is spared a petty moment, nor a triumphant one.
If we as an audience choose not to shed our first impressions of the people in the show (or perhaps the people in our lives), we will never evolve beyond Ryan. And, in that case, well… we might as well be Andy Dick.
I rarely cherish the flat Disneyfication of a story, the shedding of complications that comes with a perfectly packaged conclusion. I admit I revel in devastating finales. I love when the climax takes a tragic turn. I’m impressed when things appear to be taking an upturn, but the twist is is sort of a reverse deux ex machina — a traitorous backstabber, a gross miscalculation in the plan, an overlooked or forgotten danger that strikes when it’s far too late for recourse.
I’ve delved so deeply into these bittersweet narratives lately that I’ve forgotten that happy endings could be written adeptly. What makes for a well-written happy ending is insurmountable odds. Build the odds against the protagonist at every angle and watch him circumvent every obstacle and come out on top. Make it believable and you’ll rope in even the harshest critics.
The final season of The Office definitely marked the high point for tension in the series. Bonds that seemed unbreakable were tested. Characters relapsed into destructive behaviors. Allegiances shifted, relationships crumbled, and obstacles were built everywhere. Rock bottom was on the horizon.
It never felt unnatural, this sudden dark turn. If anything, the idealism of the show leading up to this point was being challenged. A major plot point involving the documentary in progress, something I was really impressed with, brought this idealism to the forefront while making a poignant statement about reality television versus reality itself. Characters began to challenge how they were depicted in the documentary. The audience got a closer look and, much like human skin at close range, the bumps and crags began to show.
This did not deter the triumph of the final episodes. In ways that never felt like a stretch, just about every character in the entire series had a “happily ever after” ending. Whereas many endings rush to this conclusion and inevitably feel like a slap in the face to the viewer, The Office never felt like an insult. It never felt like this wasn’t what every cause-and-effect relationship of the series was leading to. Happiness prevails and it couldn’t feel more right.
To those who haven’t seen it, the hype is real. I implore you to give it the chance it deserves. To those who dropped it at the end of the seventh season, that final stretch isn’t very long and I promise you it’s worth the viewing if only for those final few delicious episodes.
To those who have experienced this masterpiece in full, I expect you, much like myself, to reflect and, in time, take the journey once again.
I know I will.
Originally published at mtmcl.com.