There’s a sort of hipster shibboleth that you’re supposed to claim that the two-season British original of The Office was, hands-down, the best. Say that, and you’re in with all of the cool critics. While it was sort of funny, I never warmed to it the way that I have since latched on to the American version, which I now consider one of my most favorite TV series of all time.
I guess I won’t be invited to their snooty parties. That’s fine with me; I’d rather be hanging out with Jim, Dwight, Michael, Pam, and the rest anyway.
I’ve seen the entire nine-season run of The Office several times through now, as it’s one of my constant “comfort foods” in my TV time. Sometimes I even listen to episodes in the car, because by now my brain can fill in the visuals. The delightful mix of insanely awkward moments, sincere emotion, and hilarious corporate antics have always made me feel that I’d gladly get a job at Dunder Mifflin if it was with people like these.
So let’s go through the seasons, one at a time, and see the evolution of the characters, the company, and the show.
The first season of The Office is a bizarre anomaly, especially when viewed after having seen the rest of the series. As with its in-spirit-only spin-off, Parks and Rec, The Office came on as a six-episode mid-season replacement that failed to really latch on with an audience. It wasn’t terrible, exactly, but all of the pieces had yet to fall into place, and instead we got this pale imitation of what was then seen as the wildly better British series (keep in mind that other British imports, such as Coupling, died early deaths from audience disinterest).
For those not in the know, The Office is staged as a fake documentary in which a crew started filming the employees of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin (a paper company)… and just kept on filming them for more than nine years. The behind-the-scenes backstory of this is that the documentary crew came in when the office suffered a suicide (briefly mentioned in the second or third season) and found the people so weird they decided to stay.
In any case, Dunder Mifflin may sell the most boring product ever, but the folks there are anything but. The employees are saddled with a boss who is socially inept, terminally unfunny, and almost completely deluded as to his own popularity on the floor. Jim, the impish everyman, is in love with the receptionist Pam, who is in turn engaged to warehouse worker (and bonehead) Roy. Dwight, an uptight power-tripping geek, is in a constant prank war with Jim and considers himself the number two. And then there’s Ryan, a somewhat meek (at least in season one) temp who’s brought in and quickly immersed in the wacked-out goings-on in Scranton.
The pilot episode was even mostly a shot-for-shot duplicate of the British pilot, which hamstrung the American version from taking off in its own direction from the very start. While the characters of Pam, Jim, Ryan, and Dwight were more or less there, everyone else had still to settle into defined roles. Michael was incredibly insensitive (even more so than later on!), greasy, chubby, and unlikable as the promoted-past-his-capability boss. Kelly was there, but wasn’t Kelly at all. Most of the second-tier characters lacked any personality whatsoever.
Fortunately, the entire season is over in six brief episodes — and there’s even a few moments here and there that show the promise of the show The Office was about to become. Highlights include Michael hosting a disastrous “diversity day” that ends up causing employees to mimic racists, Dwight going power mad as he controls the employee health plan, Michael showing his “world’s best boss” mug and then revealing that he bought it himself (the best summation of his character possible), and a sweet moment where Pam falls asleep on Jim’s shoulder, causing him to have the best day ever.
I have a lot more to say about Michael in particular, and while he’s not quite the Michael Scott of seasons 2 through 7 yet, you can see what a catch it was for this show to land Steve Carrell. It’s got to be so tough to act that oblivious and dorky, kind of a mixture of a bad boss and a cranky kid.
Sometimes when I rewatch the series I will just skip season one entirely and be totally fine for it. It’s quite jarring to go from season nine back to one and see the looks and attitudes of the characters jump back to a much older time, but other than that and the few moments that I mentioned, there’s not much meat to be had here.