Overthinking the Office, Season 1: Mercifully Swift

I’m not someone who needs silence to write. Or wants it. In fact, I typically need something on in the background, if only to keep me off of YouTube. And that’s how I’ve ended up rewatching The Office start to finish about four times in the last two or three years. Because as much as I try to mix things up, I keep coming back, perhaps because it’s become so familiar that it’s enjoyable without being hugely distracting. Scrubs sucks up more attention, especially in the seasons I’m less familiar with (4-8, which I’ve only seen twiceish); Community only has three seasons that I can/want to watch, so it gets older faster; and the Flash only lasts me a few days.

And so I keep finding myself rewatching the antics of Dunder Mifflin paper company. And if that’s going to keep happening, and I’m going to keep having thoughts about it, I may as well start writing them down.

So let’s start at the beginning. The awkward, cringe-filled first season.

Early steps

For those unfamiliar with the Office… I promise to try to make this accessible. Anyway, it’s adapted from a British series from masters of cringe comedy Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Aside from reality shows, adapting a British series is always a dodgy process, one with more failures than successes. Red Dwarf, Doctor Who, Skins, Coupling, and The IT Crowd all failed and failed fast, and there’s practically a failed American Fawlty Towers alone for every success story. Maybe it’s a failure by American networks to understand how these shows work. That would explain how they take shows like Coupling, Spaced, and The IT Crowd, adapt episodes almost word-for-word, and still end up with unfunny train wrecks.

Community’s Joel McHale couldn’t make American IT Crowd funny, and he was using the same script.

Back to The Office, then. This first season tries to match the original British version’s twin atmospheres of boredom and gloom, as we meet the Dunder Mifflin crew while the branch is staring down the barrel of possible downsizing. Dunder Mifflin is not the corporate titan Michael Scott sees it as, and will be plagued by financial troubles for the next six seasons. So here in the beginning, the bulk of the cast (save for Michael and Dwight, who see paper sales as their life’s calling) are both bored by their jobs, and anxious about losing them.

This is, of course, easier to maintain on a British series designed to run in brief spurts. And since the US version’s debut season was only six episodes long, much like both series of the UK version, they could keep this atmosphere. Once they needed to run longer, some things needed to change. But we’ll get to that.

There’s only six episodes in season one, which doesn’t leave a lot to pry open, so let’s open with a review of the basics.

Central cast

Now, The Office did borrow a few things other than tone from their UK brethren. Mostly the cast. While every character has a different name (Michael Scott in place of David Brent, or “Jim” in place of “Tim…” as Ricky Gervais put it, “Way to put your own stamp on things”), the basics of each character are still there. Everyone starts out in the same place. Michael Scott, regional manager of Dunder Mifflin paper company, would-be father figure and entertainer; Dwight Schrute, assistant regional manager—no, assistant to the regional manager; Jim Halpert, slacker salesman wishing he were anywhere else; Pam Beesley, the receptionist, who stopped chasing her dreams so long ago she doesn’t fully remember how; and Ryan Howard, freshly hired temp. And it becomes clear that they have one thing in common.

Our central theme, ladies and gents

Some sitcoms aren’t content to restrict their narrative to “These people all work/spend time in the same bar/airport/court.” If you dig into them, there’s a deeper theme. Community wears its theme on its sleeve, in its title, even: it’s all about connecting with people, forming a community. Like I said, not subtle. The Office takes a little more attention.

The Office is about self-deception.

And nowhere is that more clear than its leading man, Michael Scott. Michael sees himself as a born entertainer, when in reality his jokes are met with sighs and eye rolls more often than not. Michael sees himself as the patriarch of the Dunder Mifflin family, when everyone else just sees it as somewhere they work. Michael thinks he is adored, when he is often merely tolerated.

But it’s not just Michael. Especially here, at the beginning, no one is who they think they are. Dwight is not a born leader, diabolical genius, sheriff’s deputy, or even assistant manager. He’s a great salesman and decent beet farmer (although that doesn’t come out until season two) with severe delusions of grandeur… delusions that the writers began to buy into from time to time as the show ran on and Dwight drew in popularity.

Jim’s self-deception is more subtle: he thinks he’s above this place. This is just a job to Jim, something he does to pay the rent while he waits for his real life to start. Something which has the added bonus of keeping him near the object of his affection. But Jim is not better than this sales job, not yet. He’s just a slacker trying to do the minimum effort, and pranking Dwight to repay all the ways Dwight makes life at the office harder.

And Pam… Pam routinely falls for the saddest deception… she thinks her life is fine the way it is.

The key couple

Pam’s engaged to Roy, who she’s been with for eight years. They’ve been engaged for two of those, but in season one are nowhere near picking a wedding date. It’s clear to us in the audience… and to Jim, who’s secretly in love with her… that Roy is wrong for her, and she’ll never be truly happy with him, but Pam is scared of chasing a better life if it means risking the flawed, comfortable existence she has now. And not for the last time.

Whereas Jim is stuck not only in a job he hates, but stuck watching the woman he loves settle for a man who takes her for granted over and over.

It’s important to note that this is not a standard will they/won’t they. It can’t be. Those don’t last nine seasons, not without driving people crazy. But here, in the early days, Michael is the lead, Dwight the wacky sidekick, Ryan the new guy, and Jim and Pam are the show’s beating heart.

The Documentarians

The Office didn’t invent the mockumentary format (how could it, it’s a remake), but as far as series television goes, I think it’s fair to say that it boosted the style’s popularity. Since then, we’ve seen the format pop back up in Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, but each of these shows makes the same choice: they keep the “talking heads” sections, in which characters talk to the camera about what’s happening, but that’s it. By the end of P&R’s first season, or by Modern Family’s second episode, they’ve abandoned the pretense that there’s a camera crew following these people around. The Office never does.

It’s not consistent. Sometimes they fade into the background. An entire Diwali party in season three seems unaffected by the cameras’ presence. It’s hard to believe that a convenience store clerk would let a cameraman behind the counter just to get a better angle on Michael, but in season seven, that happens. But in these early days, they really drive home the fact that we’re not just secretly spying on a group of office workers, there are people with cameras and microphones following them around, and their presence isn’t always welcome. Something that stays a trend all the way to the last season, albeit off and on.

Key episodes

With only six episodes in the first season, they’re basically all key episodes. The pilot introduces us to (some of) the cast, Diversity Day is the first big Conference Room meeting, the show’s most common trope; Health Care is both Michael’s failures as a leader and inability to live up to his own self-image and Dwight’s thirst for power in all their early glory; The Alliance is when Jim and Pam’s pranking of Dwight begins to take its proper US shape; Basketball introduces us to the warehouse crew; and Hot Girl… well, it has Amy Adams in it. What more do you need.

Skippables

On occasion, when doing a rewatch, I’ve skipped the entire first season. Like its younger sister show, Parks and Recreation, the short opening season is rougher. The larger ensemble is unformed, and the tone bleaker. And of all of them, Basketball might be the easiest to miss. Diversity Day already let us know that Michael’s kinda racist, and it should be pretty clear that Jim and Roy have an unspoken rivalry, and there’s not much more there.

Notable guest stars?

A lot of big names and/or cast members of The Wire will make their way through the Dunder Mifflin offices over the years, but in season one, it’s pretty much just Amy Adams as a purse saleswoman who Michael and Dwight lust after, but who ends up dating Jim.

Next time… The Office finds its footing, and its own voice. And thanks to iTunes and the 40 Year Old Virgin, an audience.

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