Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Books: The Definitive History Of "The Office"

The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History
By Andy Greene
Dutton; hardcover, $28.00; available today, Tuesday, March 24

15 years ago today, the world was introduced to a new kind of sitcom, one centered around a paper company in Scaranton, Pennsylvania.

If the location wasn't typical of other sitcoms, its characters certainly weren't either - from Michael Scott, the obnoxious district manager, to Dwight Schrute, his overeager and quirky assistant, to Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly, the salesman and receptionist whose will they/won't they relationship created a lot of drama, they were compelling to watch.

The show was modeled on the successful British version starring Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and it was a one-camera, mockumentary style model, done with no laugh track.

The show was picked up by NBC and it was critically acclaimed, but struggled to get an audience in its nine-year run. That led to budget constraints, and was a reason Steve Carell, who played Michael Scott, was let go after seven seasons, but now it is more popular than ever thanks to bingewatching on Netflix.

Andy Greene, a senior writer for Rolling Stone, has written the definitive book on this landmark show, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History, which reads like a script of the show, with the story told by its creators, writers, and actors.

There is a lot of behind the scenes stories that readers will love, such as about how emotional Carell was at his farewell party, to how most of the actors were cast, and what they did before the show. Everyone aside from Carell, who was a star from his work as a Daily Show correspondent, was a relative unknown, with most working regular jobs to get by, including Jenna Fischer, who was cast as the receptionist, Pam, mostly because of how she described working as one in real life.

Greene starts even before the American show was cast, back to its origins as a BBC show, complete with interviews with Gervais and Merchant, to its impressive nine-year run here, which in-depth research in addition to the interviews. Fans will get the inside scoop on key episodes fans have come to love, from "The Dundies" to "Threat Level Midnight" to "Goodbye, Michael" to the origin of the "that's what she said" jokes, which Greene says probably couldn't be done today.

There also are stories about how the creators fought to keep the show on the air after its initial six-episode run, which was the length of the first season, as people following on Netflix now, to how they attempted to bring in James Gandolfini to replace Carell when he left after the seventh season, and instead they went with James Spader, who just didn't fit.

Greene writes, "When The Office premiered on March 24, 2005, it seemed like it was destined to suffer a similar fate after airing a pilot that was practically a shot-for-shot remake of the original UK Office - a groundbreaking BBC show helmed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant - and was dismissed as a pale, pointless retread by critics. What saved it was Carell, who throughout the second season transformed Michael Scott from an unrepentant asshole to a genuinely lovable doofus acting out due to crushing loneliness and a desperate need for love.

"The show would limp ahead for two seasons after Carell's farewell party, but even at the time most of the cast and crew knew that an Office without Michael Scott was a very dicey proposition. The main cast swelled to a ridiculous high of nineteen people in the final season, only underscoring the fact that, in the words of one writer, Michael Scott was a 'load-bearing character' that the show simply couldn't function without, no matter how many bodies they crammed into the Dunder Mifflin bullpen.

"But time has dimmed the bitter aftertaste of those last two years and restored The Office to its rightful place as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, right up there with I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Cheers, and The Simpsons. (Unlike those shows, however, The Office is a 'single camera' show and presents the action through the eyes of a documentary film crew.) Bars across the country pack in hordes of college-age fans during weekly Office trivia battles, Comedy Central and Nick at Nite air the reruns nearly every night to enormous ratings, and Comcast recently shelled out $500 million to obtain the streaming rights from Netflix in 2021 so The Office can become the centerpiece of their new streaming service...

"The show started at a time when audiences had little reason to expect anything even remotely watchable from the four major networks beyond occasional brilliant flukes like Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks. And after years of pathetic attempts to clone Friends, they'd resorted to soulless, paint-by-numbers sitcoms like According to Jim, My Wife and Kids, and George Lopez, complete with sappy music cues, wisecracking kids, and laugh tracks that went off after every lame zinger of a joke. Out of this scene somehow came a faux-documentary show about the sad, often desperate lives of the employees at a struggling paper company."

The show is relatable and, in a way, timeless because everyone has had to work in an office with people from different walks of life, which can present challenges, as shown by the dynamic between Jim and Dwight.

This book is a must for Office fans, who will appreciate the show even more after reading Greene's detailed look at how it fought to get on the air, stay on for nine seasons, and create some of most identifiable characters in television history. 

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