Serality + Theme: “The Office”

To kick off my comparison companion, I thought I’d start with a show that I can probably quote every single second of- without the subtitles on. I really love “The Office”. It used to be right in that NBC comedy programming sweet spot where I could get home from soccer practice, take my dinner into the living room, and speak to no one for 2 hours straight. I genuinely shed some tears when I saw that Netflix would be pulling it in the fall. EXCEPT, I just googled that for a source and found out it ISN’T TRUE! So, with that emotional roller coaster out of the way, let’s talk about “The Office”.

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The interesting thing about this show (and “Parks and Recreation” as well, but we’ll talk about that later), is how much the first few seasons differ drastically from the body of work as a whole. While “The Office” maintained a highly episodic nature from the start, it also started with certain key through lines that advanced the timeline of the first three seasons. In Jason Mittell’s Complex TV, he cites Seymour Chatman’s use of kernels and satellites to define major serialized narrative events and less important (to the plot) threads that “provide texture, tone, and character richness” (p23-24), respectively.

At the beginning of the series, there are many main kernels that advance and influence the storytelling of the show; including the Scranton branch’s impending closure and Jim’s secret love for Pam. These through-lines span seasons and serve as a structural basis for every episode despite the varying topic or dilemma that the characters find themselves in. However, as the series progresses, the writers employ far fewer long-term kernel plot lines and, instead, place more emphasis on character-oriented satellite stories. Consider the roles of the ensemble in the first season versus the third, or the sixth, or the ninth. There is a growing emphasis placed on creating and resolving conflict among many members of the office versus the narrative arc of a select few “leads”. While there are still longer plot lines like Michael’s relationship with Jan, and then Holly, Jim and Pam’s wedding, and the various different bosses and mergers that affect the story world, the resolution isn’t delayed nearly as long as narrative events in the first season. It only takes five episodes for Charles Minor to be overthrown. It took Jim three full seasons to ask out Pam.

By ditching the long-term through lines that focused on a single character, “The Office” moved away from its British counterpart (which does maintain a focus on David Brent trying to keep the office afloat) and branded itself as an ensemble-driven comedy that audiences tuned into every week to check in on their friends. Not unlike “Friends”, I can start the series on practically any episode and generally jump right into the current storyline. While there is a cumulative narrative that develops out of the nine seasons, and we do see the characters develop and evolve, I think the series embraces the documentary style very effectively by making the episodes more a “slice of life” than a particularly complex, drawn out narrative. In utilizing more satellites than kernels, the style of writing adapted to the growth of the cast and morphed into something completely separate from the BBC original.

Interestingly, in the last season, I think there is a certain return to more serialistic norms- where Jim spends the entire season ambitiously pursing his own start-up company, Dwight and Angela’s relationship is pushed to the forefront, and the documentary’s impending release affects the rest of the company. I wonder how much of that was a result of the generally negative reviews that the back half of the series started to receive. I think there was somewhat of a consensus- and I personally agree- that “The Office” started to become static after Michael’s departure. While the loss of Steve Carrell certainly impacted the series, I also think some of this can be attributed to the loss of any narrative direction in the eighth season. Executive producer, Ben Silverman, conceded in an interview that he “definitely think it (Season 8) didn’t have the sense of purpose and focus that Season 9 has had.” (LINK) Even with the continued search for a new boss (which only takes a few episodes), the series settles into Andy struggling to impress and assert authority over his former colleagues to muted degrees of success. Sure, there is something he’sย tryingย to achieve, but the structural norms of the show that followed- crazy idea, poor execution, lesson- learned resolution (IE. S8E4 “Garden Party”, S8E5 “Spooked”, S8E8 “Gettysburg”)- remained largely the same, and pretty predictable. Andy’s desire to be both likable and respected (which too closely resembles the masterfully played conflict of the OG Michael Scott) isn’t anything new, nor does it advance the plot forward because he’s kind of just learning the same lesson over, and over again.

“The Office” is a very weird show to binge because there is a subtle transformation in style between seasons two to six that reflect the shift from a serialized to episode structure as the show embraces its ensemble-driven humor. The first season presents an almost unrecognizable cast of background actors who’s character development makes the first six seasons incredibly vibrant. In season seven, they create some more variation by adding Gabe and the crew at Sabre to the mix and lose some of that sense of momentum in penultimate season by reopening old tropes without their charismatic lead. The final season sees the return of a structure that drives the plot line to a rewarding finale by pushing the characters outside of the comfort zones we’ve seen them live in for a near-decade and successfully reintroduces new, longer-term conflicts that add momentum leading to the final stretch of this marathon series. With certain standout episodes that truly reflect the creativity and ingenuity of the writing staff (“Dinner Party” is one of the greatest episodes in TV history to me), “The Office” maintained a consistent, if static, cast of quirky, unique characters that both set it apart from its source material and cemented it as a prime example of episodic sitcom mechanics.

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