It’s been 15 years since the American version of The Office first aired. 15 years since Michael Scott first walked Ryan the temp through the offices of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, 15 years since the infamous stapler-in-Jello prank, 15 years since we first witnessed a Pam-Jim flirtation and just knew they would end up together.
The Office is the subject of a million memes, an entire podcast just for people watching the show again, and even a Zoom wedding that melted the coldest and stoniest of all cold, stony hearts. In other words, however much 2020 has sucked so far, at least we have The Office.
Now if you haven’t been living under a rock, you probably know what the show is about. The American version of The Office was based on Ricky Gervais’s British mockumentary of the same name. Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) is the gauche, socially awkward, not terribly competent regional manager of the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.
Also in this office are Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), a handsome, funny salesman and the straight man of the show, Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), Jim’s archrival, part-time beet farmer, and victim of Jim’s many, many pranks, Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) the receptionist and a host of other characters you might find in any office. The show isn’t about much – just what people get up to in the everyday business of selling paper, settling accounts and dealing with each other.
This mundane setting, and the mundane events of The Office might be why it’s so beloved, it’s familiar to anyone who has ever had to work in an office. Even at it’s most absurd, such as the infamous Stress Relief episodes, or the incredibly cringey Dundies, it’s just about possible to relate the characters back to someone you know.
Steve Carell plays Michael Scott with a mix of naivete and an almost wilful lack of social graces, which is a great combination for a show that often pushes the boundaries of political correctness. Recurring themes on the show were, ahem, “ethnic” characters, gay characters, problematic workplace relationships, and some pretty bad behaviour from everyone involved.
And if you’re raising an eyebrow or three at the last line, let me stop you right there – in The Office, the joke was not that a character was gay, or black, or Indian, it was how those stereotypes affect the way they’re perceived in public. Take homosexuality, Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nunez) is gay, sure, but he is also an accountant and a relentless pedant. He’s the kind of guy who would dress up as a “rational consumer” for Halloween. The joke is not on Oscar’s gayness – it’s on us, and how that’s all we see about him in the workplace.
The joke is still on us when Darryl (Craig Robinson) teaches Michael made-up words from the “hood” to help him relate to black co-workers(“Dinkin flicka,” he says in a talking head, with a twinkle in his eye), or when Kelly Kapoor, played by Mindy Kaling, who was also a writer on the show, is only visibly Indian at a Diwali celebration, or if she needs to get in to a Minority Executive Training Programme (“My hobbies are yoga, belly dancing and snake charming,” she says, wearing a bindi and colourful salwar kameez). The Office picks moments when things go awfully wrong, like the ill-fated Dinner Party that Michael throws with his abusive and increasingly erratic girlfriend Jan, and captures just how normal people might deal with them.
Not that The Office is all awkward humour and political incorrectness. Unlike the British show, the American Office had a little glimmer of warmth and hope in each episode. I found myself rooting for Jim and Pam all the way, enjoying every little secret and (soon) not-so-secret flirtation.
Dwight might be annoying and pedantic and constantly trying to please the bosses, but somewhere, his self-confessed worst enemy Jim still showed him a bit of kindness when it mattered the most. Where the British boss David Brent was all swagger and incompetence, Michael Scott was, despite everything, somewhat lovable.
And no matter what, The Office feels funny, familiar and real, even at its most painful (Scott’s Tots, I’m looking at you). If that isn’t enough, it has a cast that really shone with the script they had, even in the smallest roles. And no, I don’t just mean Idris Elba playing a decidedly non-Stringer Bell-like character in Season 5.
I have to admit, I was a late convert to the joys of The Office, but I dare say I’ve made up for lost time. I listen to The Office Ladies podcast, hum “Stayin’ Alive” by the BeeGees to myself at any mention of workplace stress relief and spot characters and influences from The Office everywhere I look. In a time as unfamiliar and scary as a nationwide lockdown, The Office feels like a source of comfort, like an old friend or tea and bajji on a rainy day. I can’t think of a better show to watch – or watch again.