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Thursday, May 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Support staff and overtime helped save "The Office"

Newhouse News Service

Some TV shows are born great. Some have greatness thrust upon them with a good time slot. And some need to figure out the greatness thing on their own.

Take NBC's remake of BBC's "The Office," which debuted last spring to tepid ratings and reviews that sounded more relieved than excited. ("Well, it's not the fiasco I was expecting ... " was the general theme.)

The first episode, a faithful re-creation of the British pilot episode, didn't really work. Subsequent episodes with original scripts suggested that producer Greg Daniels understood how to extract laughs from workplace tedium, but Steve Carell's performance as the world's worst boss seemed uncomfortably self-aware and menacing.

Then came the summer hiatus and the release of Carell's box-office smash "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," which Daniels later called a great primer for how to write for his leading man.

When "The Office" returned in the fall, Carell's Michael Scott wasn't any more popular with his staff or better at telling his awful jokes, but the writers found a way to give him pathos without ruining the premise.

Where season one's Michael seemed like a bully at times, season two's is more of a sad little man who really wants to be liked but doesn't know how. He's still an absolutely horrible boss, but because you can see he means well, there's less cringing and more laughing.

On top of that, Daniels and company started making more use of the supporting characters. The background extras, many of them trained improv comics or actors who got by with a line or two an episode in season one, were promoted to regular cast members midway through season two.

On TV

"The Office," 9:30 p.m. Thursdays on KING

Their presence has helped turn the Scranton branch of the Dunder-Mifflin paper company from a sitcom set to a collection of every weirdo you've ever worked with: the guy going through the motions (Leslie David Baker's Stanley), the lush (Kate Flannery's Meredith), the guy who always laughs at the boss' offensive jokes (Brian Baumgartner, a very smart man who makes playing dumb look easy), the uptight moral crusader (Angela Kinsey's Angela), etc.

And the flirtation between best friends Jim and Pam (John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer), a minor element with their British counterparts, became much more prominent here — not as a Ross 'n' Rachel thing that threatened to take over the show, but a serialized hook to bring viewers back week after week.

When NBC moved "The Office" to Thursdays in January, the network didn't realize quite what it had on its hands. Virtually all the original episodes had aired by the end of March, leaving only a couple to finish out the season. (Due to a ratings bump after the move, the network ponied up the dough to shoot an extra-length finale that will air next week.)

With last week's "Drug Testing" (in which Rainn Wilson's supercilious Dwight paraded around the office wearing a Smokey Bear hat and carrying a coffee cup filled with undrinkable liquid) and tonight's "Conflict Resolution," "The Office" has finally made The Leap.

It's the kind of thing you see in sports when a power hitter learns the value of taking pitches or a pretty good basketball team adds a pass-first point guard, and suddenly everything clicks into place.

(A caveat, since this is still a very specific kind of humor: If you hated the show before, you're not going to change your mind now, but if you were even lukewarm about it and haven't watched in a while, you'll realize something special is happening.)

TV shows rarely get a chance to make The Leap. The great shows tend to be great from the start. But occasionally there are shows that need a little time to figure out what works and what doesn't, and by the grace of patient schedulers, they get that time.

The first couple of years of "Seinfeld" were nothing to write home about, not until Jerry, George and Elaine spent an entire episode waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant. (And even then, the show didn't become consistently brilliant until the Keith Hernandez episode.) In "Conflict Resolution," Michael learns that his nemesis, human-resources rep Toby (Paul Lieberstein), deals with conflicts between employees by letting the aggrieved party vent and then forgetting about it.

This isn't good enough for Michael — "What do you know about conflict resolution?" he asks. "Your answer to everything is to get divorced." He decides it's time to air every bit of office dirty laundry, in the misguided belief that it will bring the staff closer together.

"Cage matches?" he suggests. "Yeah, they work. How could they not work? If they didn't work, they'd still be in the cage."

Naturally, it's a fiasco that has everyone hating each other by the end. Threads from throughout the series are pushed to the front: Pam, who has covered for Dwight and Angela's secret relationship all year, gets upset when she thinks Angela has complained about her wedding planning on company time. The creepy baby poster Angela received in the Secret Santa episode becomes a point of strife in the accounting department. Dwight recites a list of pranks Jim has pulled on him at such length that even Jim gets uncomfortable.

Throughout the episode, the staffers are posing for I.D. badge photos. There's a moment where Toby, overwhelmed by another soul-crushing day of dealing with Michael, sits for the photographer; barks, "Just take it!"; and is halfway out of the chair before the shutter clicks.

By that point, you'll understand how he feels — and you may not be able to control your laughter.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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