Top 10 TV shows of the decade – # 8
The Office (US)
In these enlightened days of 2009, only a fool or a legally certifiable bell-end would deny that The Office has become a bona-fide classic, but it did have a pretty shaky start. A lot of people were turned off by the short first season, which had yet to find its own voice, and almost totally relied on the have your cake and eat it ironic X-ism stuff that made up the weaker parts of the British show (which annoyingly became really influential to lazy, shitty comedians who figured they could just drop an N-bomb and pull an ironic face, so they could milk both types of laughter from it without the baggage of culpability. Faux-irony is not a get out clause).
Anyway, I was one of the ones who gave up after the first season, eventually going back later, when I caught up and immediately became obsessed. I was dreading how they’d work the romance angle between Pam and Jim, with more episodes in a single US season than the whole of the British show combined. I’d envisioned the whole thing either becoming tiresome really quickly or resorting to the soap opera tactic of locking them into a cycle of getting together, splitting up, getting back together, and so on, but as we non bell-end types know, it was beautifully underplayed and unobtrusive, with little looks and snatched moments, and free of the over-the-head melodrama or forceful musical cues that you find in other sexually charged “will they, won’t they?” couplings, such as Ross and Rachel or Arnold and Mr. Drummond.
The writers were obviously working under the idea that everyone wants a friend/partner like Pam or Jim. Of course, nobody like Pam actually exists, because in reality all women are either screechy harridans like Kelly or drunken lushes like Meredith. Similarly, good luck finding a Jim, ladies, because we’re all closer to Dwight or Ryan, and if you’re lucky, we spend our evenings giggling at adverts for sanitary towels like Kevin, so we might as well all off ourselves into our lonely, lonely graves right now and be done with it.
It does still swing towards the comedy of embarrassment, but that’s only a tiny part of the genetic make-up of the show. A remake of the original BBC series could easily have slipped into coasting by on the Brent-proxy doing something appalling while other characters react with withering looks to camera, but the writing is ridiculously sharp, and the long seasons give the huge ensemble cast breathing room in a way that the background characters of the UK show were never afforded. The evolution of Ryan from mildy arrogant generic temp via coke-addled hotshot CEO to his current position as fedora wearing hipster tool is a real highlight. My personal favourite, Creed, has managed to build up an incredibly elaborate and fucked up picture of his life story with his requisite one show-stealing line per episode. And then there’s Dwight. When the history of sitcom is all done and written, it’s hard to imagine Dwight K. Schrute not making the top five characters ever, and for such a quotable oddball who seems like he should be easy to imitate, it’s pretty amazing that he’s never tipped over the edge into self parody. The Office even breaks the rule of nobody really giving a shit about new characters, introducing the likes of the Nard Dog in a wholly natural way, where they quickly feel as though they’ve been around forever.
Everything, or course, orbits around the presence of Michael Scott, over whom we find ourselves rooting for someone who’s obviously a total idiot; spiteful, selfish, immature, irresponsible, insanely jealous at the success and popularity of others, completely lacking in any self-awareness or social skills, and generally a massive, massive twat. The reveal in Take Your Daughter to Work Day, where Michael gathers everyone around to watch his childhood appearance on TV, nails Michael’s M.O, and the reason the audience tolerates his unrelenting fuckwittery.
“When I grow up I want to get married and have a hundred kids, so I can have a hundred friends and no one can say ‘no’ to being my friend.”
His whole existence consists of putting on a performance in the feint hope that people will like him, which feels oddly familiar to me, although I can’t think why. Oh hey, do you like my blog?? Is it funny? Is it?? What about my books? My Tweets? Wanna hang out?? But anyway, Michael is the ultimate tragic figure, more than just the “what will he say next??” buffoon he could have been. But enough of this tedious psychoanalysing, Millard, and get on with answering the single most important question in the entire course of human history; Karen or Pam? I shall provide the solution to that problem thusly: Erin.
For a sitcom that ditches weekly rebooting in favour of long-running plots that carry over from one episode to the next, there’s not the horrible mawkishness you’d normally suffer through when shows deal with relationships and whatnot. When you do get these moments, they’re so brief and well done that they avoid the horrible “You’re supposed to emote now!” clunkiness and Saved By The Bell style crowd-oohing you get when sitcoms try to deal with something more serious and issue-y than someone falling down an open manhole or a priest getting his anus gored by an angry bull. Kevin’s “it was good to get a win” being a fine example, another of which is the perfectly pitched wedding episode where they had to balance satisfying the sort of fans who make compound names out of any two characters they’re writing creepy romantic fanfic about, while staying true to the intrinsically silly heart of the show.
Shorthand for the UK Office has always been The Dance (the 2000’s equivalent of Del Boy’s winebar adventure, Basil attacking his car with a shrub, or Captain Mainwaring torturing the captured Nazi) – although that’s entirely the fault of the media. The US version is so packed with amazing moments, many of them relying on the wider context of the long running narrative fabric of the show into which they’re woven, you could never cherry-pick such a single encompassing visual soundbyte and do it a billionth of a percent of the justice it deserves. That said, if someone edited all the cold openings into a single DVD , it’d be the best collection of sketches ever.