Branch Closing – A Farewell to ‘The Office’

We very clearly remember the moment that we fell for The Office, the NBC stalwart that closes up shop at Dunder Mifflin tonight after nine mostly great seasons. It was the fall of 2005, when The Office was starting to find its legs after a rocky and uneven six episode first season, and we in our first autumn post-college, back at our parents’, and for the first time since we were four-years-old not attending school. We were at our best friend and future roommate’s house, hanging out, maybe barbecuing, maybe drinking a few beers, maybe watching the first season of Lost on DVD, which dominated much of our time (and thoughts) during that period. We knew about the The Office, another blatant attempt to import a UK hit stateside, but missed its brief run earlier that year, as was the case with the aforementioned Lost, as the only shows we watched religiously during our final year of college (and last few months before true adulthood) were The Simpsons and Survivor. We did, however, recall reading that it was an imperfect translation of the original, and the Steve Carell-led vehicle – who was then best known as the other Steve from The Daily Show –  was not likely to resurrect NBC Thursday night Must See TV, let alone make it past Season 2. So with the middling reviews in mind, and the fact that we were unfamiliar with the original Ricky Gervais version, we didn’t go out of our way to watch the show. But that night changed everything.

The episode was “The Dundies.” We actually tuned in, by chance, mid-episode, just as the award ceremony was about to begin at Chili’s, but even having missed the first act we were hooked. “There’s something here,” we thought to ourself, almost immediately, as if a curtain had been raised, a veil lifted. “This show is okay.” We resolved then to catch it again the next week, add it to our growing TV rotation (which, in post-grad life, had evolved to include the now-long gone Prison Break and still going How I Met Your Mother, due in large part to the TiVo we had finally gotten from our parents after so many years of asking). As it turned out, while “The Dundies” was the second season’s first episode, we actually came upon it during its repeat air, a couple of months after the season premiere. But it was fitting that we started with “The Dundies” because, as we found out when we later went back and watched the prior Season 2 episodes and the truncated first season, that was the moment, at least for us, when The Office turned a corner. When people would ask us about the show, we’d say, “start with Season 2, that’s when the show finds its voice, learns to love and appreciate its characters and truly explores the world of Dunder Mifflin” (something we’d later say for The Office‘s spiritual offspring, Parks and Recreation). We didn’t know it at the time, but we caught The Office just as it was being reborn, just as it was emerging out of the shadow of Gervais’ Office and beginning to carve its own path, blending comedy and drama and heart and becoming one of TV’s all-time great and influential sitcoms.

But if “The Dundies” was the Alpha point for us, the season two finale “Casino Night,” was the Omega. We had quickly fallen for Jim and Pam – known as Jam among the many ‘shippers on the web (and some of the earliest gif creators that we can remember) – and their star-cross lovers arc was the backbone of the show, it was what gave Michael Scott the ability to be one of most obnoxious, intolerable, selfish lead characters in any era of television. Scott may have been the face of the show, but Jim and Pam were its beating soul, the anchor. And speaking of anchors, we first glimpsed just how powerful their romance was – and just how brave the show was willing to be –  during the mid-season episode “Booze Cruise,” when The Office offered us the most pained, emotionally charged ten seconds of silence we had ever remembered seeing on-screen. The quiet was deafening, and it helped us redefine would a sitcom could be.

That moment was the prelude to what was to come in the season finale. And we remember that experience even more vividly than when we fortuitously happened upon “The Dundies.”   It was mid-May seven years ago – May 11, 2006 to be exact – and we had just moved to Brooklyn one week prior. Still setting into our new apartment – and our first real job – we went to a friend’s house to watch the finale (as the show was rightly so beginning to develop a following). The episode, written by Steve Carell, was a phenomenal forty-four minutes of television, right up there with the series’ best, the perfect blend of heart and humor, of sentiment and silliness, with Michael Scott balancing a love triangle while still serving as master of ceremonies at Dunder Mifflin’s casino night. But it was the ending, the culmination of Pam and Jim’s season-long courtship, or lack thereof, that hit us and hit us hard and still does to this day. It was gut-wrenching television, and it left us speechless.

It might have been the pollen count, or maybe it was poor ventilation in that Williamsburg apartment, or maybe it was just too much laughing at Michael and Kevin and Creed, but after Jim bared his soul, and then followed Pam inside to show her just how deeply he loved her, we needed our inhaler. Sure, it was allergy season and our eyes had been red all day and our breathing labored, but we firmly believe the puffy eyes and shortness of breath we experienced that night were from Jim and Pam, at least for that ten minutes after the episode aired. Nothing had ever affected us like that before (save for, perhaps, Zack and Kelly breaking up outside Bayside), and for us that was the defining moment of the series, and maybe for NBC Thursday night in that era.

That, in our eyes, was the legacy of The Office, the way it pulled your heart during those early seasons. And it’s what separates it from the other great Thursday night shows that soon followed (creating what many viewers considered the perfect night of comedy, and what still many more others unfortunately did not). 30 Rock, which premiered the fall after “Casino Night,” may have been the technically funniest show of its time, but always kept the emotion at an ironic, cold distance. Parks and Recreation, which may have perfectly replicated The Office in some respects and surpassed it in others, has never quite captured the same dramatic core, with deliberate efforts to showcase the same softness that have often come off as too sweet. Community for all its brilliance (and there’s A LOT of it) and willingness to explore its characters depths and frailties, has often verged on the melodramatic, or, worse, a parody of it. Only The Office was able to offer something exceedingly and often excruciatingly real. Admittedly, the show may have lost that ability in later seasons, and maybe never quite recovered it, but in its time, in its stride, there was nothing like it, nothing that could leave us breathless like Pam and Jim.

And there was no other show that we so breathlessly recapped and analyzed and criticized (read all about it here). We wrote so much about it because we so much adored it, and, later, because we wanted it to be as good as it once was. And it may have never recaptured what it had in Season 2 (and 3). But that’s okay, because we’re not going to judge The Office on how it finished. We’re going to judge it on how high it went. And it went sky-high.

The Office was the show that, come the fall of 2006 when our TiVo could only record so many shows at once, we chose over Survivor. And, if you know anything about this blog, that means a lot. And we’d do it again too.

Tonight, Dunder Mifflin, this Dundie’s for you.

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Filed under Across the pond, Back to the Past, Brilliance, Dunder Mifflin, this is Pam, Freak Out Control, Good Humor, Is That Still On?, LOST, Must Flee TV, Must See TV

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