On May 16, NBC will broadcast the final episode of The Office, capping a brilliant nine-season run. It’s an occasion that fills me with sadness. There are so many things I loved about The Office, but near the top of the list was its similarity to fiction. The experts tell us that fiction must mirror reality. Writers must avoid contrived stories and characters who are all-good or pure evil. As writers, we strive to create complex, genuine characters with whom our readers can identify and then we put them through crises that transform them. Ultimately, though, our stories must hang together. There has to be logic and coherence to them. Among the many things a novel should make the reader feel is the sense after completing a work of fiction that the events could really happen.
Too many TV shows lack that sense of realism. Either the characters are not authentic or the stories feel manufactured or overblown. Attempts to create pathos badly miss the mark and feel more like bathos. That’s not the case with The Office. In the tradition of the hit show, Cheers, the writers and producers of The Office have created a show with real people—people we know. Many workers have experienced life in a dysfunctional workplace. Many offices have a Michael Scott, the bumbling, endearing boss, a Dwight Schrute, the baldly ambitious underling, a Jim Halpert, the classic underachiever, and the rest.
Recent articles hailed the show as setting a trend toward humor that makes the viewer feel uncomfortable. If that’s a trend, I hope to see more of it. The original British show, created by Ricky Gervais, set the pace for cringe-worthy humor as the boss of the UK plant, David Brent (played brilliantly by Gervais), became more unglued as the series progressed.
Like its British forerunner, the U.S. version is filmed with a single camera and no laugh track or studio audience. The premise of both the British and American versions of The Office is that a film crew is doing a documentary on life in an ordinary office setting. Many of the scenes are followed by off-camera interviews with the participants that often reveal their true feelings—the equivalent of interior monologue in a novel.
One might look at Michael Scott and wonder, how could any boss be such a buffoon? In his own peculiar way, he was a great leader. His constant clown act distracted the workers from the mind-numbing boredom of working in an office for a company that sold paper. He made himself the butt of jokes to take the workers’ minds off the drudgery. He made their office environment fun.
Another winning aspect of The Office was the motivations of the characters. Everybody was working an angle. Dwight wanted the boss’s job. Creed Bratton wanted to do as little work as possible. Angela set out each day to prove she was more virtuous than any of her co-workers. Even the lovable Pam had an angle–she had a crush on Jim.
The Office wasn’t afraid to tackle workplace taboos topics in a way that only it could. The sexual harrasment episode was a prime example. In fact, Michael Scott routinely violated acceptable workplace behavior in the most inappropriate fashion, and got away with it.
There are a handful of other TV shows left where the writers are in touch with every-day life. Modern Family and Parks and Recreation come to mind, but I will really miss The Office.