I have spent the better part of this year watching every episode of one of the most popular sitcoms of our generation: The Office. This show has been a part of my life for a very long time, as I started watching it as it aired when I was in fourth grade. For over ten years I was familiar with certain chunks of the run. But I had never seen much of the beginning or the end, just most of the middle. So I figured it was time to be an expert with the whole thing.
I started my binge in January with The Office UK. I had never seen the original British version, and decided to give it a chance. And wow, it is hilarious! It doesn’t have the mass appeal of the American version, as I do believe that series caters to almost every sense of humor. While the original is extremely dry, unbelievably awkward, often shockingly vulgar, and overall much darker. The US version has episodes like this, notably “The Convict” or “Dinner Party,” but the UK series is humor like it non stop. It’s not for everyone, but I think it’s great.
Ricky Gervais’ David Brent is similar to Michael Scott, but if Michael had a childlike innocence and likeability around him, David is just a tool. But at the same time he feels more like a real person. Because unlike Michael, he is not a successful salesman, and his employees are not secretly his friends, as much as he insists they are. It’s ultimately a story about a thoroughly mediocre man, who inadvertently makes his life worse and worse, until he finally shows some sign of growing up. There’s a scene towards the end when he finally stands up to his abusive friends, and it really feels like the entire show was building up to that one moment. It’s a moment of growth they could have never gave Michael.
Also great is the Tim and Dawn dynamic, which is the equivalent to Jim and Pam. Except I’ll just say it, they’re better than Jim and Pam. As cute as they are, their story loses steam about halfway through the series. Then we have to see them get married… and have kids… and go through petty miscommunication issues… most of it is just unnecessary. While the UK series is only 14 episodes, so it benefits from the “less is more” principle. In comparison their story is much smaller, but it all just hits so much harder. By the finale I was actually crying, which I could never do for Jim and Pam. Also just between the two, Tim Canterbury is a much more likeable and selfless person than Jim Halpert.
This brings us to the beginning of American Office. And truth be told, it’s… not great? “Diversity Day” is still an amazing episode, and shows a glimpse of what’s to come. But most of Season One (and some of Season Two) awkwardly tries to recreate the original series, when it’s not truly successful until it does its own thing. In fact, most of people’s least favorite elements come from the UK version. Do you hate Todd Packer? Blame the original’s Chris Finch. Doesn’t that first episode suck? That’s because it’s a joke-for-joke recreation of the original’s pilot. These are elements lost in translation, pieces that just couldn’t be as good as the UK version, so there was no point in even trying.
But as soon as they start hitting their stride, we enter The Office’s Golden Age. Seasons Two through Five of this show are almost completely brilliant. 90% of the truly classic episodes can be found in this period. The Dundies! Office Olympics! The Injury! The Convict! A Benihana Christmas! Safety Training! Launch Party! Local Ad! Dinner Party! Weight Loss! Stress Relief! Golden Ticket! These are just some of the A+ episodes found from this era of the series. At this point, all of the stars align, and they’ve created a show that is equal parts cartoony, childish, dark, cynical, cute, authentic, and more of all fresh. It’s a show that manages to be many things at once, contributing to its mass appeal. My favorite of the bunch is likely Season Four, as that feels the most Office of them all. This is Michael at his most clueless. Jim and Pam at their most heartfelt. Dwight at his most ridiculous. And Stanley at his most defiant. Ryan’s character arc here is especially memorable, as he goes from an abused temp, to a nouveau-riche villain, and to a pathetic burnout. All and all this is peak Office. My sister almost exclusively watches these seasons, and feels uncomfortable seeing anything else. Because she knows that after this point it’s just not the same.
Then we get to Season Six, which isn’t bad, but is easily the most disappointing of the nine. The drop in quality from Five to Six is pretty jarring. The main issue is that it feels too different from what the show started off as. Which is inevitable, you can’t keep up the same pace forever, but something isn’t the same. There’s something too cutesy and sitcomy about this era, lacking the balance between many moods the Golden Age had. This season still has bright spots though, “Scott’s Tots” and “Secret Santa” are among the series best. And Kathy Bates’ Jo Bennett is downright delightful. But at the same time, it’s no surprise Steve Carell announced the next season would be his last.
Season Seven is a bit more of the same, though a noticeable step up. Mainly because they knew this would be the last season with their star, and more often than not makes great use of Michael Scott. “Threat Level Midnight” is an amazing episode, perfectly wrapping up a running joke in the most ridiculous way possible. And the last few episodes with Michael are surprisingly powerful. Even though Michael is a more static character than David Brent, he also has more redeeming qualities, and we’re genuinely sad to see him go. They did a great job sending this character off. That is, whenever Will Ferrell isn’t on screen, as his guest role here is likely his worst performance ever. So then one question remained: How would this show continue without the star?
Continuing this show at all was going to be a gamble, and one almost destined for disappointment. Most fans say Season Eight is the only bad one, and I have to disagree. I honestly think it’s almost on par with Six. That’s mainly because I think Robert California is the patron saint of later Office, with James Spader giving one of his most hilarious and terrifying performances ever. I can understand why this character was too jarring for most people, but I think it was the shot in the arm this series needed. Season Nine on the other hand is more conventional, and it’s an easy pick for my least favorite. At this point they’ve run out of ideas, and the last batch of episodes just aren’t that funny. That being said, it’s all worthwhile for the finale, which is nothing short of excellent. Every single emotional beat lands. Every character gets their moment, major and minor, that can make any fan tear up. They really gave them a proper farewell, giving us a sense of closure most hit shows never could.
The legacy of The Office still remains strong. It holds the record for being the number one most watched show on Netflix, and it’s easy to see why. I don’t think it’s the best show ever, but it has to be the most universally appealing. It’s a show that brings us all together, one we all have in common. It’s nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.
The Office UK is now streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu, and The Office US is streaming on Netflix until 2021, when it moves to NBC’s upcoming service Peacock.