Monday, September 13, 2010

"Why I Like 'The Office', But Never Watch It"

It’s torturously bleak!

I like opening with a thumbnail summary, so that my Titans of Industry followers will not have to waste their valuable time wading through the verbiage that will ultimately end me up at the same place.

Now, for those whose time is less valuable…

Despite having spent the majority of my career writing multi-camera comedies, I invariably felt frustrated by the format’s limitations:

The modular “set-up-joke” construction of the scripts.

The story turns that were never just different from what you expect, but the considerably less believable “one-eighty” opposite.

The inability to leave the soundstage, and the limitations concerning how many sets you could use.

And the constant recycling of a musty trunk load of sure-to-get-a-laugh sitcom characters.

Writing a multi-camera comedy script felt like writing a Kabuki play. (Not that I ever wrote a Kabuki play. I’m just analogizing generally.) Every move proceeded according to long-established rules, some of them bizarre, like the requirement of mentioning the character’s name when another character was speaking to them, which dates back to radio, where the audience couldn’t see who the character was speaking to, and they therefore had to be identified.

This was definitely a rule you didn’t need anymore. But they still kept doing it. Why? It was never clearly explained.

The audience inevitably tired of the multi-camera format’s predictability. This led to the emergence of the differently formatted single-camera comedies.

Such as The Office.

For me, the appeal of shows like The Office is their liberation from multi-camera mandatoriosity. See that? Just thinking about them liberated me to invent a new word.

From a writer’s standpoint, The Office is exhilaratingly “old rules”-free. The “set-up-joke” structure has been entirely abandoned. The characters just speak in, though I’m sure it’s been carefully worked out, natural, conversational rhythms.

The stories take us to as many locations as are needed, including, when required, outdoor locations.

The actors look like ordinary people – people of various races, sizes and degrees of attractiveness. Check out the sitcoms of the past. Everybody’s attractive. And likable. The networks at the time insisted on both.

Rather than a parade of stock sitcom characters – “The Dumb One”, “The Bombshell”, “The Wise-Cracking Sidekick”, “The Decent Guy Who Never Gets The Girl” “The Curmudgeon With The Heart Of Gold” – The Office’s characters personify the broken cookies of humanity, in their myriad variations. They are truly a mess. Like you and me. Okay, I shouldn’t speak for you. A mess like me.

I also like The Office’s opening theme music – upbeat and kind of chirpily cheerful. The problem for me is, when the opening theme music is over, virtually nothing “chirpily cheerful” ever happens on the show again.

It’s just all sad to me. Scranton looks sad. Selling paper in a downturning economy feels sad. Being aware that your life is dripping away before you eyes seems very sad. Look at the characters’ faces; they look like they just came from a funeral. When they don’t look furious, terminally bored, frustrated or defeated.

Front and center in the episodes I sampled the past few nights were a neverending series of “Michael Scott” humiliations, which ran the gamut from Michael’s failure to get a paper airplane to fly forward to a brutally rejected public proposal of marriage.

It’s appropriate that Michael is the main character in the series. Check out his eyes. The guy is leading the pack in pain.

Though I like and admire The Office – and I salivate at the writing range they’re permitted – the hammering message of futility and despair makes me not at all interested in watching the show on a regular basis.

As an upbeat finale, I will pass along one moment I saw on The Office, which I found unqualifiedly hilarious. Michael and Dwight were driving a rental car to an out-of-town business appointment, using the car’s GPS apparatus for directions. Dwight is certain they are lost. But Michael insists on putting his faith in the GPS.

At which point, with utter confidence, Michael drives his rental car directly into a lake.

That one really made me laugh.


Anonymous said...

That's funny that you cite as hilarious the one moment in the series that, at the time, Office aficionados cited as the moment they feared the series had jumped the shark.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I wonder, when the multi-camera format exploded in popularity in the early '70s -- after a decade when single-camera sitcoms had almost completely dominated -- did writers feel a similar sense of liberation? I wouldn't be surprised. Any format can get stifling if it's over-used, and the rhythms of Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family seemed like a breath of fresh air after the "canned" feeling of so many single-camera shows. I wouldn't be surprised either if multi-camera eventually returns to seeming as liberating as single-camera does now (after so many years when multi-camera ruled everything).

I personally don't find The Office depressing, but I understand that people do (both the U.S. version and the original British version). I had the same reaction to a show called Party Down -- sort of like Taxi except single-camera, low-budget and realistic -- which everyone I know adored, but which I found so bleak and cringe-y that I could almost never laugh at it.

The thing that keeps The Office from depressing me is that there's usually a sense of hope or emotional connection snuck into the show somewhere -- not hit-you-over-the-head morals like on Modern Family, but just a sense that the characters aren't as depressed as we might think. Certainly audiences latched onto the Jim/Pam relationship as a way of finding hope on the show, which is one of the reasons it's been successful -- unlike Arrested Development which (while it also had heavy-handed moral lessons at the end of some episodes) never really convinced the audience that anyone on the show had a good relationship.

Geoff said...

If you watch these episodes from the beginning, the thing that will make it all worthwhile is the payoff to the Jim and Pam storyline. Trust me.

A. Buck Short said...

It's not sad Earl. It's just the rest of us. Mostly I think it just is. About the level of drama many of sort of hope for -- because when it's more, it's also usually bad. Like when you catch a glimpse in the mirror and have a flashback wondering if you actually once thought Michael's was occasionally the way to go.

Off and on, The Office opening seemed to remind me of the opening of a relatively short-lived 3 camera sitcom called Grand that I thought I remembered was set in a small Pennsylvania town (which in my mind, illogical as it may be, is still anyplace not Philadelphia). I kept guessing Altoona, because I’d been to Altoona and the opening shots seemed kind of “hilly-bricky,” like the quick shots of Scranton. The kind of opening that made you think you might once had grown up in a place like that – and you were pretty sure that wasn't Vegas. It was months of this before I was finally able to remember the name of the town was…wait, it’ll come to me, uh…Grand.

It was one of those less hurried ensemble shows, a lot less in your face, that you knew you liked, but could hardly remember another thing about it. Except there was a Modern Familyish extended family, patriarched by the wonderful and seemingly omnipresent John Randolph. I seemed to remember a company town, with the family owning a piano factory sort of Dunder Mifflining itself into Chapter 7. (Gee, another clue to the name, ya think?) And then you could remember other things about it that it turns out really weren’t about it after all.

Today’s post finally goosed me over to YouTube, where I realized I had been conflating the two, but not entirely. For one thing, Grand’s opening had lyrics. In one the cast apparently sang those right there in front of you. From what I just read, it was intended as a parody of the big family Dallas/Dynasty soaps of the day – but “old” money and lack thereof. And it also had Bonnie Hunt, and Michael McKean, and Sara Rue. Who knew? Anyway, if Grand also got you where at least you thought you lived,

Here’s the opening.

And here’s the cast singing it.

Neal said...

When I watched the UK version at first I thought 'why am I watching horrible people being miserable, and miserable people being horrible for fun?', but when you start looking at the minutiae the redeeming features of the characters come out. Perhaps it was easier to stick with it, when a full series was just six episodes, and the story lines had to resolve in six weeks, and the momentum meant it didn't feel entirely that you were trapped with them for six months with just the constantly whirring photocopier to break the feeling you were watching personal humiliation for entertainment purposes.