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January 23, 2007

In Case You Missed It—January 23, 2007

This week I would like to take time to address a show that is one of my favorites. It’s a well reviewed and well known program that, strangely, very few people have actually gotten around to watching. So I have devoted my entire column to telling you, in a most didactic and condescending manner, why you should agree with me.

TV: The Office (2005–Present)

I know The Office hardly counts as obscure these days, especially after its recent Emmy and Golden Globe wins. But when the show was first released, it was hard to find a single other person who watched it regularly. And you know what? Three seasons later, it’s still hard to find a person who can name anyone on the show besides Steve Carrell. My task here is to expose you to obscure or forgotten media and tell you why you should check it out. And since no one actually watches The Office, it’s my job to tell you why you should.

As many people know, the American version of The Office is a remake of a very successful British series of the same name that I’m told featured the height of British comedy (in other words, there were a lot of men dressing up like women). I’ve never watched the British series, but from what I’ve read, both versions are hilarious, each for its own reasons. This isn’t just some lazy rehashing of a random foreign series. The characters are similar, but it would be hard to say that someone as talented as Steve Carrell (who plays boss Michael Scott) wouldn’t develop his own unique humorous persona. To those of you who are fans of the original series and are skeptical of the American version—don’t be. It’s a wonderfully hilarious and original remake with many more characters and just as many laughs. To those of you who have never seen either version, start watching The Office now. It’s on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (I’ll wait.)

Well, since Thursday is three days away, I guess I’ll take this time to warn you: The Office isn’t really a comedy. I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’ll barely even laugh when you watch it for the first time. This isn’t a stock sitcom. It’s not just here to make you laugh. It’s not just here to give you an uplifting feeling (coupled with sappy music) when Ross and Rachel finally hook up. This series is nothing short of a satire of the very ways in which Americans interact in the workplace. For this reason it’s often hilarious in a I-would-be-laughing-harder-but-I-kind-of-want-to-cry kind of way. It’s funny and poignant for exactly the same reason.

To give you an example from a recent episode (warning: semi-spoilers to follow), the cute, lovable, and funny receptionist Pam is crying in a hallway while the rest of the office staff is doing inventory in the warehouse. To make a long story short, she was crying because the man she was desperately in love with was involved with someone else. Dwight, the awkward, overbearing, fascist loser of the office comes out to see her crying. As he stands there, the audience wonders what Dwight K. Schrute, who disdains any form of weakness and once claimed that he was immune to all diseases, will do. He removes his suit coat, as if to place it on her shoulders in comfort, but then ties it around his waist. “It sure is hot out here,” he says calmly. But then in a rare show of emotion, he hands Pam his handkerchief and put his arms around her shoulders. It’s a touching, vaguely awkward moment that Dwight punctuates with a few perfect words: “So you’re PMS-ing pretty bad, huh?”

Do you see what I mean? The exchange is awkward, the office setting cold and impersonal, and Dwight is a man obsessed with Japan, power, and, most of all, his job. Yet, he still manages to show glimmers of humanity and kindness through his veneer of professionalism and creepiness. The Office is a little bit comedy, a little bit drama, and a whopping plateful of awkward. The closest parallel I can find in modern television is Seinfeld, a show that focuses on the weirdness of everyday life, everyday people, and everyday relationships, and somehow results in something that we love to watch.

It may be hard to just start watching The Office, since there are myriad interconnected characters and stories. And I admit that the show’s awkward and often dark sense of humor takes a little getting used to. But, like most comedies, each episode can stand on its own, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t gotten hooked after two or three episodes. It airs at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays.

That’s all for this week. As always, I’m constantly looking for suggestions and new material. If you have a TV show, a band, a movie, a book, or (new this quarter) a video game that doesn’t get the credit you think it deserves, shoot me an e-mail at bmw940@uchicago.edu. Samples of the work make my job easier, but aren’t a necessity.