TV

The Greatness Of ‘The Office’ Stemmed From Its Willingness To Evolve

There are characters and dynamics from The Office that are frozen in our minds: Michael Scott as the dimwitted and insensitive boss, Jim and Pam as the fairytale couple, Jim and Dwight as mortal enemies. But there are also variations and an evolutionary path that carefully poked at and sometimes even broke down those crystalized versions of characters that we were first introduced to 15 years ago on Tuesday. And it’s those efforts that prove the greatness of the show and the guts of its creative team.

I’m fascinated by the balancing act between artistic instinct and fan service. When I spoke with Schitt’s Creek star and showrunner Dan Levy about that show’s upcoming finale a couple of months ago, he offered a take that really clicked with me: “When it comes to telling stories, we don’t think about our fan base because I don’t think you could write based on other people’s expectations.” That’s gotta be a really hard thing to do, especially when you go from being the little engine that could to something that a lot of people are talking about — which describes Schitt’s Creek‘s unique mid-life, fan-bolstered ascent. It might be harder when you’re working with characters that were popular and widely beloved from the jump.

The final few seasons of The Office don’t get nearly as much love as the show’s vaunted earlier seasons. New characters were introduced, providing an opportunity to try new things but most (Pete, Erin, Clark) felt like lesser versions of previously established characters and others (Robert California, Nellie, Jo, Gabe) weren’t always given enough room to run. What the show did do, however, was push familiar characters out of their comfort zones or, at least, out of the audience’s comfort zones. This too came with mixed results. Andy Bernard, as a for instance, was asked to carry way too much weight, causing the show to suffer. But, truthfully, the concerted evolution of some characters had begun well before the show headed toward its final two seasons.

HR nightmare Michael Scott is really a prime example. At the start, Michael echoed Ricky Gervais’ David Brent from the original UK version of the show, speaking without thinking, thinking without reason — apart from ill-advised attempts at comedy — and bonding with people he assumed respected and even looked up to him. Like the UK version, The Office spun gold from the resulting awkwardness on display in those interactions, allowing the larger cast to react to the three-ring circus in front of them.

Over time, however, Michael’s villainy got sanded down and he became slightly less cringe-y with the character appearing to be more of an overactive child with a toxic need to be liked than someone truly abhorrent (with a few exceptionally cancelable moments). Odd blips of wisdom popped up (like when he counseled Jim about his pursuit of Pam in the “Booze Cruise” episode), as did pitiable moments (pretty much the entire Jan affair) and small victories (testifying against Jan in “The Deposition” and standing up to Wallace and Charles Minor when negotiating a return to Dunder Mifflin in “Broke”). And by the end of Steve Carell’s run, Michael had morphed into someone worth rooting for as he worked toward realizing his life long goal of being not just loved but appreciated despite all his quirks and flaws once he met, courted, lost, and eventually refound Holly.

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All of this was, of course, a lengthy transition necessitated by the size of the character’s run (seven seasons and 139 episodes) and the inability for any character to successfully hold one note for that long. To try would have boxed Carell in and denied us the chance to see him and the writers develop Michael’s humanity. And what a loss that would have been for fans of the show.

Dwight Schrute doesn’t get the same level of reinvention as Michael does, but even he sees growth — particularly toward the end of the show as his increasingly chaotic and dangerous feud with Jim Halpert fades to reveal grudging respect and the glimmer of friendship (that had been gently teased earlier in the show’s run). This natural easing of tensions seemed to acknowledge that both characters had grown up to a degree and that, despite an epic run of inventiveness, their seemingly endless prank war had started to get tired.

There are, of course, other characters who grew across the show’s run — Oscar and Angela’s surprising and uneasy alliance feels more forced than the Jim/Dwight detente, but its also a nice resolution for another pair of needlessly fierce office rivals. Even Andy adds some dimension, though that only brings a minor amount of improvement over the teeth gnashingly annoying Stamford days Andy Bernard.

Jim and Pam are, of course, the show’s most enduring cultural contribution. Like Sam and Diane from Cheers and Ross and Rachel from Friends before them, they embody an entire generation’s definition for “will they/won’t they” TV relationships. They’re also the ideal of adorable coupledom for a lot of people. Which is why the season 9 turn away from the pair’s seeming perfection still pisses people off, registering as some kind of betrayal.

Returning for the final season, initial show developer Greg Daniels clearly wanted to make a noise by exploring some of the often glossed-over imperfections with the Jim/Pam dynamic. It’s also possible that Daniels wanted to acknowledge that real relationships suffer from peaks and valleys and that sometimes a scare can be beneficial.

Had The Office left Jim and Pam to continue going through the motions, it probably would have pleased many (if not most fans), but I’d argue that the drama that consumed parts of season 9 ultimately led to a recommitment to the relationship and some of the final season’s most memorable and enriching moments with Jim and Pam emerging stronger and better for it. And I’m not just talking about the teapot reveal and the highlight reel. I’m talking about Jim getting out of that cab and telling Pam he wanted to stay and fight, blunting momentum that was leading him and Pam in different directions. It may seem inconsequential or get dismissed as a part of the displeasing marital trouble arc, but it’s also representative of one of the hardest things one can do when they’re in the middle of a bad stretch in a relationship — make a hard turn and stop before things become unrecoverable. I can’t think of a more powerful proof point of that couple’s love (or any couple’s love, really) than that they were able to get through hard times. Anyone can fall in love, not everyone can keep it going.

I know that it’s hard to fathom someone liking the near destruction of Jim and Pam’s fairytale or the end of the Jim/Dwight feud. Even the gentleification of Michael almost certainly has its detractors who preferred when the character had more edge. But these moves feel like some of the show’s biggest and most impressive swings based on how easy it would have been to not take them and instead lean into the status quo. These choices are also a clear indication that The Office was not content to peter out after a dominant early run, drowning in fan service and swell intentions. Instead, they did what they had always done, trusting their guts even when it felt unpopular — for the good of the characters, the show, and, eventually, the fans. Whether we realize it or not.

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