Thursday, May 11, 2006

Very nutritious, but they smell like death: The Office (U.S.), season 2

Howdy! Earl and Chris reviews will be up tomorrow sometime.

For now, though, The Office.

Before we talk about it, let's go vote in this best-of-TV survey.

Every so often, a television series unexpectedly has a season that builds and builds and builds, until it's at a point where you hardly even recognize it for the show it was before. The Office came in to its second season as an entertaining enough diversion with amusing writing and some fine acting. Its first season was one that those of us who loved the British version spent in something approaching relief (hey! it's not embarrassingly horrible!), but the show never quite gelled in that first year, despite some funny episodes. Too many elements felt like a self-conscious homage to the British version AND some of the characters were too far over-the-top to fit in with the show's pseudo-realistic milieu.

But by the end of the second season, The Office was one of the best comedies on television (and if Sons & Daughters is canceled, there's no other challenger for its crown). There was stuff that still didn't work (I thought the episode with the fight was a little too over-the-top, and Dwight occasionally makes the show seem too much like a "show"), but the show started out ten times more confident than it was last year and only grew from there. The show's no longer in the British version's shadow precisely because it grew into a DIFFERENT show from that version. The show took that program's rhythms, internalized them and Americanized them. Instead of making Michael (who was a problematic character in the first season) a riff on Ricky Gervais' character in the British version, executive producer Greg Daniels and his writers humanized Michael AND made him a very particular version of the weaselly American middle-manager.

But enough about comparisons to the British version. The Office has earned the right to stand on its own.

I think the smartest thing The Office did was to broaden its character base. The central five were fine for a limited first season, but they would have grown tiresome over a long run. In season two, the show deepened the background characters who would wander through for a line or two in season one. By the middle of season two, all of them were regulars, creating the biggest sitcom ensemble in history (and, honestly, one of the best). In addition to that, there are non-regulars in the cast who have turned in to great recurring characters (like Creed). By filling this office with recognizable office "types" (like Angela the snob and Stanley the coaster), the show entered the zeitgeist.

I love the Jim/Pam romance (and the graceful denouement in the finale), but I think the show's heart comes from its enormous cast of recognizable people. At any moment, any one of these characters can turn on a dime and add a real pathos to the show. Let's face it. They, like us, have no desire to go in to their unrewarding jobs day after day. But they do. Because it's safer than chasing anything approaching a dream (and it's the American way).

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Despite its tiny ratings right now, The Office is going to grow into the next Seinfeld. America is ready for cringe humor on the big scale, and this show is just the thing to take it to them. It'll be a slow build, but by season six, we'll wonder how this show was ever non-mainstream.

And by then, I'll probably be tired of it.

But for now, enjoy the ride. The Office is coming off a well-nigh-masterful second season, and no one can take that from it.

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