The Decline of The Office

the office

 

It’s always easier to analyze things in retrospect, and the demise of The Office, my one-time favorite show on television, is no different. In retrospect it’s easy to point to the third season premiere as the moment when things went south, but at the time I didn’t feel that way at all.

First, though, I should acknowledge that I’m in the minority. Most people probably object to the very premise of my account of the “the decline of The Office,” since the show has increased in popularity and prestige since I stopped watching. The Office is a perennial Emmy nominee and is still considered one of the best and smartest shows on television.

And there was a time when I would have been the show’s most vocal defender. During seasons one and two, I preached the virtues of the show to anyone who would listen. My friends and I (Tim and Josh included) counted down to episodes of the show and made references to it in daily conversations. We were particularly eager for the premiere of season three, “Gay Witch Hunt.”

As I said, that episode was a turning point for the show, though I didn’t realize it at the time. The episode—which featured Michael outing Oscar to the office and then, in an attempt to redeem himself, kissing him—struck me as a little outlandish, but nothing out of character for the show. After the episode aired, my sister Elizabeth called me to complain about it. It was three years ago, but my memory tells me that the conversation went something like this:

—Elizabeth: “John, I’m worried.”

—John: “Why?”

—Elizabeth: “They won the Emmy and now they’re trying to appeal to some broad audience.”

—John: “What are you talking about?”

—Elizabeth: “Michael and Oscar kissed! That’s not subtle or clever. That’s just unrealistic.”

—John: “Oh chill out. It’s not that unrealistic. Don’t be so conspiratorial. It’s just one episode.”

Of course, I was wrong and Elizabeth was right; it was ridiculous and unrealistic, and it wasn’t just one episode. From that point on, The Office stopped being a clever, subtle, look at realistic characters, and started turning into a farce. It also stopped being funny.

What originally made The Office so great was how it generated humor from the mundane. This is not to say that it never veered into absurd territory, but the characters, their motivations, and, most important, the humor, always seemed real.

Take, for example, the episode “Dwight’s Speech” from the second season. This episode was a brilliant blend of the ridiculous and the commonplace, beginning with its opening. In this scene, Michael and Dwight toss a football around while discussing some office predicament, but they are tossing the ball around in the most obnoxious, distracting way possible. The resonance of this scene is obvious: Michael is more concerned with projecting a “care-free, fun-loving” vibe than with actually getting anything done and Dwight is happy to do anything Michael wants, no matter how counterproductive it is. Even the filler dialogue thrown in works in this scene, indicating that what’s being discussed is secondary to how it is being discussed.

Eventually the scene becomes borderline absurd, with Dwight actually tackling Ryan to “force a fumble” and stiff-arming two other co-workers. What makes this scene work, however, is that, while the outcome seems silly, at no point do any of the characters’ actions seem unjustified or inconsistent with their personalities: Michael is throwing the ball because he’s so preoccupied with his “cool boss” image, Dwight is obsessed with doing whatever he thinks will please Michael because he has a fetish for authority, Jim and the rest of the office play keep-away from Michael because their only way of rebelling against the “cool boss” is to stretch his tolerance to the breaking point, and Ryan doesn’t do anything because he’d rather be anywhere else at all.*

*The show was even brilliant enough that, when the chaos settles down and Michael gets Dwight to stop, Michael doesn’t punish anyone or get mad or even stop throwing the ball; the only thing he does is ask Ryan if he’s ok—despite the fact that two other employees are ALSO on the ground—because Michael is concerned with seeming hip to the youngest, and coolest, employee in the office, before he resumes throwing the ball around. 

This is the kind of writing I liked about the show, the kind that could use something as banal and innocuous as a game of catch to point out the humor in an entire cast of characters.

In the third season, however, the characters stopped being rich, realistic portraits and started acting like cartoon characters who would do whatever outlandish thing seemed like it would get a laugh. The show stopped mining the mundane for humor and started inserting things that might seem humorous into mundane scenarios; the result was forced, bad writing.

The Michael/Oscar kiss is a fine example (no boss, no matter how much he wanted to be liked and how oblivious he was, would ever kiss an employee on the lips against his will in front of the entire office and expect not only to not get fired for it, but to actually be praised for it), but there are plenty of others. The breaking point for me came in the episode, “Ben Franklin.” In this episode, a Ben Franklin impersonator comes to the office for some reason I can’t remember, and Jim tries to convince Dwight that he is the actual Ben Franklin. In an attempt to prove him wrong, Dwight tries to ask the impersonator a number of obscure facts about Franklin in the hopes of tripping him up. In other words, Dwight actually considers the possibility that this is the real Ben Franklin. We’d been led to believe a lot of things about Dwight up until that point—that he was authoritarian, pompous, unsympathetic, loyal, straight-laced, etc.—but never that he was functionally retarded.

This was the worst part about watching The Office as it declined: It didn’t just get bad, it got insulting: Do you really expect me to believe that Dwight isn’t familiar with the phenomenon of impersonators? That he thinks Benjamin Franklin is possibly immortal?

The show still does this. In last week’s season premiere, Michael talks about how you have to keep people guessing:

It’s like the end of ‘Spartacus.’ I have seen that movie half a dozen times, and I still don’t know who the real Spartacus is. And that is what makes that movie a classic whodunit.

 The “joke” here (and it should be noted that this joke was actually highlighted in multiple reviews as a “good joke”) is that Michael is so stupid that he radically misinterpreted the final scene, and overall meaning, of Spartacus, despite seeing it “half a dozen times.”

Now, I’ve never seen Spartacus. I don’t know who directed it, who stars in it, and I couldn’t tell you much about the plot of the film. But I DO know that it’s not “a classic whodunit.” How do I know this? BECAUSE I’M A FUCKING HUMAN BEING WHO LIVES ON PLANET EARTH! ANYONE WHO HAS ANY FAMILIARITY AT ALL WITH THE FILM SPARTACUS KNOWS IT’S NOT A GODDAMN “WHODUNIT.” And what do the writers expect us to believe, that Michael watched the film half a dozen times by himself? And never had a single conversation of even the most superficial depth about the movie with anyone, despite the fact that he’s clearly been portrayed (for five seasons!) as someone who talks to his employees about everything? That he never even once felt the strange urge to, I don’t know, Wikipedia the film? Or even look at the side of the DVD where it lists the goddamn genre? How fucking stupid do the writers think we are?

OK, sorry, I got a little worked up there. I realize that some people might claim that I’m “overthinking” the joke, but good comedy should be able to stand up to the most rudimentary mental analysis.

And this is why I had to stop watching the show: It was asking me to accept things that didn’t make any sense at all within the context of the show for the sake of simple, broad, uninspiring jokes.

There are a lot of minor, contributing reasons to why The Office got unwatchable—the show tried to put every character into a relationship or love triangle, the plots got formulaic and predictable, the character of Michael became unbelievable and cartoonish, the jokes became repetitive*—but they are all really subsets of this larger theme: The show became unrealistic. The characters became unrealistically stupid or unrealistically tolerant of stupid behavior. The situations were outlandish. Basically, the world of The Office stopped resembling anything recognizable as the actual world.

*Here’s another annoying thing about The Office that doesn’t really have anything to do with why the show got bad: the whole “That’s what she said” phenomenon. Within the context of the show, the joke was an insensitive, unclever pun used to illustrate how funny Michael thought he was, and how unfunny he actually was. In other words, the whole point of the line was that it WASN’T FUNNY. But this somehow inspired people to start saying “That’s what she said” sarcastically to the point of annoyance, or even sometimes unironically. People started intentionally saying an unfunny thing to seem funny. This wasn’t really The Office’s fault, but it was still irritating enough to make me feel good about disassociating myself from the show.

Now, it’s not as if all comedy has to be realistic and reasonable. The fact is, every fictional narrative is, to some degree, “unreal.” The problem was that The Office kept changing it’s own internal reality.

Look, for example, at Arrested Development (the thinking man’s The Office). That show makes The Office look like an Emile Zola novel (both in how realistic it is and how funny it is): One character gets his hand bit off by a seal, another tries to join the Blue Man Group, another escapes from prison by shaving his twin brother’s head, another gets a job a movie studio before she turns 16. Very little about the show qualifies as “realistic,” and yet it’s one of the funniest television shows of all time. The reason for this is that Arrested Development establishes its own exaggerated, absurd reality from the beginning, and never asks the audience to alter that reality for the sake of a cheap joke.

In the very first episode of Arrested Development, for example, the main character, Michael, refuses to run the family business, so his mother puts his brother Buster in charge, because Buster’s taken business classes: “Well, 18th century agrarian business… but I guess it’s all the same principles. Let me ask you, are you at all concerned about an uprising?”

This may seem “unrealistically stupid,” but it’s not: Buster is defined from the outset as absurdly sheltered and naïve and overeducated, so it’s not unrealistic, within the context of the show, for him to think a modern housing developer might be “concerned about an uprising.” It’s also not mere stupidity that is funny about this line; it’s the misapplication of refined knowledge and, implicitly, the gap the between academics and reality that is funny.

Conversely, the only thing funny about so many of the post-“Gay Witch Hunt” episodes of The Office is just that Michael Scott or Dwight Schrute (or someone else perhaps) has done something unbelievably stupid or outlandish. Whereas Dwight tackled Ryan because he wanted to please Michael, and Michael tolerates it because he doesn’t ever want to seem like an “authority,” the only character traits mocked in the Spartacus/kissing Oscar/questioning Franklin jokes are that the characters are stupid or oblivious. The characters become no different from Joey Tribbiani.

What’s so frustrating is that The Office used to be so good at nuanced and clever writing. In the first season episode, “The Alliance,” for example, Michael gives his views on charity:

When I retire, I don’t want to just move to some island somewhere. I want to be the guy who gives it all back. I want it to be like, ‘Hey… who donated that hospital wing that’s saving so many lives?’ ‘I don’t know. It was anonymous.’ ‘Well, guess what. It was Michael Scott.’ ‘But how do you know? It says anonymous.’ [pause] ‘Because I’m him.’ 

This is a joke about Michael saying something dumb. But it’s also a joke about Michael being a whore for glory, about him being unable to think through his own hypothetical scenario, and, most of all, about the image of Michael camping out in front of his own hospital wing to tell strangers that he donated it. The humor in this joke comes from contradictions and self-aggrandizement of Michael’s personality, traits that are very common and recognizable. 

Starting in season three, the show stopped forging comedy from these revealing, small moments in mundane situations. Instead, they opted for broad jokes that stretched the imagination and offended the intellect. The writers are the same, the actors are the same, and the characters’ names are the same, but the jokes, and the show, are much different.

25 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by F.P. on September 24, 2009 at 11:19 PM

    So your sister gets a shout but F.P. gets nothing? I think it was I who complained most loudly about the Ben Franklin nonsense…

    But “The Office” isn’t like that anymore. Your example about Spartacus is simply convenient to your argument and can’t be extrapolated to the entire series. For example, in tonight’s episode, Dwight makes reference to “communist Sweden”. Anyone could make that mistake, right? It’s not only realistic, but also hilarious (it’s funny because it’s not true!) and, like everything that makes “The Office” the greatest show on television right now, AWKWARD. Like seriously, omg, so awkward.

    You probably won’t find anyone who agrees with you more than I do, but I will point out that the show sucks for many more reasons than the ones you’ve mentioned. The unfortunate dilemma is that to fully understand and elaborate those reasons requires one to continue the viewing process, so I certainly don’t fault you.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on September 24, 2009 at 11:32 PM

      You may have been the most vocal about the Ben Franklin thing, but you don’t get the points for prescience that Elizabeth has to get. By that episode my tolerance for the show was already stretched.

      I mean, I think there may be some truth to the fact that show has rebounded slightly since the third season, but nothing more than a dead cat bounce; the show is still more insulting than it is funny.

      I wonder to though, what the “many more reasons” you refer to are. I think there are a variety of things the show went wrong on, but all are more or less subsets of the grand, thematic shift that started in Season Three.

      Reply

      • John, I think your head would explode if you saw the episode that aired after the superbowl. Mine nearly did, but then my friends talked me into taking it out of the microwave that I had put it in, after watching the first scene.

        Interesting side-note: I recently showed the first series of the British Office to a few friends who have become inured to the comedy of seasons 4 and 5 of the American show. Complete silence after the first episode. “This…this isn’t funny. It’s just unsettling. Where are all the jokes? Why isn’t everyone a two-dimensional smart-ass who could potentially say every line that everyone else says?” they might have been heard to say.

        And Stanley Kubrick directed Spartacus

        Reply

      • Posted by John S on December 17, 2009 at 1:57 PM

        Yeah, I actually did see the Super Bowl episode, and I felt the same way about it that I feel about all the new episodes I watch: It’s just depressing to see the show now. As for comparisons with the British version, the two shows have become so totally different in style and tone that it’s odd to think that they were ever similar.

        Also, excellent “head-in-the-microwave” reference.

        Reply

      • Posted by Tim on December 17, 2009 at 2:23 PM

        I don’t know what was more depressing: Seeing how low the show had gone while watching the Super Bowl episode, or seeing how much praise that episode has gotten in this past month as a highlight of the television year (http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1945379_1944107,00.html).

        The “Golden Age” may be over already.

        Reply

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  9. Posted by Austin on April 21, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    I just want to point out that Michael improvised the kiss with Oscar. According to Jenna Fischer.

    Reply

  10. Posted by colin tracy on June 9, 2010 at 1:24 PM

    I agree with you

    The office was my all time favorite show back in season 2, because only Micheal was obnoxious , and that made it funny. Now all the characters are outlandish and obnoxious, “cartoon characters”. Jim and Pam are boring now

    Reply

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  12. Posted by Key Bishop on August 14, 2010 at 7:15 PM

    Though I agree with much of what is said above, I still think the Spartacus Joke and the Ben Franklin questionning are much clever and in accordance with the characters than what you seem to believe.

    Let’s begin with the Spartacus joke. Firts of course if you know the movie or at least the reference to the scene at the end when many people claim to be Spartacus, then the sentence ” I have seen that movie half a dozen times, and I still don’t know who the real Spartacus is” immediately has the meaning, which alone is hilarious, that he misunderstood the end of the film. The only reason we first think that is because we know Michael Scott can be pretty stupid, that’s how he is, that’s the character. But he could possibly just be expressing the fact that watching the movie six times didn’t teach much about the real historical character Spartacus, the one who existed. In other words, he’s just giving a true-life example of how spreading fictional facts can stop “certain” people from checking real facts, which is strangely the point he is trying to prove. Ironically the rumors eventually raised interest for the real fact Michael was trying to hide just like we can obviously assume Kubrick’s movie actually raised people’s interest for the real historical Spartacus. I think that was subtle.

    But even people who don’t know much about Spartacus know that the movie is a peplum. So THE BASIC JOKE is that Michael seems to think that a “whodunit” movie is a movie where at the end you still don’t know “who done it”, while it’s actually quite the contrary. It is absolutely not surprising given the way his character has been described from the beginning. He’s not only being ignorant (btw you would be surprised by the number of people who don’t know what a whodunit movie is), he’s being Michael Scott because he obviously made up a film category in which he could classify the movies he didn’t understand without recognizing his inability to understand them, by assuming that they’re made that way on purpose. (Unconscious?) Denying as a defense against things that could hurt his ego… that’s so M. Scott, and here that’s funny.

    About the Ben Franklin thing, Dwight isn’t supposed to truly believe the impersonator is BF, we know Dwight is not retarded, but his will to unmask a pretender corresponds to what has been established as some of his personality traits from the beginning.

    Reply

    • Posted by JL on March 2, 2011 at 1:26 PM

      Re: Ben Franklin – exactly. Dwight doesn’t think the impersonator is BF. He is more likely concerned that other people think so, which fits with the character: “unsympathetic”.

      Reply

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  14. Posted by rogdog on July 10, 2011 at 2:27 AM

    The show is terrible now – but season 6 was the absolute worst of all. I’m actually watching it right now, trying to suck some funny out, and I feel like puking ’bout every twenty seconds..

    I wish I knew more about the way a show is written:

    Do the actor’s really have input into the writing?
    If so how much (bad writing) is ad-libbed/ edited or Censored by the actor’s, who may know their character’s better in some ways?
    And how much of the show depends on ONE or TWO single writer’s?

    This might explain some of it.

    Your post is very spot on, ‘cept the Office to me is still good in season 3 3. My standards may be lower?

    Reply

  15. Posted by jwb on August 20, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    The show hasn’t been funny since Michael took Pam and Ryan and created his own company. It was a silly and forced premise at best. Then Pam is a salesperson? No. It doesn’t work. Andy Bernard ceased being the outcast and Darrell in the office as a staffer doesn’t work.

    The show tried too hard to be funny. The first 5 years. Genius comedy. Then the show got too cute and too big and clumsy for its own good. I’ve tried to watch the show over the last 2-3 years….it’s just not good and it’s why Steve Carrell bolted because he also knew the writing and the acting and the plots were just bad.

    Reply

  16. Posted by Lisa on October 8, 2011 at 8:17 PM

    The post writer’s strike Office is total tripe. Third season was at least watchable. After that it just turned into a mess. I tuned in to a recent episode (which introduced James Spader to the cast) and had to turn it off. In the first scenes the idiot employees are “planking-” a trend of lying face down in weird places. Really? This was supposed to be “funny.” It fell way short of that, as did the next few scenes. I miss the clever writing. How does anyone (who is in any way intelligent) find this train wreck of a show engaging?

    Reply

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  19. Posted by John on December 7, 2014 at 5:05 PM

    (sidenote: I also love Arrested Development, so I’m not a total idiot)
    For me, The Office lost its humor after the end of the Michael Scott Paper Company. Sure, after Gay Witch Hunt, the style of comedy changed, but there was still humor there (for me at least). After Michael returns, Pam goes into sales, thus ruining the idea of “different fields falling love” that made the salesman-receptionist flirtations so exciting; it was a connection across jobs. Soon after that, David Wallace is replaced and they sell printers for Sabre, thus ruining the happy-best-friend-with-the-boss foolishness between Michael and the CEO. Jo’s character simply isn’t interesting and doesn’t permit connection with Michael that isn’t forced. From here on out, the jokes constantly fall flat, the problems stop being about “office behavior/formality” mistakes and start being just about people that have a company in common. And what might be the worst of all, is that they don’t allow characters to build up and establish audience connections. Erin’s so stupid but unfunny that we don’t care for her lack of parents. Andy’s socially clueless, but worse than Michael because his being clueless is dangerous (Michael’s is really just annoying). And with these 2 unsympathetic individuals, they try to force a love triangle with an even more fish-out-of-water character, Gabe. So we DON’t CARE about these 3 characters problems because we don’t care about these characters! Sad to see such a funny show lose its way when it could have ended on some kind of high note (Michael’s Goodbye was really their last chance to end well).

    Reply

  20. Posted by Disappointed_Office on February 18, 2017 at 5:11 AM

    Googled “when did the Office stop being about an office” and found this. Seriously could not be more accurate. The reason The Office is funny is because it is finding humor in the absurd people that we actually come across in the workplace: the inappropriate boss, the stuck up protestant, the creepy old weirdo, the alcoholic…then, of course, Jim is there to be the “normal guy” we relate to. It’s the same thing that Dilbert has been doing for years on end.

    Personally, I thought the turn happened as the show led up to Jim and Pam, when the writers seemed to realize that big, feel-good scenes would draw in a large audience. I’m going to go back and rewatch the earlier scenes, see if it’s closer to Gay Witch Hunt, or when the whole Sabre mess started, or some other time. Thanks for the review.

    Reply

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