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The enduring appeal of The Office in a crumbling world

How a nation engulfed by economic precarity turned a TV show about workplace drudgery into an aspirational fantasy.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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Part of the July Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

When The Office reached the end of its six-episode first season on NBC in 2005, nobody thought there would be more.

The ratings were atrocious. Of the 156 shows on broadcast networks that TV season, The Office landed at 102 in total viewership. Despite a surprisingly large audience for its premiere — 11.2 million people — 57 percent had lost interest by the finale.

Michael Schur, a writer on that first season who would go on to create some very successful TV shows of his own, summed up the mood of impending doom well when I interviewed him for a 2018 podcast.

“There was a moment when we were shooting the last episode, where the cast was sort of huddled outside, and everyone was a little bit glum because it was our last week of shooting. Even though the show wouldn’t air for months, everyone kind of felt like, there’s no way this ever works,” he recalled.

You probably know what happened next. NBC unexpectedly renewed The Office, banking on the track record of creator Greg Daniels (of The Simpsons and King of the Hill fame) and on Steve Carell breaking out as a genuine movie star in the then-upcoming The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Both bets paid off. In its second season, The Office became a bona fide cult and critical hit, capping off its unlikely turnaround that year by winning the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. By its sixth season, it was just a hit, period, the 11th-biggest show on TV among younger viewers.

Somehow, The Office has only grown in stature since it left the air in 2013, bolstered by Netflix, where the extremely limited data there is suggests that it’s a massive smash. Twitter imploded when NBCUniversal announced it would be pulling The Office from the service in 2021. (It is, as of July 15, also available on the NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock, which will become the show’s exclusive home once it leaves Netflix.)

There are Office crafts on Etsy. There’s Office merch on Amazon and in Hot Topic. Pop star Billie Eilish — a teenager! — samples the show in a song on her Grammy-winning 2019 album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? In the midst of the global quarantine due to Covid-19, the show’s stars reunited not once but twice for goofy YouTube talk shows hosted by John Krasinski, who played Jim. The show also lives on as part of the internet’s lingua franca, as anybody who’s ever had to say “NOOOOOOOOO” in GIF form can tell you.

But why? Most shows that become this big in reruns have at least a hint of escapism to them — think Friends (with its candy-colored New York City full of attractive, presumably rich, white people) or The Simpsons (set in an animated world). The Office is a little gray and drab, a little like being devoured whole by a week of Mondays. It takes place in a world where you wear a tie to work, drive every day to a dull office park, where the closest thing to excitement is playing a prank on a coworker. The series features a kind of social realism largely missing from more current notions about the importance of “meaningful” work.

“Young people are being told, ‘You can’t just get a job, you have to find a job that fulfills you, that you’re passionate about,’” said Amy Wharton, a professor emeritus of sociology who taught at Washington State University and published extensively on American work life. “There’s a lot of pressure on people to invest in themselves and work at something that expresses their values, but it’s really hard to find that.”

This contrast makes The Office feel like it takes place in a weirdly bygone era, where our lives are not our jobs and our jobs are not our passion. The series even takes place in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a small city in the middle of the country, exactly the sort of place hollowed out by recession and corporate restructuring in the 21st century.

For these reasons and more, The Office is hardly the show you’d expect to win over the masses. (Really, the only similarly dour comedy to see such massive success in its afterlife is Cheers, and that at least took place where everybody knows your name.) But what’s remarkable about The Office is not only that it’s so beloved, but that it seems to be popular with just about everyone. Teens who will most likely never work at a paper company love it. Their parents, who might be worried about their jobs amid the economic collapse, love it. And lots and lots of people use it to soothe anxieties both current and eternal.

Understanding the rise and enduring appeal of The Office comes down to one age-old TV truism. Every good show is about relationships — between the characters, sure, but also between the show and its fans. Vox talked to a handful of those fans, including a 12-year-old superfan and some of the people who made the show what it was, to find out why this unexpected hit still shines bright in 2020.

Angela Kinsey, in red, and Jenna Fischer, center, in black, are pictured with their Office castmates (from left) Phyllis Smith, Kate Flannery, Melora Hardin, and Mindy Kaling at the 2007 Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

The stars: Jenna Fischer (Pam!) and Angela Kinsey (Angela!) on a loving set and a lasting friendship

The night when Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey formed what would become a lasting friendship came in the first season of The Office, during the production of those six episodes that all involved thought would be the only episodes the show ever made. Fischer, who played receptionist Pam Beesly, and Kinsey, who played the prudish and cat-loving accountant Angela Martin, were on a walk back from the warehouse set to the show’s main location (where everyone was parked) when the two got a little goofy, imitating the beginning of Laverne & Shirley — the locked arms, the “schlemiel, schlimazel,” all of it — belting out the theme song into the California night. But they had a spectator.

“Steve Carell had been quietly walking behind us, and we turned around and saw him and we started laughing, real embarrassed,” Kinsey says. “And he looked at us and smiled and said, ‘You know, no matter what happens with this show, this is what you two will take from it, the friendship.’ I think about that all the time. The Office was a gift to us because the relationships and the people, that’s what we took with us.”

Fischer and Kinsey’s friendship did, indeed, last, to the degree that they began a podcast in late 2019 called Office Ladies, in which they go episode by episode and recall their memories from all nine seasons. Both were among the handful of cast members who worked on the show from day one to the finale.

In many cases, actors so closely associated with roles like these are reluctant to talk about those famous roles. They want to move past them. That’s not the case with Fischer and Kinsey, who both continue to work regularly (Fischer was on the two-season ABC show Splitting Up Together and Kinsey in the 2019 Netflix film Tall Girl) but also seem more than happy to discuss the nine years they spent on a wildly popular sitcom.

“My dream when I moved to Los Angeles as an aspiring actor was to be on a long-running comedy television show,” Fischer says. “And so if what happens to me for the rest of my life is that people think of me as Pam, well, that’s a small price to pay for my wildest dream coming true.”

Both have had fans come up to them to say that the show has gotten them through hard times — chemotherapy and the death of loved ones and on and on. Fischer and Kinsey have a theory on why the series strikes such a chord with those who just need comfort food TV: It’s a comfortable kind of TV home.

“You always know where front reception is. You always know where Pam’s going to be. You always know where Dwight is. You always know where accounting is. There is a familiarity with the actual layout of the office,” Kinsey says. “We don’t travel outside of that space very often. It’s just really familiar-feeling. You turn it on, and you instantly know where you’re at.”

But what’s been most surprising to the two is how the series has caught on with an audience they couldn’t have expected: tweens and teens.

“I was touring middle schools for my children, and I was asked to stop going in the classroom by the teachers giving the tour because it was disrupting the classroom too much,” Kinsey says. A teacher told her that The Office is huge with middle schoolers, which prompted Kinsey to wonder why, since, after all, middle schoolers have never worked in an office. The teacher said, “‘Think about it. Every homeroom has a Dwight. Every classroom has an Angela.’ The dynamics that make up the characters of The Office, they work at hospitals. They’re on the PTA. They are your kid’s soccer team parents. They’re in a homeroom. It’s the relationships. It’s not the setting.”

The 12-year-old: How a Gen Z middle schooler discovered her favorite TV show years after it went off the air

When I talked to her in summer 2019, Sidney, who has since turned 13, was 12 years old. She lives in the Los Angeles area. She’s in middle school. And she and her friends all love The Office.

One of those friends even held an Office-themed birthday party. What on earth would an Office-themed birthday party look like? Well, Sidney said when I interviewed her, there were cardboard cutouts of various characters placed around the room, and the event’s theme extended even beyond the event itself.

“The little goody bags on the way out, they were these little Shrinky Dinks of the characters,” Sidney tells me. “Yeah, that was pretty funny.”

It’s mystifying how a show ostensibly aimed at adults that began 15 years ago could appeal to someone like Sidney, who has never held an office job (obviously) and who wasn’t even born when the show began. (She began watching it on Netflix in 2018, five years after it had gone off the air.)

But others who are paying attention to this renewed Office fandom agree on this particular point. In every single conversation I had for this story, I heard the same thing: Tweens and teens love this show.

There’s something to the theory advanced by the teacher Angela Kinsey spoke to. The relationships on the show are pretty universal, whether you’re 12 or 120. (Come to think of it, a version of The Office set in a retirement community could be fun.) Sidney doesn’t immediately agree with me when I present this theory to her — she just says she thinks the show is really funny and has “dark humor” that appeals to her generation (seriously, she said “my generation”) — but later, when I ask her what makes the show relatable, she says something that kinda sorta overlaps.

“A lot of the situations, I don’t understand. I can still laugh at it. But whenever they’re having an argument or the way that they figure out a situation or a problem, they kind of do act like kids in a way, because they’re all kind of immature, which reminds me of school sometimes.”

I buy the idea that The Office is a show with universal dynamics that just about anybody who’s familiar with American culture (or American pop culture) can understand, which is a whole lot of people, and so does Sidney, maybe, kind of. But I have my own theory about why The Office might appeal: Without ever having to do anything, The Office has slid from a show about the drudgery of work to an aspirational fantasy.

Sidney is nowhere near graduating, and college is still a far-off dream for her, much less whatever job she might get after going to college. It’s hard to imagine that job would be at a paper company, and maybe it wouldn’t even be in an office. The world for young people entering the job force has been tumultuous for more than a decade, and the economic free fall in the wake of Covid-19 has only made those waters choppier. Could The Office be about a bunch of Lyft drivers? Probably not. The gig economy hasn’t completely swallowed up American work life, but it’s not hard to imagine kids like Sidney having to use gig economy jobs to make ends meet, at least for a little while, once she’s in the workforce.

“The reality is a lot of people are doing [gig work] as a supplement to try to make ends meet ... because there aren’t those solid middle-class jobs, with full benefits and employment security. They just don’t exist,” Wharton said. “A whole bunch of young people who came out of college in the last 10 years can’t find those jobs.”

If Sidney is like most young adults, she’ll figure out a way to navigate the increasingly volatile job market of the world as it exists now. But an office that you dependably go to every day where you simultaneously love and hate your coworkers? That feels as far-off now as the land of Oz or the mist-shrouded town of Brigadoon. That world is gone, and The Office is a message in a bottle from it to all of us stranded here in the present.

“It definitely seems tedious to have a job like that in an office,” Sidney says of working at Dunder Mifflin. “But if the characters were in real life, they seemed like they were having a lot of fun working there. Especially Jim.”

The executive: How Ben Silverman brought The Office to America, when everybody told him he maybe shouldn’t

Ben Silverman knew The Office was breaking through when he got on a flight early in the show’s run, at some point after NBC made a deal to put episodes on seatback TVs in the series’ third season.

“I remember walking through the plane, hearing laughter, and I knew before I looked into the seatbacks that the people were all watching The Office. And when you get a plane full of people laughing, you’ve got something special,” Silverman said.

Silverman’s role in The Office’s legacy isn’t as immediately memorable as, say, that of creator Greg Daniels, who adapted the original British series (created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant) for American TV, or star Steve Carell. But he is the executive who saw the potential for an American remake of that British show and purchased the rights to it at a time when, he claims, many other TV executives thought bringing the series to the US was foolhardy.

Reveille, Silverman’s company at the time he bought The Office’s American rights, was known for importing shows from other shores and finding ways to make them work for American audiences. (Other Reveille hits included 2004’s The Biggest Loser and 2006’s Ugly Betty.) Silverman’s comfort with finding ways to make a show that worked in one country work in another — or at least finding the right people to translate it — meant he was sure an American Office could work.

“I thought it was hysterical and really saw an opportunity to make a show for America informed by its style and look and also something that could really be a modern version of the old Norman Lear comedies, complete with the Archie Bunker-like boss at the middle. I was excited about it from the beginning,” Silverman said. “Everybody I talked to about it in America was not as interested.”

Thus began his very slow attempt to mount an American remake of the show. First, he hired Daniels, and then the two found a way to convince NBC to let them cast Carell, even though Carell was involved with a different (flailing) NBC series called Come to Papa at the time. (Come to Papa was canceled. Thank goodness, because it’s hard to imagine The Office without Carell.)

A remake of a deadpan British show, The Office at first struggled to find its footing, and now has found enduring popularity long after the show ended. One of its secrets: camerawork inspired by reality television.
Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Daniels excelled at translating the work of writers with very specific points of view into the mainstream of American television. He’d already done it with the 1997 series King of the Hill, which softened Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge’s MTV-ready voice just enough to make it palatable to a major network (in that case Fox). And Carell was the sort of actor who could flip from monstrous to sympathetic on a dime, a quality Daniels and his writers would mine again and again to flesh out Michael Scott in the years ahead.

But Silverman points to another element of The Office that I, at least, had never once thought about when it came to the show’s success: its look. Silverman points out that if you look at the British original next to the American series, the latter is ever so slightly more influenced by reality television, a format that is more immediately recognizable to us than the sorts of workplace documentaries the original series was emulating.

The American Office pulls back from its characters more in its talking heads. They are less uncomfortably close to the camera and shot more in what’s called a head-and-shoulders — which lets you see roughly the upper half of the body — looking right at the camera. This choice makes these talking-head segments feel more like something from Survivor’s confessionals than from a workplace documentary. In contrast, the British series takes a much more documentary-like approach. It cuts in closer, often at odd angles. The characters look offscreen and don’t always talk to the camera. These shifts between the two series made a huge difference.

Silverman credits much of that style to pilot director Ken Kwapis and director of photography Randall Einhorn, who came over from the world of reality television to help establish the look of the show. The choice was strategic and something the entire team leaned into even more after test scores for the series’ pilot were abysmal.

The show’s ride from barely eking out a renewal for season two (something Silverman pushed particularly hard for behind the scenes) to slowly and steadily building the momentum that made it a hit (helped, certainly, by Silverman becoming president of NBC in the show’s third season) has been oft told elsewhere, but even in its broad strokes, as told by Silverman, the show’s fortunes are a reminder just how much of television is built around making the right decisions and then hoping luck smiles upon you.

The Office appeals to everyone, and it’s just a matter of when they find it in their lives,” Silverman said. “Whether they end up discovering it on their own or someone else introduces it to them ... they all love it. That’s what great television can do.”

The romantic: How one person found her own love story reflected in The Office

Here’s my dark and terrible secret: I don’t really like Jim and Pam as a couple.

Oh, sure, they’re very sweet together, and in the early going of the show, they had a pretty amazing will-they/won’t-they romance. But in season three, The Office introduced a new love interest for Jim — Karen, played by Rashida Jones — and I suddenly felt my allegiances shifting. Pam and Jim might have the big, epic love story that runs across all nine seasons, but I was alone, in my Karen-loving corner, wishing he would just go back to her already.

This is ... a minority opinion, to put it mildly. Jim and Pam have become generational shorthand for a certain kind of mundane but epic love, like Cheers’ Sam and Diane for the ’80s and Friends’ Ross and Rachel for the ’90s. The number of people on dating apps saying they’re a Jim or a Pam looking for their fictional other half has become a cliché. (Are there no Jims or Pams looking for their Karens? Come on now.)

I didn’t entirely know what to make of this devotion to a fictional couple, so I talked to someone who does: Jamie Coletta, the founder of the music publicity firm No Earbuds and an Office superfan who has watched some episodes dozens of times. Coletta told me to look beyond Jim and Pam to The Office as a whole to see one of the most love-filled programs in American television history.

“It’s about being a hopeless romantic in a way. Everybody wants to find love! That’s a very universal thing,” she says. “The show is a bunch of different people working at a really boring job and the ins and outs of their interpersonal relationships with one another. And by the end of it, I want them to have found their people. I want them to have found their happiness.”

One big reason The Office works on streaming sites is how well it balances serialized stories that take place across many episodes (like Jim and Pam’s flirtation) with stories finished in a single episode (like, say, the Dundie Awards). That serialized quality helped make viewers feel at home at Dunder Mifflin. Watching Jim and Pam dance around each other for seasons on end, then watching them get married and have children, really did feel a little like watching two of your coworkers figure out a way to make it work. And The Office repeated that arc, mostly successfully, with couples ranging from Dwight and Angela to Phyllis and her mostly offscreen husband Bob Vance.

Coletta created a tiny reflection of the series on her wedding day. Casting about for themes that might pull the whole thing together, her wedding planner pulled up an artist on Etsy who made large signs with quotes painted on them. Knowing that her husband-to-be wouldn’t particularly care what was on those boards, Coletta tasked a friend with finding some of the most romantic quotes from The Office — and as wedding guests walked into Coletta’s reception, they were greeted by some of the sappiest lines of dialogue from the show. (For example: “When you’re a kid, you assume your parents are soul mates. My kids are gonna be right about that,” which Pam says about Jim.)

Jim and Pam (played by John Krasinski, right, and Jenna Fischer) and have become, like Cheers’ Sam and Diane, generational shorthand for a certain kind of mundane but epic love.
NBCUniversal/Getty Images

The wedding wasn’t Office-themed, per se, but Coletta says that she found more and more Office-related paraphernalia to add to her big day. A trivia card of Office fun facts, including a rough calculation Coletta had done of just how many hours the couple had spent watching the show, was at each and every table, and Coletta’s maid of honor gave a speech featuring Office quotes.

“There were probably plenty of family members who had literally no idea what they were,” she admits. “But a few friends asked if they could have the cards.”

Coletta hung on to a few of the quote boards, including the one about parents being soul mates. She says her dream is to put up that board in their kid’s nursery someday, whenever that time may come. In our conversation, she pointed, often, to Jim and Pam as the show’s great love story, the one couple who has been together from the very start of the series, through thick and thin. And when I talk to Jim and Pam fans, this quality so often comes through: Jim and Pam made it work, so maybe there’s hope for us all. (One Office fan who emailed me said seeing Jim and Pam be happy together made her optimistic about romantic relationships in general, after a childhood marked by her parents’ divorce.)

“They really have to work at it. Every couple has these types of struggles. On the show, out of all the couples and their struggles, I feel like that’s the closest one [to my own relationship]. ... When Jim and Pam have been together, there’s never a point when there’s an option besides each other. Even when it’s hard, it’s like, ‘We will fight for each other,’” Coletta says. “It was always Jim, and it was always Pam.”

The balm: The TV editor who uses The Office — and sitcoms in general — as something to heal and soothe in times of immense stress

As I was trying to figure out just why The Office was so popular while writing this article, my wife, Libby Hill, TV awards editor for Indiewire, was rewatching the show for the first time since it went off the air in 2013. At that time, it was still early in quarantine, and she was making her way through some of her old favorites. The Office was a show she had loved once, and people sure seemed to love it now. So she gave it another shot.

That approach reflects a core difference between the two of us. I almost never return to shows I once loved — I always would rather try something new — but she struggles with an anxiety disorder, which makes the familiar comfort of a TV world a beautiful escape. In the middle of global uncertainty, why not escape to your own past, a half-hour at a time?

“To me, The Office belongs to such a specific period of time. And that period of time is ‘before,’” she said. “It’s one of the most comforting shows that I’ve binged, because it demanded nothing of me, wasn’t too infuriating, and took place in an almost impenetrable bubble. Blundering bosses used to have hearts of gold and wanted the best for you. That’s not our reality. But it was once. And we hope it will be again.”

The idea of The Office as a balm kept coming up as I talked to more than 50 Office fans, some just via email and some in longer interviews. Many said they used The Office as a home remedy for anxiety. And in the 21st century, anxiety is everywhere, even if you don’t struggle with an anxiety disorder.

Here’s one reader who emailed:

The Office really helped get me through a tough period of anxiety and depression [last] year, and I ended up watching it back to back (the whole series) three times.

And another:

I rewatch the show multiple times a year, and it is always in my “recently watched” queue on Netflix. Whenever I’m having a bad day, it’s comforting to go back and watch my favorite episodes.

And still another:

Right now, I watch at least an episode almost every day. Usually I’ll fall asleep in front of it, especially when I’m anxious. I’ll go through phases where I step away for a while but never more than a couple months.

“I’ll passively watch it. Like, ‘Oh, I have to leave the house in 40 minutes for a meeting, so I’ll put on two episodes of The Office, and when they’re over, I’ll know it’s time to leave,” Coletta told me. “It’s become a very reliable thing in a world where not everything’s very reliable. It’s become a resource or a coping tool for my anxiety stuff.”

Does the familiarity of The Office — the way you can watch it over and over again without it ever quite getting old (perhaps because it has more than 200 episodes, perhaps because the mockumentary format means there are multiple things to watch in most scenes) — drive its usefulness as a coping tool? Dara Greenwood, an associate professor of psychological science at Vassar, says it very well might.

“For one, familiar shows are comfortingly predictable — they are the opposite of a threatening or novel experience. We know what’s coming and we know we like it, not unlike favorite comfort foods perhaps,” Greenwood told me via email. “A related motivation is the desire to be ‘transported’ out of our current state or circumstance and to escape our own anxieties temporarily. We can lose ourselves in a narrative and give ourselves a break. Comedies, in particular, may be appealing to anxious individuals because they elicit positive emotion, which has been found to facilitate coping and resilience and to help people bounce back from stress.”

Libby suggested something similar. “I don’t know that bingeing familiar TV is helpful for depression or anxiety, but I do think that it can be a source of comfort,” she said. “It’s a way to step out of a situation that feels threatening or difficult and lose ourselves in something familiar. It’s losing ourselves in the cadence of its patter, like listening to your favorite song on repeat.”

There’s a concept in meditation that the rhythms of a repetitive sound or piece of music might help one enter a calm, empty state of mind, the better to understand oneself and become mindful. I couldn’t possibly imagine meditating to The Office, but allow me to suggest that its familiar rhythms and the way its mundane trappings now feel like a beautiful lost kingdom we can never get back to give us as close to TV meditation as we can possibly get.

No matter what happens here, there is a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, that is always the same. Nothing really changes there, and even when big things shift, the mundane nature of day-to-day life reasserts itself. We want to believe our lives can change. We want to believe we can escape whatever cycles imprison us. But there is something comforting to believing that everything you need might be right within your immediate field of vision, that the perfect world can be so close and yet so far away.

Emily VanDerWerff is Vox’s critic at large.

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