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Is The Office the Definitive TV Show of the '00s?

Posted: 05/16/2013 12:03 pm

So this is it for The Office, a show that was, at the very least, the prettiest possible speck in the weird forest fire that was 2000s network TV.

The same year that The Office began its run, Fox ran a show called Are You Hot? It was about what you think it was about. ABC ran a network sitcom last year, Work It!, that followed three men who opted to cross-dress because it was too hard finding a white collar job as a man in America. This show existed on the very same Earth upon which you currently walk.

In between, The Office hung around on NBC and very quietly taught us all how to be around one another for the past decade.

If, at the very least, The Office was NBC's little Thursday night flame that could, at the most it was a guide on how to be.

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This wasn't supposed to happen, remember. "The American Office" almost got canceled back before it got a chance to step out of its British big brother's shadow.

It staggered out of the gate. It took gags from the British Office note-for-note. It was on a six-episode order. The ratings cut in half over the course of the first season, from an 11.2 to a 4.8. Critics were writing funerals like this:

In place of canned laughter, The Office provided awkward pauses and the sort of one-liners that sink in slowly and sometimes not at all. The show did not connect with viewers, and it connected less and less over its short lifespan.

Talk to Brian Baumgartner about it. He plays Kevin. He and the cast were dialing up contingency plans. He had been in LA for a few years and had guest roles in a few TV shows like Arrested Development, but he was thinking about going back to theatre in Minneapolis. He was preparing for that to be his next step after the sixth episode aired.

"But we all thought we had something," he says.

Jenna Fischer thinks they were all largely starstruck. She remembers the first weeks of shooting, about how she and John Krasinski and show creator Michael Schur weren't even at the happy-to-be-there stage yet. They were still hanging around in the horrified-to-be-there stage. She remembers being told the cast was set to have dinner with Ricky Gervais, who created the British Office and was an Executive Producer on this version.

She couldn't get over that they were allowed to ask him anything they wanted to.

This was a person who was about to star in a sitcom that would save NBC for about a decade.

Then Steve Carell got some chest hair ripped off in The 40-Year-Old Virgin that summer. NBC decided to give it another go. Nine million viewers watched the Season 2 premiere. The Office ends this week, 193 episodes later.

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The impact on pop culture came fast, marked in big, obvious footprints.

The show helped create a few juggernaut celebrities. Ed Helms got his "Steve Carell chest hair" moment with a lost tooth in The Hangover. Steve Carell was Keira Knightley's love interest in a movie last year. Mindy Kaling has a show with her name in the title. John Krasinski made a bunch of beautiful indie movies. And Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Craig Robinson and Ellie Kemper will show up in big American movies for the rest of your life.

The impact on the people who grew up with it isn't as visible. It's also a much bigger deal than just making movie stars.

Ask Jake Lacy about it. He plays Pete, Erin's girlfriend and Dunder-Mifflin's intern, in the ninth season. He grew up with The Office. He says the show helped teach him how to behave in a work environment, almost entirely accidentally.

"At night, I'd go home and watch Conan. Then (a repeat from) Season 3 would come on and I'd be like, 'Oh yeah! That one!,'" he says. "Then I'd watch, like, two hours of old Office episodes."

So he'd know the intricacies of all of these characters. Angela and Oscar and Creed were on Jake's couch with him. But they were not on Jake's couch with him.

"I had to figure out the first couple of weeks here, after seeing it on TV a thousand times, how to say, 'I'm very familiar with you. And you have no idea who I am,'" he says. "I'm still figuring out how to be like, 'Be cool, Jake. Be cool.'"

That's the strange beauty of this show -- the characters reflected America so well in such a nervous time that they accidentally defined the American ideal for a few years.

It all happens during the recession. There are dreams chased and failed at every turn. Jim goes to Stamford to move up the Sabre corporate ladder. It doesn't work out. Ryan starts a combo email/fax/text messaging/phone/pager combo service. That doesn't work out. Andy tries to make it as a singer. At press time, that's not working out. Jim then tries to pursue his true passion project as a sports marketer. That works out a little too well, and he pushes it away.

Why? The only thing that works out -- the only thing really reliable in this show and, you know, in life -- is one another. Sorry if it got muddled in nine years of That's What She Saids, but that's what The Office is about. It's about being decent to everyone around you.

Michael Scott had no idea what he was doing. He also had a heart that pumped life into the entire office and show. Jim could've run a dream business. Dwight could've run a farm. They both wound up with the loves of their lives and kids and families and office pranks/works of art instead.

That's the last 10 years in America, isn't it?

"Right after I tested (to become Pete) and wound up getting it, people were like, 'You're going to be on The Office forever. You'll be a piece of The Office,'" says Lacy. "And I was like, 'Wow, I will be!'"

So what do we do when this ends? Who do we turn to next? What's our mirror? Do we just get sad that we might not have a show like this anymore?

"I've been encouraged to emotionally prepare for this a little better. I've had sort of this 'I'll be fine!' attitude," says Krasinski. "But I don't think that's gonna go great for me."

He may be the wrong person to ask, then, but any parting advice?

"We're just trying to appreciate every moment of shooting together until that last moment," he says.

Okay. That works better than he'd ever imagine.

Ben Collins is an Editor at Hulu. You can reach him at ben.collins@hulu.com.

 

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