Greg Daniels, developer and executive producer of the U.S. version of The Office, speaks to Maclean’s from the show’s own offices, where he’s one of the few people left. “They’re tearing them down,” he says. “We’re down to four rooms of edit bays. They’re painting, or they did something where it’s filled with burnt-smelling dust in the office right now.” Filming has wrapped on the series finale, which airs on Global on May 16, and Daniels, who also co-created King of the Hill and Parks and Recreation, is working on post-production for the end of a show about the silly and sad life in a white-collar office. Fans and critics have big expectations for the finale, written by Daniels and directed by Ken Kwapis: not just that it will be good, but that it will cement the show’s reputation after a rough few years and the departure of its star, Steve Carell. “It leaves the air with a whimper,” says TV critic Myles McNutt, who reviewed recent seasons of the show for The AV Club. The finale could be a shot at turning that assessment around.
Though it has been NBC’s most popular comedy since Will & Grace, The Office has always been a bit in the shadow of other shows, and not just the hit British show starring Ricky Gervais it was based on. It won the Emmy for best comedy in its second season but lost subsequent awards to newer shows such as 30 Rock. Modern Family, a comedy that copied elements of The Office, including the mock-documentary format, became a bigger hit than The Office. But Ben Silverman, The Office’s executive producer who bought the U.S. rights to Gervais’s series, thinks none of those shows would have been possible without this one. “It had a seminal influence on contemporary comedy,” he says, in its mix of awkward humour and sentimentality, but also the people it delivered to other projects: “We found a new generation of comedians—Rainn Wilson, Ed Helms, Carell, Rashida Jones—who started populating other shows and movies.”
It seemed unlikely that anyone would imitate the American version of The Office in 2005 when it premiered. The decision to make the pilot a remake of the U.K. version, with most of the same dialogue and jokes, brought vicious reviews. And though critics came around once the show began producing original scripts (the second episode, “Diversity Day,” was the first hint of a determination to do what Silverman calls “social commentaries on things like race and sexual orientation”), the network found it hard to sell to viewers, and nearly cancelled it. Daniels recalls NBC wasn’t sure how to create ads for a comedy without a lot of punchlines. “They cut promos for The Office that looked like Will & Grace episodes,” he says, “going too quickly and putting music on everything.”
What saved the show was a pioneering combination of old and new media. In the summer of 2005, Carell became a movie star in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, which attracted attention to his show and helped the writers turn Carell’s pathetic boss, Michael Scott, into a more likable character. Then there was the fact that the early episodes did well in the then-new field of online video. “When the network saw that it was the top-selling show on iTunes,” Silverman says, “even though iTunes doesn’t really make anybody any money, it made them realize that there are fans of this show.” From then until its fifth season, it was a breakthrough success: a sitcom that figured out how to appeal to young viewers who found traditional sitcoms predictable.
Those young fans were often more interested in reality shows. The Office may have come along at the right time as a show that combined the two forms. In 2005, not only were hit comedies scarce, but programs such as Survivor and American Idol were overshadowing scripted TV, throwing writers out of work and making their plots seem tired. The Office seemed to combine the two forms. Gervais’s parody of docu-soap TV was the perfect antidote, so deadpan that when Silverman watched the pilot in London, “I asked myself, ‘Is this real, or is this a comedy?’ ” Daniels says he explained the U.S. version to new writers by saying the show mimicked “the experience of using your own camcorder and taping yourself and your friends, and being aware that the camera was in the room with you.”
The U.S. adaptation hired Randall Einhorn, a veteran of Survivor and The Apprentice, to be the cinematographer and operate one of the cameras: Daniels says the unseen camera operators are characters, and there’s comedy in their reaction to what happens. “Sometimes I would take Randall, tell him, ‘Close your eyes,’ and spin him around, so he didn’t know where he was at the top of the scene. Then he could find it in a very natural way.”
That new style of shooting also created a new style of acting. Before The Office, even sitcoms that were filmed without an audience, such as Scrubs and Malcolm in the Middle, usually had broad, cartoonish acting. The Office, posing as a documentary, was supposed to be more natural, to the point that many viewers think the actors are making up their own dialogue. “I think it’s a complimentary thing because what they mean is that it doesn’t feel studied and written,” Daniels says. Since then, it’s become almost mandatory for TV comedies such as New Girl or Happy Endings to incorporate some scenes that look improvised, whether they are or not.
The show also made extensive use of writers as actors, and cast people who didn’t look anything like the beautiful people in comedies like Friends: “Because it was a documentary, ordinary-looking people were fine,” Daniels says, and Silverman points in particular to actress Phyllis Smith, who was “our casting director’s assistant” before she was cast as a character named Phyllis. If more networks today are willing to take chances on people who don’t look like stars, such as Lena Dunham or Louis C.K., it may be partly because The Office made it safe for them.
The Office was also the first sitcom where characters were constantly aware that they were being filmed. Both Gervais’s David Brent and Carell’s Michael Scott made fools of themselves in an attempt to look good, just as real people do in front of a camera. The apathetic Everyman character of Jim (John Krasinski), was even more famous than his British counterpart, Tim, for his wry looks to the camera after someone else did something stupid. “He’s a person who is kind of alienated from the other people in his world,” Daniels explains, “and has this feeling of kinship with the viewer as being a reasonable person who can enjoy what he’s experiencing.” The idea that a show could punctuate jokes by looking at the camera was, as Silverman puts it, “a new way to create comedy, and then it was imitated everywhere,” including Modern Family and Daniels’s Parks and Recreation.
As the show winds down, not all of these qualities seem as unique as they once did. It’s not just that it’s imitated by so many scripted shows—“There are lesser versions of The Office everywhere,” Silverman says, pointing to the cheaply produced comedies on cable networks—but that non-scripted reality TV has caught up with it, too. Instead of the serious reality shows that Gervais’s original was riffing on, today’s reality hits are often comedies: the A&E smash Duck Dynasty is a light comedy about a crazy family, and cuts away to characters giving ridiculous interviews, just as The Office does.
Facing competition from a world it helped create, The Office has spent its final season trying to emphasize the things that set it apart from its imitators, including the emotional relationship of Jim (Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). “We tried to introduce some issues so they could have more drama in their personal lives,” Daniels says. McNutt says that while this drama has been uneven, it “has at least promised an ending that understands the importance of those characters to the series’ legacy.” Daniels, who is producing a pilot for Office supporting actor Craig Robinson (Darryl), also thinks that eventually, the richness of the supporting cast will help its legacy: “We’re going to see five or six other TV shows that will have Office actors as stars, so I think, in a few years, people will look back and wonder why it was such a big deal” to lose Carell.
But, for now, fans and crew are focusing on the finale, and whether it will do for the show what Carell’s farewell episode did for his years—sum up what Daniels calls its distinctive mix of “silly comedy with poignant moments and more realistic stuff.” And even if those are impossible expectations for one episode, no one can take away the influence it had at its peak, or that it lasted 200 episodes compared to the original’s 12. “We had nine years,” Daniels says, explaining why he’s not depressed about the dismantling of the show’s offices. “I told the crew when we wrapped: this is twice as long as high school.”