Why “The Office” is the most inimitable sitcom ever

 

Allusions to some Dwight and “that’s what she said” kept making their way into my earspace at the coffee stalls, months ago, from a bunch I didn’t have much regards for. Probably another pompous TV show that these people talk about, just loud enough to be associated with its viewing, like keeping one’s wrist bent enough in a room to draw attention to the dial of a fancy watch while talking in an impression making exercise.

I was intrigued a little bit. So went back to my desk and looked up Dwight and got to know that he was a character from a show called “The Office“. I was glad it had ended five years before. I make it a point to avoid watching anything that is a part of an ongoing fad. I somehow find it below me to watch something because a larger crowd binges on it. And also I like to trip on, savour moments, conversations at the end of a long lazy day. So verbose, conversational shows strewn with dark humour and sarcasm are my kind of poison. Not the plot heavy ones with diabolic twists and turns.

I started watching it, the same night. It opened with mild piano interludes trickling over a shot of everyday traffic till we, in a moment come across a board  that says “Scranton Welcomes You”, confirming the city the traffic belongs to as we move to a wall that reads “Dunder Mifflin”, before going in to show the people that constitute Dunder Mifflin, Scranton. This unfussy opening credit establishment from macro to micro nothingness had such an understated charm to it. I immediately knew I was watching something special. Even now, every time I hear the opening credit, my face automatically becomes a lit up smiling emoji.

In one of the initial episodes, Michael’s assembling a team to play basketball and he looks at Stanley(A black guy) and says,”Ofcourse” racially obviating his inclusion into the team. Offended, Stanley quickly confronts Mike, “Ofcourse! What’s that supposed to mean?”  who quickly refutes saying that, while an employees tells him he heard him say that. For the uninitiated, Mike says more inappropriate things in a day than Trump on cocaine, would in a year.

The shit storm doesn’t stop there, it spirals downward further when he’s asking someone to be a cheerleader for the game. That’s when Phyllis(a fat middle aged woman) volunteers, to be met with this beauty from Mike-“Oh Yuck.. That’s more worse than you playing.
A moment of uncomfortable silence ensues, as the camera pans to Phyllis’s blood drained  pale face and back to a nervous Mike.

That’s basically how every episode pans out, from one grand Mike screw up to another, reaction shots and my favourite- a serene fourth wall breaking rant in a different tangent altogether.

Steve Carroll’s Michael Scott stands tall as the centrepiece of the endearing catastrophe that “The Office” is. He’s not the atypical TV protagonist we’re used to, in the sense that he doesn’t come with a hero’s halo or a fallen angel narrative crutch. Usually these shows, most shows including Friends, Two and a half Men, Big Bang Theory or Californication,House or Boston Legal if I were to consider workplace dramedies, ensure that a central character’s shown as a cool anomaly, endowed with a great repertoire of wicked sarcasm, often mouthing signature punch lines with an ability to draw the fairer sex in hordes, like moths to a halogen bulb. Every anecdote is built around carefully in an endeavour to not just humanise these flawed gentlemen, but paint them larger than life in a world short of odd ball allure. These people can be part of earth altering goof ups, day to day screw ups, get reality checks and even get their asses handed over occasionally; but make no mistake, can never be an ass of a joke or of questionable niceness. Never! You can hear the prompt laughters in the background, see them being rejected by a hot chick every now and then; fall with their legs stretched skywards or dipped in dirty brown water. But somehow the treatment will distill the air of mockery, to keep their “funny man” sex appeal untainted.

This is where Michael Scott is different. A whiff of fresh air…err fart. He’s the consistent butt of all jokes from start to end at Dunder Miflin. He’s this dimwitted loser,petty,morally ambivalent, offensive, sexist, racist guy who is awful with women, easily intimidated and wears his foot in mouth like a badge of honour. Often than not, you’re not just laughing with him, but at him.

All of us would have been a part of some meeting or the other at our workplace. But trust me, nothing comes close to the ones conducted in the Conference room at Dunder Mifflin.

There’s this time when his super boss wants the entire organisation to stay digitally connected and hands over blackberries to everyone. Mike sees it as a threat and a form of ageism. He immediatly convenes a meeting in the conference room to address “Age discrimination” at work place.
There are printed pictures of Ben Kingsley, old woman from Titanic and Tom Hanks from Big( because the printer ink ran out) adorning the wall.(I’m not making any of this up) He then invites the founder, an 87 year old man to talk on the occasion.(Did I tell you Mike loves interrupting and hates listening to others?)And as the poor man loses his train of thought from one boring anecdote to another, Mike restlessly cuts in to his speech abruptly and asks him,” If he’s got a ride back home?” The old man says,”I came here in a cab.” Mike responds with, “Perfect. Thanks for coming.” The old man asks, “Could you get me another cab…” To which Mike responds by slamming the door on him with “Excellent…..Inspirational, what have we learned today ….

Most jokes in The Office land at that fleeting space between, offensive, insensitive and howlarious. The humour is dry  and has a everyday quality to it, largely due to the  voyeuristic way in which the entire show plays out. Most episodes progress from one mess to another,from one inappropriate statement to another, one shenanigan to another with each concerned character breaking the fourth wall from time to time. Unlike the broader style of acting that we’re used to, where we expect to be hinted by a funny man like say a Chandler from Friends through body language or facial concussions, before every joke, most of the humour in The Office comes as an afterthought. The slapstick tropes hit us instantly here as well, like a parkour stunt going wrong. But the best jokes here are the ones that tempt us to play them back in our heads again and again, as WTF becomes crazy funny. Each episode is filmed solicitously with a certain handheld quality, putting us in a breathing distance between happenings and conversations, like a fly on the wall. Not before we come to terms with the side of the happenings we’re on, laughing our asses off like a conventional audience of comedy.

Take this episode for instance. It’s Phyllis’s wedding.

It opens with Mike sneaking in from behind the bride’s maids for a picture. (Did I tell you Mike’a the most narcissistic creature that there is?)He’s talking to us. He says, “Phyllis has asked me to push her father’s wheelchair down the aisle. So I’m co-giving away the bride. Since I’m paying her salary, I’m paying for the wedding. It’s a big day for Phyllis. But a bigger day for me. Employer of the bride!

Yes. I put Michael in the wedding.“Phyllis talks exasperatedly to us “That was the only way I was getting six week off for my honeymoon.

Moments later we know why she was so worried about him being at her wedding.

Mike breaks into her change room to make her comfortable and does everything else. He starts with, “If you wanna vomit, it’s ok. Because I just did.”  She begins to sweat. He carries on with a straight face, “Do you want to talk about tonight? About pleasing Bob. Lot of pressure.” She’s now squirming in her seat and before she can get to respond, he concernedly asks, “Phyllis, did you break wind? That’s a natural reaction. It’s your wedding and you’re nervous.” Shocked, she responds with a , “That wasn’t me.
Unperturbed by her discomfort he continues talking to her before he sighs, “That is pungent….. I lost my train of thought.” before trying to adjust her hair to cover a bald patch, while being led out of the room.

Occasionally, The Office is a box of surprises. The oddball characters behave/misbehave in their settled rhythm together and apart, doing things in a certain way, expected of them in given situations. But there are times they pull the rug from under.

Pam’s paintings are displayed at an at exhibition and they largely meet with a lukewarm response from coworkers and critics. She’s crest fallen, when Mike walks in. Looks at the paintings. Points to one particular painting of their office and says,” How much? I do not see a price.” Surprised Pam asks him if he really wants to buy it. Mike, with eyes still fixated on the painting says, “Those are my windows. That’s my car. That’s our Building. And we sell paper….(tears up) I’m really proud of you.

Overwhelmed by his kind words she hugs him. We’re surprised, by the nice things, the right things that came out of that mouth for once. We weren’t expecting that. The warmth in the moment starts to linger, before a startled Pam asks him, “Do you have something in your pocket?” A long awkward silence ensues, before he responds, “Chunkies.” The embrace ends with a shot of her shocked face. And like that, a random moment of bonding segues back to the inappropriate humor that we’re used to.

I know The Office is an oddball phenomenon that’s better experienced, than explained. I’ve still gone ahead and tried to recollect some stuff from the top of my head- episodes, memories and feelings. But trust me, I can go on forever till it becomes TMI.
Yes, I’ve spoken extensively about Michael Scott and not the others. But that’s how I’ve watched it unfold, from his perspective. To me Mike epitomises The Office. That’s why I didn’t watch the last two seasons after he left. But that’s me. Maybe another person might trip on the absolute weirdo Dwight is. Some might be suckers for the free flowing Jim and Pam romance. Some might just like the synergy of the entire bunch. But whatever it is, The Office is inimitable TV; a gift that keeps giving. If you can manage to keep a straight face, while Mike slips his burnt foot into a MRI machine, you’re Buddha or chronic depressed.

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