Just in time for the second season’s final. Also, look for part 3 of this series of reviews “soon.” It will look into Scrubs and address the actual “current TV landscape.”
As I alluded to in the previous entry, the length of time between Arrested Development’s last regular airing and its finale of four episodes in two hours opened a door in my TV watching schedule. Not a door in terms of having that time to watch new shows, but looking for other shows to watch now that whatever my subconscious limit for TV was unmet. I had “heard” the “buzz” about the British version of The Office, tracked down an episode online, and was thoroughly unimpressed. It wasn’t that I had an issue with the writing, the casting, the presentation style, etc., but just that I couldn’t understand what those crazy British people were saying. With respect to the mass of people proclaiming how great it was, when the American version first aired, I set aside time to watch it. And I didn’t like it. I really didn’t like it.
I couldn’t (and can’t) put my finger on exactly why I didn’t like the pilot, but I never gave the next week’s episode a chance. TV shows generally get one chance with me. Of course, The Office and (as you’ll learn later) Scrubs are the reason I now include the “generally” in that statement. A random Thursday night of flipping almost a year later landed me at NBC once again. (Actually, I think it might not’ve been the most random flipping. If I remember correctly, friend of the Bookshelf and all-around-good-guy Josh CallOway insisted on putting it on. This time it was HI-larious. I later learned from an …can’t think of a condescending adjective man that the pilot of the American series was identical to the British pilot, and in both cases, the show picked up and was no longer teh suck.
Arrested Development wasn’t the first mockumentary-type TV show (or was it? I don’t know, and I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia). It also wasn’t the first comedy to not have a laugh track, but on both of those counts, I’ll say that it was one of the highest profile examples in terms of TV critics pointing it out. That’s related to The Office because its presentation emphasizes the documentary part, with snippets of the characters talking to an unseen interviewer laced between the filmed action. Arrested Development’s characters never acknowledged the cameramen, but on The Office, the characters make faces “for” the cameras, knowing they’ll be seen. The only aspect other than “shaky-camera” and a breaking of the traditional TV sitcom and drama grammar that pulled viewers into “I’m sort of watching a documentary” was that the camera people sometimes made their presence known (being kicked out of the courtroom, a most notable example). (See, I like Arrested Development so much that I even talk about it when I’m specifically reviewing something else).
Simply, The Office offers much of what Arrested Development didn’t. There’s something more there. Every character (except for Dwight, maybe) has shown vulnerability, and for the ladies (and lady-men), there is a complicated and disturbingly accurate sort of love story between two of the more likable characters, and for the jackasses, there’s an accurately disturbing romance between the two least likable characters. The show is really awkwardness on the screen for 22 minutes at a time. It’s like watching George Michael Bluth for an entire episode. Every character is either awkward or are so out of touch that the other characters are forced to be awkward around them. There’s nuance in the show that, my limited TV watching habits aside, is lacking in most shows (except Six Feet Under, of course — no, I’ve never seen it, but I’m working on being more pretentious).
Case in point: watch the second season’s Halloween episode. Michael (Steve Carell), who is normally presented as a completely out-of-touch doof, tries to play tough guy all day about having to fire someone for budgetary reasons (well, he actually tries passing off the responsibility to someone else), but is completely torn apart at having to fire someone he considers a friend. (The genius of the show is that none of the workers want him as a friend (except Dwight, and ironically, Michael thinks he’s too cool to be Dwight’s friend).) At the end of the work day, Michael quietly removes the pumpkin the fire-ee smashed on his windshield and drives home, trying to keep up the tough guy persona. As established earlier in the episode, Halloween is Michael’s favorite holiday, but as the episode ends we see Michael sitting in his condo just starting at the floor, still affected by the firing. The doorbell rings, he walks to the front door, and is greeted by trick-or-treaters. In a very real way, you can see just how this is exactly the thing that whatever the character’s “real” self (meaning not the “cool boss” that he thinks he is in the office) needed to get himself out of drowning in the feelings of having to fire someone. It’s all a very “real” moment. The type of emotional moment that Arrested Development would make an inside joke about, then reference two seasons later. To top it all off, the whole sequence was obviously filmed with heavy zoom, giving the impression that the “documentary crew” isn’t allowed inside his house, so they’re filming from across the street. It’s attention to detail that makes the show “work.” There are rarely any huge, obvious punchlines (critics said the same of Arrested Development), and Steve Carell’s schtick would get old if that’s all it had going for it. Which reminds me… the Emmy’s have this habit of giving Best Actor/Actress awards to actors that play completely off-the-wall characters. I’m thinking how John Lithgow won three (3!) of them for bouncing around like a moron on 3rd Rock from the Sun (no, it doesn’t deserve a link). Steve Carell won 2006’s for six episodes of The Office. He won the award before I had seen any episodes, and I figured it was more of the same: actor plays completely unrealistic, “zany” character and whoever gives out the Emmy’s awards him annually, and this was year one for Carell. But if Jason Bateman hadn’t been nominated , Carell deserved it. And he deserves it next year, too.
The Office receives four-and-a-half stars due to its receiving of the mantle of “awesome TV” from Arrested Development and completely trashing its British forebears. It loses half a star due to how it sometimes relies on sitcom norms to keep the viewers interested: the intern claiming his “voicemail’s been spotty” after his non-mutual sort of girlfriend says he never returns his calls – comic gold, feeling sorry for alcoholics instead of laughing at them – sounds like something I’d see on Frasier…if I had watched it (I’m serious about that whole pretentious thing). But hey, I can’t complain too much about a show where one of the characters considers it a real honor to be sworn in as a member of the office building’s previously one-bored-man security team, and really believes that there is an oath required to take the made-up job.