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Humorous ‘Office’ deserves place among the elite

Brian Doxtader | Friday, February 2, 2007

Not too long ago, I was watching an episode of “Seinfeld” and remarked that they don’t make shows like that anymore. It’s not just that “Seinfeld” was funny or that it was sharp and relevant – it was one of those rare shows that reached critical mass and became a cultural indicator. The proof of this is the way in which “Seinfeld” became quotable and everyone knew the reference. Things like “not that there’s anything wrong with that” or “no soup for you” were immediately recognizable and people even referred to certain situations as a “Seinfeld moment.”

It’s hard for sitcoms to reach that same kind of level nowadays. The cancellation of “Seinfeld” and “Friends” left an empty void of sharp, well-written comedy. The ones that come closest, like “Arrested Development,” were too clever for their own good and were canceled in the face of low ratings.

Which brings me to “The Office,” NBC’s adaptation of the British hit of the same name. “The Office” has everything going for it – it has a genuine talent in star Steve Carrell, is well written, funny and has serious and effective emotional undertones. The show has improved steadily with age, and by now (the third season) the characters and their relationships have been firmly developed and the plotting has found its own identity, differentiating it from the British version.

“The Office” is part of the new age of sitcoms, a mockumentary style that uses hand-held cinematography and direct addresses to the camera. Like “Arrested Development,” it seems too clever for its own good, and while it has been a critical success (much like Ron Howard’s show), it is consistently outperformed in the ratings department. “The Office” is part of Thursday’s line-up, which includes perennial favorites “Scrubs” and new hits like “30 Rock,” and has just been picked up for a fourth season.

More than any other sitcom on television right now, “The Office” is close to reaching a critical mass akin to “Seinfeld.” Though viewership is not as high as, say, “American Idol,” its fanbase is devoted. Even Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandell used to regularly mention the show in his weekly column. Yet “The Office” is so close to escaping “cult show” status in reaching mainstream audiences. “Arrested Development,” like the once-canceled “Family Guy,” posthumously found new fans on DVD, but “The Office” still has a chance to become the biggest show on television. If that happens, it would be a true rarity, something only achieved by shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Cosby Show” — the best show on TV could also be the most popular.

The best parts of the show are the dialogue and the acting. “Daily Show” alums like Steve Carrell (who won a Golden Globe for this role) and Ed Helms whip off quotable lines effortlessly such as “I’m always thinking one step ahead. I’m like a carpenter … who builds stairs” or “Toby is in HR, which technically means he works for corporate, so he’s really not part of our family … also, he’s divorced so he’s really not part of his family.” These are among the countless gems in each week’s script.

I’m really pushing for “The Office” to succeed because we need more shows like it – shows that are insightful and intelligent. “Seinfeld” worked because it said a lot about our society and we were able to see some of our most ridiculous fears and hopes reflected in it. “The Office” works for much the same reason, but it’s a better show, with a strong cast and lots of personality. It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime kind of show, the kind of program that makes “Must See TV” a truism, the kind program that people will talk about years from now and say, “They just don’t make shows like that anymore.”

Contact Brian Doxtader at bdoxtade@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.