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Another day at the office

Sean Sweany | Wednesday, September 27, 2006

In theory, the only thing that could possibly more boring than paper could be the people who make and sell paper for a living. The daily lives of the employees of a Scranton, Penn. paper company would hardly seem to be worthy of much attention, let alone funny.

However, the chronicles of NBC’s “The Office,” albeit fictional, disprove this and portray an office that is rip-roaringly funny in an offbeat kind of way.

Adapted from the smash hit British show aired on the BBC, the U.S. “Office” premiered in the spring of 2005 to exceptional reviews. A midseason replacement for NBC, this first season only featured six episodes and drew heavily from the British version in terms of characters, themes and plot points. The same attributes that made the British “Office” a smashing success helped the American counterpart become popular among stateside audiences. In addition, a built in audience familiar with and appreciative of the BBC show helped NBC garner early ratings in the first season of the show.

Comedian Steve Carell stars as Michael Scott, manager of the Scranton branch of the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company. Carell, known best for playing bit parts in comedies such as “Anchorman” and “Bruce Almighty” as well as his own recent starring role in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” stands out as the top talent on the show and his comedic timing and presence are perfect.

The other comedic lynchpin is played by Rainn Wilson (“Six Feet Under”), who portrays Dwight Schrute, the extremely serious, power hungry assistant to the regional manager. Wilson seems to play this character with childish glee and creates such convoluted relationships with other characters that one cannot wait but to see what happens next.

The main focus of the six episode first season revolved around a potential downsizing at the paper company and its psychological effect on the employees. Scott tries to assuage them in his own unorthodox manner. The central relationship of the show begins to develop between the engaged receptionist, Pam (Jenna Fischer, “Slither”) and salesman Jim (John Krasinski, “Jarhead”). While Pam is engaged to an oaf who works in the warehouse, the audience finds itself rooting for her relationship with Jim to develop into something more.

Season two continues and dramatizes this and other relationships. While the stories of the other characters are developed, the main focus of the season is the relationship between Pam and Jim. Each ponders his and her own future and the other’s role in it, with Jim contemplating a move to a different branch of the company by season’s end. The final episode ends dramatically with a confession of love and a kiss between the two.

In season three, currently airing Thursdays at 8:30 p.m., look for Jim to make the move to another branch of Dunder-Mifflin while Pam’s relationship with fiancé Roy comes into serious jeopardy. Other than these major plot points, producers have been tight lipped about what will happen in the show’s third season and whether any more seasons of “The Office” will be forthcoming. One can expect, however, that the commercial and critical success of the show will make this a certainty.

The key reason “The Office” has been so successful in American television is because of its simplicity. Unlike many other current television shows, “The Office” features one basic set with other minor locations that are easy to film. There are no major special effects, epic storylines or a soundtrack. Rather, the show relies on its writers and actors to achieve success.

The writers give the show a “mockumentary” feel, where characters often give one-on-one interviews and occasionally acknowledge the camera and audience. Although this lends an improvisational feel, creators claim about 90 percent of the show is scripted and that most improvisational work is done by Carell and Wilson in their individual interview scenes.

Much credit then must go to writers Michael Schur, B.J. Novak, Paul Lieberstein and Mindy Kaling for making scripted dialogue seem natural in an off-the-cuff, awkward kind of way. Even the actors’ perfectly timed looks directly at the camera are scripted, attesting to the talent of the show’s writers.

The actors on “The Office” deserve equal credit for performing the scripts well and not going overboard in their humor. Besides Carell and Wilson, the majority of the cast was relatively unknown before the show, but their talent in portraying accountants, human resources and other office people is remarkable. Each supporting cast member does not exceed their bounds, which allows them to focus on the subtle nuances and tics that make interesting background characters.

Although episodes are directed in usual television fashion by different directors each week, a consistent theme persists of changing focus from characters in the foreground to those in the background of a situation. Also, the physical space of the Dunder-Mifflin office is used in a creative way so that shots do not seem boring or repeated.

The hard work and talent of the cast and crew of “The Office” was recognized in a 2006 Emmy Award for “Best Comedy Series,” along with numerous other awards for the show and Steve Carell in particular.

While “The Office” may on the surface seem simple and at times mindless, it is in fact a well-contrived, written and acted television series. As the show enters its third season, viewers can expect to experience immense growth of the show’s characters while still retaining the offbeat humor that makes the show famous and enjoyable. Even though layoffs and departures abound in offices, the humor and wit of this “Office” is here to stay.