Friday, August 06, 2010

What I Learned from The Office


Any “Office” fans out there? I am, although I definitely did not start out that way. The first time I tried to watch it I thought it was lame. I’d never have given it a second glance if not for Lana. She watched it regularly, so I watched a few episodes with her, often criticizing it at the same time, and suddenly at about 7 or 8 episodes in I found that I was enjoying it, that I was “getting” it. Now I even watch it when Lana is not around, and it’s the only TV comedy besides Frasier that I’ll say that about.

So what happened? And what does it have to do with writing? Well, first let me tell you why I didn’t initially like The Office. I didn’t because it takes the laziest possible tack toward storytelling. Frequently, the characters directly address the audience through a patently fake and quite silly “mockumentary.” We are supposed to believe that the folks are being interviewed at times and that the cameras and cameramen are recording the people at work. The problems are two-fold. 1). The “interviews” address anything the “storyline” needs them to address. 2). The cameras clearly catch elements that no documentary cameras would catch. This requires a level of suspension of disbelief far greater for me than believing in aliens, vampires, or an honest politician.

I know it is comedy, but you have to admit this is just lazy storytelling. Don’t we criticize writers when they directly address the audience? Don’t we tell writers to show and not tell, and to avoid info dumps? The Office does all of these things. Despite its flaws, however, I came to really enjoy the series, and it had to do with one thing: The Characters. Under Lana’s influence, I watched enough episodes to get to know the characters and I found that I liked them and empathized with them. I wanted to find out more about them. I wanted Pam and Jim to get together. I wanted to find out more about Dwight's twisted childhood. I even came to feel sorry for Michael, who I absolutely hated at first as a character.

What I learned, or relearned, in relation to writing is that characters are the single most important element in storytelling. Great characters will cover up a multitude of sins. That doesn’t mean the writer can or should neglect the other elements of a story, but if you were going to follow the Bill Clinton approach to winning the presidency in your writing, you might want to use the mantra: “It’s the characters, stupid!”
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40 comments:

Ron Scheer said...

I fell for both the Brit and US versions of this series immediately, having worked in offices for many years. There you see first hand the Peter Principle that people get promoted to a level of incompetence, where they make life hell for everybody else.

The show-not-tell argument you make is an interesting one. The storytelling in documentaries is different because the genre works by a different set of rules and conventions. Telling a story as if it were a documentary adds a twist of entertaining irony. And whenever we're reminded of the camera crew by Jim giving us that can-you-believe-this look or characters sweating with embarrassment - those moments make me laugh every time, no matter how often they're repeated.

It took me a long time to "get" Seinfeld, too, so I know what you're talking about. Great post.

Heather said...

I like the Office but get where you're coming from.

If you want great writing, and a good laugh you need to check out "The Big Bang Theory".

Laugh every time!

David J. West said...

I love the Office, but it took me watching 2nd season episodes over the first season to get into it.

And as you mentioned its about character-IF I don't like a character I rarely like a story (very few exceptions)and those stories have to work harder on setting and atmosphere to get me to go along.

Whereas characters "we love" we'll follow anywhere.

Heff said...

I want to "get with" Pam my damn self, lol !

Carole said...

Yikes, I have tried to like the show because my kids (in their 30's) think it is awesome.

I cannot like it. I cannot like it in a boat. I cannot like it with a goat. I cannot like it anywhere...well you get the idea.

Deka Black said...

I cannot like, but... because i've not watched a single episode.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, I've come to like those moments where folks look right at the camera too, although I hated them when I first tried to watch the show. It is a different genre for sure.

Heather, I haven't watched that. typically I either watch football or whatever Lana is watching.

David J. West, the importance of a good ensemble cast is well illustrated by that series.

Heff, she is a lovely young lass.

Carol, I felt the same way about Seinfeld. I just could never get into it at all.

Deka, I liked Frasier from the first episode, but MASH and WKRP and The Office took quite a few viewings to hook me.

Cloudia said...

Yeah, gotta love (or be fascinated by) the characters.

Maybe logical "sins" can nonetheless
speak to the unconscious in a mysterious way?

Bless the rule breakers (and ADHD types like me who simply must work differently).

Rather than discipline us (we know we can't do it the "right" way)willingly suspend YOUR disbelief and discern the voice..

Scott said...

Charles,

I've watched a couple of episodes, but it hasn't really stuck with me. I didn't hate it, though...maybe I should give it another chance. I do agree, characters make the story, no matter what the medium.

laughingwolf said...

weaned myself off tv more'n three years ago, so no clue what it's about... but you're right about characters, given free rein, they compel you to tell their story, NOT your own....

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, I'm much more willing to accept rule breakers in a one individual sort of way. I don't think TV gets written that way though. It's a group effort.

Scott, for me it took about 7 episodes, though it's not the end of the world for someone not to like it of course. I never try to talk anyone into TV.

Laughingwolf, I'm catching up these days watching reruns of the older shows.

Randy Johnson said...

I have to admit never watching either version of the show. The promos make it look like something I can't see wasting my time watching.

I found myself, over the years, not getting some of the more popular shows. Friends comes to mind as I tried watching a couple of times only to bail out in a few minutes.

David Cranmer said...

I have watched the British version of THE OFFICE several times and it will go down as one of my favorite shows... haven't watched the US version.

sage said...

I watch little TV, but I have seen one eposide of The Office. It was okay

BStearns said...

When I first starting watching The Office I thought it was pretty good. By the time it got to Season 5 I had to stop. It just seemed to be the same things over and over, and I have to say I really started to get tired of Michael Scott. I hear the British version is awesome though.

-Bryan
www.sff-hub.com

Steve Malley said...

I'm a big fan of the UK version, but the US one leaves me cold.

Go figure.

Charles Gramlich said...

Randy Johnson, oh it is definitely a bit of emotional candy. There's not a lot of substance to the show, but I do like the characters and have gotten to know them.

David Cranmer, I've never seen the British version myself.

sage, by now I've probably seen about 30 episodes of it. I usually watch football or some of the stuff like Nova, or maybe some SF stuff, but I do like Frasier as a comedy.

Bryan, I hated Michael Scott at first but came to like him OK. He's leaving the show, though.

Steve Malley, never seen the British version. Didn't even know it existed until Lana told me it did last night.

Ron Scheer said...

The Brit version, for those who haven't seen it, is a bit more arch, the humor more acid, the unlikable characters more hateful.

Frazier is an all-time favorite. Never saw a re-run I didn't like.

What amazes me is that we're talking about shows I have actually seen!

Jess said...

I loved The Office until they sold the company. :) At first, I didn't care for it but then I started recognizing people I've worked with. That's what turned it around for me. I never quite saw it as storytelling...except for the romance between Pam and Jim. Still, I found the relationship between Angela and Dwight verrrrrry interesting.

I absolutely love Frazier and Seinfeld. I used to watch TAXI and loved it too. Remember that one?

Frazier is the one that can make me laugh until I cry.

Charles, I had you pegged for a humorous sort. Not?

ivan said...

I have heard it said that when it comes to plot and character, plot is character.
But the damn Brits (until the last twenty years anyway), seem to have been so good at both plot and character. I guess I'm still thinking of old Aggie.
But Anthony Burgess. Wow.

Maalie said...

I agree, "The Office" sort of grew on me!

Sidney said...

I actually live "The Office" almost every day.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron Scheer, Frasier just resonated with me from the beginning. It's my all time favorite sit com. I feel like it was made for my sense of humor.

Jess, I never watched Seinfeld or Taxi, but I will watch Frasier reruns over and over. My sense of humor is fairly offbeat. Some stuff that a lot of people find funny, I don't. Like "the Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy." But a show like Frasier is right down my alley.

ivan, I've heard that too, and though they can be separated I think the best stories make them work together as one.

Maalie, I wouldn't have guessed it would happen the first time I watched it.

Sidney, I don't know whether to laugh with you or cry for you.

jodi said...

Charles, I started watching The Office after hearing my son talking back to the show and laughing out loud. It's funny and wry and we all know some of those characters...

Lana Gramlich said...

The funny thing about "The Office" is that I didn't like it, either. An old coworker (at my last office,) had recommended it & I tried, but UGH! Once I understood who the characters were, though, I started to "get" it. Then there are the outright belly laughs, like when Dwight cuts off the CPR mannequin's face & puts it over his own.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, yes, I do know a few of those folks.

Lana, it's the characters. I just like the characters. Or came to like them.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I adore THE OFFICE and like Lana did immediately. It just clicks with my sense of humor as did Frasier, Seinfeld and one or two others. And when Steve Carrell leaves I think it would be very amusing to give each of the other cast members a try at being office manager. Certainly we saw what a hard time Jim had with it. Each of them has strengths and weaknesses they could exploit.

Charles Gramlich said...

Pattinase, It would definitely be funny to see Dwight do it.

Shauna Roberts said...

I didn't like either "Frazier" or "The Office" at first either. I only caught bits because of being in the room when my husband watched them. For both of them, I started watching longer and longer bits and finally ended up liking both, although it took more than seven episodes. They are among the very few TV comedies I've watched as an adult.

It was definitely the characters that won me over for "Frazier," but I'm less sure about "The Office." For the latter, one has to grasp the whole fake documentary concept and understand the office politics before anything makes sense.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, I became really intersted in Jim and Pam. they really seemed very good characters, and I always wondered what Dwight would get up to next. For Frazier, it was Niles that pretty much made that show for me. They played so well together.

Travis Cody said...

I'm not really a fan of most TV comedy these days. To me, the genre seems to have become filled with the "look at me I'm funny" kind of acting. As to the writing, much of it seems to be of the joke to punchline variety without much substance in between.

I prefer scenes for talented actors to develop stories and characters.

It's been much easier to give new programs a chance now that we have the DVR. But it still comes down to whether there's a character, or at least an actor, I can enjoy. If there isn't, then the writing better be stellar for me to stick with it.

jennifer said...

I've watched it once and was amused, but obviously not enough so to become a fan. I go for the truly mind numbing stuff like Project Runway and Drop Dead Diva (I watch them with my daughters which is probably the real reason I enjoy those shows).

I'll have to watch for The Office and really give it a chance.

the walking man said...

I have seen commercials for this show but never watched it. So is it any good? ha ha ha ha

moonrat said...

i love the office. lurrrve. and i think you hit several excellent points on the head here.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Cody, I agree. I see that on a show such s two and a half men. I don't really watch much TV either. I've deliberately taken a few days off work and have watched more, which makes me think of the shows I do watch on occassion.

jennifer, the only reality TV I watch are a couple of the Gordon Ramsay cooking shows. Lana watches some of the design shows.

Mark, it's hard to judge anything by me.

moonrat, thankee. There aren't many shows that grow on me.

Erik Donald France said...

Good take, indeed. Weirdly, the first comment mentions The Peter Principle and right in front of me is a new edition of the 60s mocku-classic . . .

The big turn off for me initially was -- commercials. I am way too lazy/impatient to wait through them anymore. Plus, they break continuity. SO I guess a longer continuous look via DVD or equivalent is the way to go.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I've never seen this ,but I will check it out now. I agree with you completely -- characters can make up for a multitude of sins. I'll pretty much follow someone I like into hell which kind of explains my dating life. :)

Barrie said...

The interviews are my least favorite part of the show. Especially Michael Scott/Steve Carell.

Danette Haworth said...

Charles,

I watched two or three episodes of The Office when it first came out. I sort of liked it, but my husband hated it. Then he said, "The whole thing is based on [Michael Scott] being an a$$." Completely demolished anything I had going for the show.

Until last summer. I got hooked on reruns and watched like two or three at night. Now I like it. But I do find Jim and Pam less interesting now that they are married and have a child (one of those those convenient babies who is invisible and has no discernible impact on our characters' lives).

My favorite episode was the fire episode, in which Dwight is trying to make everyone conscious of fire safety.

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