If I ever write a book — That is, a second book. I wrote a 12-page spy novel when I was 11, but it didn’t get published. — it will be one that explores this singular question, What is greatness?
I am not going to labor through it here, but I think it’s a complicated answer. Is Tiger Woods great? Is Barack Obama great? Is Miley Cyrus great? Is your high school history teacher great? Is greatness found in the end, or is it found in the means?
I think greatness is one of those concepts that gets thrown around a lot, but never really thought about. It seems like greatness is like a tattoo, in that once it’s been etched onto you, it’s there forever. It might wrinkle up or sag, but since we seem to view greatness in absolutist terms, we need to be careful when we affix that label.
So it is from that perspective that I have judged The Office to be a great television show.
The tipping point, for me, was the wedding episode. It was difficult to watch that and not see the writers raising their hats and waving goodbye. They ended the show’s central plot line, the romantic tension between Jim Halpert and Pam Beasley. That was the final episode of The Office as we first knew it.
But, man, what a way to go.
There are moments in life when you have to just stop and soak and appreciate what you’re witnessing. It happens a lot in sports.
One of the most memorable for me was this one, from the 2008 NCAA Midwest Regional Final.
I was sitting courtside working that day. And I remember the feeling I had as Davidson inbounded the ball to Stephen Curry, who was probably the most terrifying player I’ve ever seen. He never missed. He simply did not miss jump shots. And here he was with the ball in his hands with a trip to the Final Four in the balance. I had a sense that I was watching a moment that would be replayed every March for the rest of my life.
There was so much at stake that night for Kansas. Bill Self had never gotten past the Elite Eight, and this was easily his best team, a No. 1 seed with all the weapons. The pressure was all on KU that night, and the Jayhawks played like it. Davidson, on the other hand, was this tiny school with this one sensational player. Curry was all anybody talked about during that tournament. He was an assassin. And here tiny Davidson was, getting ready to upset Kansas and go to the Final Four.
This is what I wrote that night:
After two timeouts, Kansas settled for Collins’ shot-clock-beating 3-pointer that bounced out of bounds with 16.8 seconds left.
With that came one of those moments that seem frozen in time. Ninety-four feet from the basket, Davidson inbounded the ball to Curry, and Rush hunkered down.
Self later said he expected Curry to be running off screens rather than taking the ball upcourt himself. Self also later said allowing Curry to get off a shot from halfcourt would have been bad defense.
“He would have made it,” Self said.
So Curry jogged upcourt and made his move. He veered right and Mario Chalmers stepped out to help, forcing Curry to hand off to Richards, who raced to the top of the key and launched a fall-away 24-footer. A decade later, it hit the floor.
Kansas was going to the Final Four.
The Office wedding episode was one of those moments.
I watched it live because I’m a fan of the show and there was a lot of buildup and it was a bit of an event, but I was not optimistic. We’ve all seen plenty of specialty episodes of TV shows and, by and large, they’re bad, and usually a sign the writers have run out of ideas.
I expected the wedding episode to be better than most other specialty episodes, but not good. You figured Dwight would make some inappropriate remarks about livestock mating practices or something. Michael would try to steal all the attention. Kelly would get all doe-eyed for Ryan. And there would be some catastrophe that briefly threatened to ruin the wedding but was resolved just in the nick of time so everyone could live happily ever after. The credits would roll and you would say, “Hmm. That was good,” and never think about it again.
Instead, I got chills. Just like I did when Stephen Curry brought the ball up against Brandon Rush.
When the credits rolled, I sat there for a few seconds, thought about it, then looked at Abby and said, “I think that may have been the finest piece of television writing I’ve ever seen.”
The show reached a new level that night.
It has always been an excellent comedy show. It’s clever, the characters are well developed, the acting is good, and it avoids cliches. Sometimes the plots venture a little further into the absurd than they probably should, but I can forgive that because the plots on that show are merely the vehicles that take us inside the characters.
The three funniest shows on TV are The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I don’t care to rank them, because they’re all funny in different ways, but the point is, The Office is a great comedy show, even in a historical context.
But for most of its six seasons, it had seemed cautious with its tender moments. It had them, and they were usually well done. But I always got the impression the writers knew they could do those moments, and do them well, but were afraid to give us too much of it, lest they encroach on the show’s standing as a comedy.
I suspect this reluctance to really explore the studio space mostly had to do with the 30-minute format of the show. They had 22 minutes to work with, knew the show’s money maker was the humor, needed to develop the plots and just didn’t have enough canvas left to paint the whole picture.
I’m sure the writers were thrilled to have an hour-long slot to work with on the wedding episode, because it meant they could do the show they’ve always wanted to do, which showed us full cache of talent that show possesses.
While I think The Office certainly belongs as a comedy, I think it has transcended the genre in a way I’m not sure the genre had ever been transcended before. For example, when you talk about Parks and Recreation, the best way to describe it is to say, “It’s like The Office,” which is true in a technical sense — it also is set in a work environment, filmed with handheld cameras and uses documentary-style interviews — but, more importantly, true in that it is a comedy that is extremely human. The characters are dynamic. We see them hurt, we see them struggle, we know their complexities.
For decades, we didn’t get that in comedy. From I Love Lucy to Seinfeld, characters in comedy shows were single-note people. As brilliant as Seinfeld was, the characters never evolved. We didn’t know them in private. Nobody ever got chills watching a Seinfeld episode. That was never a goal for that show.
The Office has shifted that, and created a subgenre in its own image. And even though others are trying it, The Office still does it better than anyone else.
So, yeah, I’m ready to stick the label on it.