LOS ANGELES — An old index card reads: Original. Real. Poignant. Those were the first words Greg Daniels jotted down a decade ago as his guide in adapting the daft British TV series “The Office” for an American audience.
The ideas on the flimsy card stock proved enduring. They helped the unconventional workplace comedy about a humdrum band of paper company employees stand up to the radically shifting fortunes of a major network and a punch-to-the-gut exit of a big-name star.
But it’s now time to put the paper away as “The Office” prepares to shut its doors for good on May 16. The shuttering wraps up a nine-year run where much of the time the show functioned like its elite predecessors “Cheers,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” as a pillar of NBC’s Thursday night prime-time lineup.
Nearly canceled after a lackluster premiere in 2005, “The Office” rebounded and later grew into the network’s highest-rated scripted series, frequently pulling in more than 9 million viewers for its season premieres. An early adopter of the mockumentary style, the show became famous for its fishbowl glimpse at the everyday-looking folks of Scranton, Pa. The show has been widely praised for its clever, understated and often heartwarming humor and has garnered more than 40 Emmy nominations – winning once for comedy series.
Its end signals a major turning point for the struggling network, which recently lost another tent pole comedy, “30 Rock.” “The Office” is averaging a modest 3.6 million viewers this season, down 28 percent from last year, according to Nielsen. Nevertheless, it remains among NBC’s highest-rated scripted series, and it’s still a big moneymaker on the advertising front.
“It’s very emotional – not to sound too Michael Scott-y,” said Daniels, the series’ showrunner once again after a stint at “Parks and Recreation,” in a reference to the Steve Carell character. “But we’re a family here.”
It’s late January and Daniels is seated in his index card-covered office – in the building that serves as the exterior for Dunder Mifflin, the show’s fictional paper supply company. He’s noticeably preoccupied, making last-minute changes to a script before a table read for the season’s 20th episode (“Paper Airplanes”).
So when he is asked about the final episode, his face meets his right palm.
“I’m worried,” says the 49-year-old writer-producer, whose credits include “King of the Hill.” “I’m worried I’m overthinking it. I’m worried I’m not overthinking it – I’m working on two TV pilots simultaneously. Obviously, the goal is to have it feel meaningful and have a sense of closure for the whole series. That’s what this whole season has been about.”
The series made it onto the fall schedule in 2006 – just as Carell’s movie career was picking up – and avoided hitting the shredder from then on.
“The Office” was one of the first shows available on iTunes and consistently one of the top performers on the site. Its early recognition of tapping into Web-savvy young consumers was one of its hallmarks.
Before its second season, stand-alone webisodes were made available on NBC’s website. The ratings would pick up, and the show would go on to score an Emmy in its second season for outstanding comedy series.
Down with fourth wall
Part of the final season’s conceit has been tearing down the fourth wall. At last, TV viewers get to see the documentary crew that has been skulking around Dunder Mifflin all these years. Their documentary is set to air.
Inside the cluttered Dunder Mifflin set – tucked away in Van Nuys, Calif., a mere 2,700 miles from Scranton – the office workers are reading the first reviews of the documentary of their workplace. Not surprisingly, in the scene, Phyllis Smith, who plays congenial Phyllis Lapin-Vance, is having computer problems and is unable to scroll through the website.
“How do I get this up?” she asks. She catches herself: “That’s what she said!” – a nod to the fan-favorite one-liner popularized by Michael Scott.
If the fictional office appears mundanely offbeat on TV, the real set dynamics are not much different. On a recent day, Ed Helms’ Andy was reading Deadline.com, while Creed Bratton, who plays creepy Creed, was killing time at his desk by playing his guitar. And Leslie David Baker, who plays crossword puzzle-loving Stanley Hudson, was talking about his next vacation and maybe how he’d like to eat a pretzel.
On this day, a group of hard-core Canadian fans is visiting – trying not to squeal as the scene finally gets underway.
“Red alert! Red alert! The reviews are in! I repeat: The reviews are in!” shouts Helms as Andy, drolly charging through from the office kitchen into the main space. The characters latch onto every biting word.
After Carell’s departure
The real-world reviews for “The Office” of late have been just as captious. Although some of the criticism had been brewing before the Season 7 exit of Carell, it intensified with his departure.
The cast doesn’t pretend it was a smooth transition.
“It was a tremendous blow to the show,” says Rainn Wilson, who plays power-obsessed Dwight Schrute.
“It took us awhile to find our footing. There’s been a number of bad episodes but also really good ones.”
Daniels admits that ending the show with Carell’s exit might have been the way to go. (Carell declined an interview for the story.)
But other cast members were under contract, and “The Office” remained one of the network’s top-rated Thursday shows – so it carried on.
There would be more changes: Mindy Kaling, a writer-producer-star of the show, left at the end of the eighth season to headline her own comedy on Fox; Wilson was set to split off for his said spin-off; meanwhile, John Krasinski, who plays sardonic nice guy Jim, and Helms were juggling burgeoning movie schedules.
“It’s like any other thing in life, any experience – from listening to a song to watching ‘Les Miserables’ to the best job of your life: It has to end sometime,” Krasinski says.
The key cast members agreed to return for a ninth and final season – allowing Daniels to dump an idea of a rebooted season that would have introduced a heap of new characters. It’s an ending that’s bittersweet for longtime viewers.
“One could really feel the executive suits just sort of dragging the lifeless body of the show across the finish line,” says Andy Greenwald, who writes about the show for Grantland.com, an online sports and pop culture magazine. “But I do think the show, as a whole, has made a mark on the American TV comedy by paving the way for a lot of the intelligent, witty and urbane humor we see in some half-hours today.”