'The Office" -- whose final episode airs Thursday -- was very nearly stillborn upon its launch on March 24, 2005.
Some critics dismissed it as another bad facsimile of a superior British product. Some viewers yawned, rolled over, went back to sleep. And by the end of the six-episode first season, some NBC executives were ready to punt as well -- and go back to the tried, the true, the single camera, the studio audience, the reliable punch line and the sitcom beat as old and reliable as the living room TV set itself.
Then came the second season. An Emmy for best comedy series was secured, viewership soared, and a beachhead for smart, ironic, densely crafted comedy was established on NBC once again. "30 Rock," not coincidentally, arrived a year and a half after "The Office's" rough launch.
But the moral of "The Office's" salvation is much more than one of "network patience trumps network myopia" or "the critics were wrong again" -- old morals, by the way, and certainly applicable to a certain degree here, too. Plus, smart, ironic, densely crafted shows had certainly been around before, like "Scrubs," which launched in 2001, or "Arrested Development," in 2005. "Seinfeld," which wrapped in 1998, spent most of a decade going over this terrain.
Instead, "The Office" was saved by a technological development so new at the time that no one really understood what to make of it. But the legacy is unmistakable: "The Office" helped establish this technology in the popular imagination almost as much as it saved "The Office." The revolution in TV viewing that is now under way -- with streaming viewing on several devices, from phones to tablets -- dates back to this moment. And for that, "The Office" can take yet another bow.
Biting into Apple
The milestone moment was Oct. 12, 2005, when Apple released a new version of iTunes (iTunes 6.0). ABC cut the first network deal with Apple, allowing downloads of "Lost," "Desperate Housewives" and a handful of Disney Channel series. NBC immediately followed. "The Office" was an immediate hit on iTunes, becoming the service's most-downloaded series and, yes, the "Seinfeld" of iTunes.
In an interview with Newsday the following year, Angela Bromstead, president of NBC Universal Television Studio, said, "I'm not sure that we'd still have the show on the air" without the iTunes boost. "The network had only ordered so many episodes, but when it went on iTunes and really started taking off, that gave us another way to see the true potential other than just Nielsen. It just kind of happened at a great time."
The "boost" was not peanuts. By one estimate, at least a million users had downloaded episodes -- even at a time when bit rates were lethargic and real-time streaming still lay in the future. Fans -- presumably mostly male, obviously all technophiles -- loved "The Office," and "The Office" responded in kind. Paul Lieberstein, an executive producer (who also plays sadsack Dunder Mifflin human resources manager Toby) explained at the time, "It was this huge gift that made everyone [at NBC] kind of go, 'Wait, what's going on with that show?' " He added that "because people are watching more than once, it's become one more reason for us to be very careful to include subtle things as well as broad physical stuff."
For perspective, the Internet in 2005 was still in its Triassic era -- sorting through the wreckage of the earlier dot-com era and trying to figure out the real-world implications of progressively more powerful hard drives and vastly expanded bandwidth that were about to reach people at home. The impact on music was well known, but until "The Office" and "Lost" came along, few had a clue how TV would be embraced on the Web, though many Wall Street analysts confidently assured investors that no one would ever watch TV on a computer screen.
This does beg the question -- Why would "The Office" appeal to early adopters? With "Lost," which also revolutionized the way fans engage with a treasured TV series, the answer is obvious. It was a lodestone of games, clues, leads and ideas that forced them to use the Internet to fully sort through the show and share ideas about it.
From the outset, the American version of "The Office" was a mockumentary with roots in "This Is Spinal Tap" and, especially, Kevin Smith's 1994 film "Clerks," a look at office drones in a dehumanized setting whose comical quirks contributed to their dehumanization. Until "The Office" came along, American workplace comedies celebrated the hero -- or usually heroine (Murphy Brown, Mary Richards) -- who triumphed over the System, though not without pitfalls along the way.
Instead, "The Office" celebrated the system, specifically its manifest absurdity, in countless small and brilliantly funny ways that bore up well -- arguably even better -- on the second or third viewing that iTunes allowed.
Yes, critics (who later changed their early assessments) have long since moved on, and many fans have, too, while NBC is now finally ready to pull the plug. But history has been changed, and changed for the better. You have "The Office" to thank for that.
'The Office' staff's finest work
What were my all-time favorite episodes of "The Office"? Hard question, because I loved so many. But if an all-time list has to be made, then here it is. You'll notice a common denominator in all: Steve Carell, who was core to the show's enduring success. He left in May 2011, and while "The Office" continued to make funny television, the heart and soul of this venture were gone.
1. 'Stress Relief' (Feb. 1, 2009) -- Dwight (Rainn Wilson) gives Stanley (Leslie David Baker) a heart attack during a not-so-routine fire drill, and Michael (Carell) forces the entire office to undergo stress relief. The opening seconds were classic, displaying an underappreciated "Office" skill -- pure slapstick.
2. 'Booze Cruise' (Jan. 5, 2006) -- Michael surprises his staff by taking everyone on a booze cruise on Lake Wallenpaupack in the dead of winter -- cheaper rates. The best of "The Office" always tended to humanize Michael, not just humiliate him, and this one closed with his heartfelt advice to Jim (John Krasinski) about his office crush, Pam (Jenna Fischer): "If you like her so much, don't give up. Never ever, ever give up."
3. 'The Deposition' (Nov. 15, 2007) and 'Dinner Party' (April 10, 2008) -- Michael testifies at Jan's (Melora Hardin) wrongful- termination hearing; and Michael and Jan have Pam and Jim to dinner; disaster ensues in both episodes. Despite a separation of months, both episodes should be watched together to appreciate their full brilliance. Hardin, as always during her run, was an unsung "Office" hero.
4. 'Casino Night' (May 11, 2006) and 'Gay Witch Hunt' (Sept. 21, 2006) -- Michael holds a "casino night" in support of "AIDS in Afghanistan or Afghans" -- it's unclear which; and he accidentally outs Oscar Martinez (played by Oscar Nuñez). Again, bookend episodes that should be watched together, in part because "Night" ended with Pam's rejection of Jim, sending him to the Stamford branch. There, two key newcomers were introduced: Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) and Karen Filippelli (Rashida Jones).
5. 'Diversity Day' (March 29, 2005) -- Michael is forced to undergo sensitivity training because of his very bad and politically incorrect office imitation of a Chris Rock routine. Important episode as well as funny because this introduced Larry Wilmore ("Mr. Brown") to viewers and to the show where he'd become a key behind-the-scenes creative force. Also, this episode -- unlike the pilot -- did not use any dialogue from the Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant British show. With this, "The Office" set sail on its own.