Why The Office Worked

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a serious of pieces in which we’ve asked professors, alumni, and others to contribute to the site by writing about something they love that is outside the field they work in. The first piece is from Dr. Ryan Vooris, who choose to write about the TV show The Office. Dr. Vooris’ affinity for the show is well known among students (here is his Office inspired syllabus). 

Review: The Office 

Jim. Pam. Michael. Dwight. Beats. 

If you’re a fan of The Office these names bring to mind a host of images, lines, and emotions from NBC’s primetime series that last aired in 2013. A remake of the British series starring comedian Ricky Gervais, The Office’s nine-year run introduced the world to the interworkings of Dunder Mifflin, a regional paper company in the electric city (Scranton, PA).  

The mockumentary format of the show was relatively new to network television in 2004. Movies like Best in Show and This is Spinal Tap, introduced the format to millions of film viewers, but The Office elevated the visual storytelling technique to new heights through the intimate medium of television. In an era when reality television seemed as common as scripted shows, The Office took what we knew about the reality TV genre and blended it with exceptional direction and heartfelt comedy to create a show that will remain culturally relevant for years. 

Perhaps the show’s most memorable two scenes occurred during the final episode of its second season. In the first scene, the show’s everyman Jim Halpert confesses his love to Pam Beesly, his coworker. Pam rejects him by saying she wants to stay friends. The scene I want to discuss happens moments after this. The scene is included below (apologies for the quality). 

What makes these scene unique and memorable is the way it is composited by director Ken Kwapis. The scene begins with Pam talking with her mom on the phone. Jim enters and the two kiss. The first kiss is followed by a brief conversation. 

The above is a description of the scene, but the framing of the shot, the movement of the camera, and the approach of the mockumentary, psuedo-reality TV genre are what make this scene powerful. The mockumentary realm and people’s familiarity with reality TV allowed Kwapis to approach this conventional “man-kisses-woman” scene in a unique and memorable way.

Consider the opening shot in which we are watching and listening to Pam’s conversation on the phone. The camera sees her through window blinds from afar. We (the audience) are eavesdropping on Pam’s conversation. This is an intimate, emotional moment for her that we are not supposed to see. In a traditional sitcom, this scene starts in a close-up and no thought is given as to why we are there. There is no awkwardness about seeing her at her most vulnerable. 

When Jim enters the room, the camera zooms in rather than cuts to a new shot. We are still spying on them. We should not be here. This adds a dramatic irony to the scene that would be impossible to do in a traditional sitcom. In a traditional sitcom, this scene is composed in shot-reverse-shot. It would look something like this in the shooting script: 

 Pam sees Jim. Cut to Jim. Jim looks at her. Cut to Pam. Pam looks at him and says “Listen, Jim.” Cut to Jim. Pause. Jim moves in for the kiss. 

On The Office, this troupe is shot in a long take that starts from a distance, is framed as an intrusion on a moment of extreme vulnerability, and then zooms in for the big moment. The shot lingers on their moment of physical intimacy. There is no cutaway. The entire shot lasts more than 40 seconds and is a master class in deriving emotional resonance in the mockumentary genre. 

This is what made The Office work (pun intended). All the awkward moments the audience was privy to over the years, made the special intimate moments more powerful. We often grimaced when Michael or Dwight did something socially awkward and that grimace came as much from the situation as the reality (understood or not) that we were watching someone in an embarrassing, vulnerable moment (this is part of the double-pull of reality TV). I suspect many viewers felt a similar kind of awkwardness in many of the show’s intimate moments. We should not be watching Jim put himself on the line and get rejected. We should not be watching Pam fumble with her emotions while talking to her mother. We should not linger on the first kiss between two people. The framing of the scene, the movement of the camera, and the assumptions of the genre make this clear to us. 

The filmmakers behind The Office used these techniques many times, both in funny moments and in touching ones. The “spying” aspect of the mockumentary genre added emotional resonance to each scene (try to imagine these scenes in a traditional, three-camera sitcom).

Remember when the camera “caught” Dwight psyching himself up to ask for a raise?

Riann Wilson sells this scene, but it’s also funny because of the context of us spying on him in a private moment that we aren’t supposed to see.

How about when Pam told Jim she was pregnant? This is another example of excellent camera work and editing to enhance the story. 

Compare the touching, funny 30 seconds above to this contrived, drawn-out, painful scene from Friends when Rachel tells Ross she is pregnant (90% of the scene is also presented in static shot-reverse-shot)

There are many ways to visually tell a story. The directors, producers, and writers of The Office sought out inventive ways to harness the genre they set their show in to enhance their stories. Through careful camera work, selective sound and visual editing, they blended many of the themes of reality television with traditional sitcom narratives. The results were a show that gave us memorable characters and lasting, emotionally impactful moments that will last far longer in our collective memories than characters and incidents presented in a more traditional way by other television shows. 

As Michael Scott would say, “It’s simply beyond words. It’s incalcucable.”

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