The Office: Commodity or Television Show?

As a fan of good television, I am a fan of The Office. Greg Daniels and Co. have done a fantastic job taking the British series and making a relevant, funny, and memorable comedy. Combined with 30 Rock, it means one hell of a Thursday night, which is in every viewer’s best interest. For me, the series is a television show worth watching, and one that I want to see succeed.

For those who may have read my posts about the start of the show’s fourth season, you likely saw that I had some problems. I felt that the one-hour episodes were almost all failures at sustaining comedy and character, and that even when the show returned with half hours it was missing something. It was still memorable, but there were some fundamental problems that I felt needed more attention – not in a total overhaul sense, but just some small-scale adjustments.

However, I am not convinced NBC views The Office as a television show anymore – they’ve scheduled another batch of one-hour episodes for the start of next season, a move made on money and ratings and little else. I know that the show is a rare demographic star for the network, but milking it like this didn’t do it any good from a creative sense. And, maybe it’s that I don’t have a bottom line to worry about, but isn’t that the most important thing?

It doesn’t appear to be for NBC, because now comes word that starting in February The Office will be paired with a spinoff, a series built from the existing stable of characters and a host of new ones. This is being sold as a good thing, a chance for the unsung heroes of the large ensemble cast to get their due. And, on the one hand, I agree with this enthusiastic if questionable response: I think there some characters in The Office deserve more time to shine, if you will. However, I can’t help but ask the question of why this spinoff is really necessary, and why NBC thinks now is the best time.

When to run a spinoff is a tricky gambit, one that has multiple options.

On the first hand, we have the pattern of a spinoff of a show that is aging, and will be ending soon. This is the example seen from The Practice to Boston Legal, with David E. Kelley transitioning quite quickly to new characters and ideas. It is also the practice we’ll see with Caprica, the upcoming Battlestar Galactica spinoff.

On the other, there is the premise that when a show is in its prime, and its popularity is at its peak, you build off of that success. This was most recently deployed with Private Practice, as Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes took Kate Walsh’s Addison Sheppard and created a show just for her.

In this case, NBC is clearly banking on the second option, and from a financial standpoint ABC left that deal with two hit shows. But, there were also serious creative struggles on both dramas, especially Grey’s Anatomy which took a long, long time to regain its footing. It left Shonda Rhimes straddled between two jobs, and neither show really got a fair deal.

Now, one could argue that NBC is hedging their bets by waiting to the Fall, giving the creators more time to work out the spinoff (Which still has no title, theme or plot as of this moment). However, they also have to pump out full hour-long episodes for the first month, a schedule that so burdened them this past year that they were the first show to run out of episodes during the strike.

I have faith in Greg Daniels, but only to an extent. As noted above, I felt the Fourth Season was off to a rough start in a lot of ways – I don’t know if it was Pam and Jim finally being together, or something else entirely, but it felt off. The hour-long episodes were off-kilter, with funny moments followed by either absurdity or idiocy. I found Michael Scott, as a character, devolving – I know he’s irrational, but there were moments where he made decisions that endangered his life (See: driving into a lake).

But what now? Luckily, they’ve had plenty of time to prepare post-strike episodes, which premiere next week (April 10th), so perhaps they can get back on track. But, as they enter their fifth season, what kind of quality can we expect from a staff running two shows and with hour long segments starting in September?

The answer is that NBC doesn’t care – at this point, the show is enough of a commodity in their minds that selling it off to advertisers is really all they’re concerned about. They see dollar signs, and can only imagine the staggering ratings after the spinoff draws tens of millions after the Super Bowl.

But I want them to consider the consequences of this action – even if this spinoff is good, will The Office be the same? If the most successful show on television in Grey’s Anatomy can’t pull it off, why would The Office be any different? I don’t have an answer to the question, but I do ponder whether NBC even bothered to ask it. If their gamble pays off, all the more Office to enjoy – if it doesn’t, there might not much enjoyment at all. Either way, early next year we’ll find which it is – whether The Office shall remain a television program, or just a piggy bank for its network.



Filed under The Office

4 responses to “The Office: Commodity or Television Show?

  1. It seem that the funny and different comedies are short lived. Fernwood Tonight and Get Smart come to mind

  2. It might be interesting to see a spinoff from The Office. Regardless, Kate Flannery is hilarious. She also seems really down-to-earth in this Fancast interview:

  3. Pingback: Cultural Learnings’ 2008-2009 Network Upfronts Analysis « Cultural Learnings

  4. Can I get satellite TV? These may sound like they overlap, and if you are a single-family homeowner, they do. It gets a little trickier if you live in an apartment or condominium community, rent a home, or have a picky homeowner’s association.

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