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As with a growing number of people in Hollywood, “The Office” owes its success to Judd Apatow.
“The Office” wasn’t even “The Office” when it started. NBC’s remake of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s cult-favorite British series was a midseason entry that kicked off in March 2005, and its first few episodes drew mixed reviews from critics.
“All I could focus on was getting it past the hurdle of six episodes,” says Angela Bromstad, president of primetime entertainment at NBC and Universal Media Studios. At the time, Bromstad was president of what was then called NBC Universal Television Studios, producers of the series. “Forget about seasons; we were just focused on getting the episodes.”
The series was an Americanized version of Gervais and Merchant’s mordant skewering of the modern workplace, but in the best sense of the word: It thrived on the idiotic buzzwords and corporate lingo that have infiltrated American lives and made it possible to make punch lines out of things like “action statements.” Gervais’ British onscreen alter-ego David Brent became American lead Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, a blustery and thick-headed manager at the Scranton, Penn., branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Co. The office was stocked with sharply drawn characters, most notably Jim (John Krasinski), an affable salesman driven to distraction by his crush on the receptionist, Pam (Jenna Fischer). Also stealing scenes was Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, an egotistical but ultimately harmless employee who loves his job and his boss with equal abandon.
Just one small problem: Not enough people were watching.
But that summer, Apatow’s feature directorial debut, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” hit screens and went on to gross $177 million worldwide. In the process, it made a star out of Carell, who had been active in film and television for several years but was now a household name.
Carell’s burgeoning film career lent an “incredible acceleration” to “The Office,” says Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and an executive producer on the series. “And because that was a Universal picture, we were able to cross-promote to both the show and the movie.”
The series needed that acceleration. Its first season averaged a 2.5 rating and 6 share in adults 18-49, ranking 82nd in the demo. Greg Daniels, the series’ creator who also executive produces, writes and directs, chalks the slow start up to the novelty of the show’s documentary-style approach, which eschews music and glamorous sets for a narrower comedy based on very specific characters.
But because of Carell’s luck at the boxoffice, the series earned a pickup for a second season. That was the year the show also moved from Tuesdays to NBC’s prime comedy real estate of Thursday nights.
However, the series’ life expectancy was still a thing of doubt due to weak numbers. As Bromstad says, “You don’t want to be cavalier and say, ‘Hey, “Seinfeld” took forever.’ “
What saved the show from being just another short-lived cult favorite was a demonstrable fan response that played out in two parts: First, after making what he calls an “offhand comment” to a newspaper about how he wished that the series’ second-season finale could be supersized like others in the NBC lineup, Daniels says fans organized themselves and sent letters to NBC, which greenlit the extra-long finale.
The second half is that “The Office” was lucky enough to be on iTunes before it got crowded. Series downloads were more limited on the Apple service four years ago, and the younger audience that was embracing the show did their part in buying episodes online.
“That was something we could point to as an earlier indicator of a younger audience really being very voracious about the show,” Bromstad says.
Daniels also says he believes that a younger audience isn’t just drawn to the new media methods of attaining the show but to the series’ very careful design and tone.
“There’s no feeling that it has to be this glossy Hollywood product,” Daniels says of the freedom he feels when shooting a handheld mockumentary comedy. “It has this more modern, YouTube feel. Most people have camcorders now, and they spend a lot of time taping each other, and this show looked like that.”
It’s a sentiment backed up by Ken Kwapis, who’s directed a dozen episodes of the series, including the pilot and the 100th episode. He says the lived-in, observational aesthetic was a goal from the start.
“At the first production meeting, I sat in front of the crew and I said to everyone: ‘Everything that you would normally be fired for on another show is actually what we want on this show,’ ” Kwapis says. ” ‘So if the cameraman pans too far and misses a line, that’s fine, that’s what we want.’ “
Growing acceptance from viewers also helped the cast and crew tighten up, says Krasinski: “The most rewarding part of the show has absolutely been the creation of such an incredible family.”
But the most interesting thing about the success of “The Office” is that it seems to be going firmly against the set plan of how to be a successful show. It’s not just that the show started weaker and built up; it’s that it’s now pulling in almost double the ratings of its first season in 18-49, making this its best year yet. Plus it has added viewers every year.
“It’s a thrill that we got to 100 episodes, and probably incredibly surprising looking back at the process it took,” Silverman says. “But the reality is, we believed in it.”
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