A 'mockumentary' chapter ends

As 'The Office' ends this May, a look back on how it influenced the TV comedy genre and what made it work.

Steve Carell, ‘The Office ’

Just when Americans thought they had escaped their clueless bosses, dreadful cubicles, and weird co-workers, “The Office” showed up in their living rooms. Nearly overnight the banality of workday routines, coffee breaks, and awkward office small talk became prime-time television. And it was hilarious.

Arguably the most successful adaptation of a British television program for an American audience, NBC’s “The Office” – which wraps up May 16 – was groundbreaking in many ways. The show made comedian Steve Carell, as bumbling but lovable boss Michael Scott, a household name. It put actors John Krasinski and Jenna Fisher, and their office romance as Jim and Pam, on the map. And it elevated the art form of the “mockumentary” – in which actors break the third wall and reveal their innermost thoughts to the camera.

Over time, “The Office” built an impressive cast and perfected its secret sauce with the aid of improv, webisodes, subplots, and inside jokes. At times, the writers were even cast as supporting characters.

But mostly “The Office” will be remembered for its characters’ confessionals as they tried to process and influence the bizarre chain of events constantly unfolding around them.

Jere Hester, pop culture columnist for NBC local integrated media and director of CUNY’s NYCity News Service, speculates that this mockumentary format, used in film since the 1950s and ’60s and influenced by the popularity of reality TV, did much to sophisticate sitcom audiences.

“If anything, [mockumentary] makes for stronger writing, and better storytelling,” he says. “You’re confident you’re going to get the laughs without canned laughter serving as a cue.”

Though it has influenced other successful mockumentary sitcoms such as “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation,” Mr. Hester argues “The Office” stands alone. It was the original example, he says, that taught viewers to expect more from comedy. “It’s very possible [the final episode of ‘The Office’] could be the end of an era.”

During its ninth and final season, “The Office” pushed the bounds of the genre further than any other, introducing a member of the documentary crew as a character, and giving the mockumentary – the show within the show – a release date and a name: “The Office: An American Workplace.” An episode in the final season even included a scene in which the characters watched themselves on promos for the “documentary.” But to really push the genre to its fullest, NBC could actually release the mockumentary giving fans one last visit to the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.

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