Although The Office, a sitcom about the employees at a struggling midsize paper company, went off the air five years ago, the show hasn’t lost its relevance or appeal. It still performs well on Netflix and was picked up for syndication last year by Comedy Central, and earlier this year an NBC executive hinted at a possible reboot. Current workplace sitcoms like Veep and Brooklyn Nine-Nine lack the generality in characters and setting that helped embed The Office into American homes. Where Seinfeld reinvigorated the idea that “a show about nothing” could become timeless by situating it in one guy’s apartment, The Office perfected that conceit for the workplace.
However, while The Office has contributed jokes (“That’s what she said”), memes, and cultural lenses, it hasn’t received the kind of critical thinking and dissection that other seminal shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons have. That’s why I was thrilled to learn about Conference Room, Five Minutes, an essay collection devoted to analyzing the show.
The Office helped me cope with my introduction to the cubicle-ized workplace years ago, as it does for others today, and of all the TV shows with rewatch value for my wife and me, The Office has by far the highest. I was somewhat familiar with the work of the collection’s author, Shea Serrano, known for his two best-selling illustrated books on basketball and rap, and just as well his persona as perhaps the humblest and nicest braggadocio on Twitter. The collection’s distribution method, as a downloadable PDF that Serrano repeatedly claimed is limited-time only (but as of today is still available), had the hype of an exclusive clothing drop. An essay collection had never looked so fresh and appealing.
In each of the 10 essays, Serrano takes a particular episode as a starting point to examine certain aspects of that episode or exhibit a larger idea about The Office and its characters more broadly. The first two essays, one covering the warehouse basketball game and the other a scene where Michael dresses up as “Prison Mike,” contain a lot of plot description. Having Serrano’s exuberant guidance through that exposition is enthralling, but at times it’s unclear where his summaries and analyses are leading. What is clear is how dedicated and compassionate an Office fan he is, and the real treats throughout CRFM are his countless jokes and observations of the show’s most brilliant moments. Finishing these two pieces left me laughing but without any theories or arguments about the show to chew on. They were more like oral histories of the two episodes, with Serrano narrating along and highlighting his favorite moments.
Further into the collection, the balance between theorizing and exposition falls heavier to the theorizing side. That may be just a sign to casual Office viewers that they’re entering intense and possibly unfamiliar territory, but to me it was welcome relief.
The third essay, “The Perfect Heist,” postulates which roles the show’s main characters would play if they were cast in an Ocean’s 11-type heist movie. Serrano’s choices and reasonings for each matching are flawless, based on the kind of heavy research and attention only a hardcore fan and empathetic writer could deliver. It contains delightfully twisted comparisons between Matt Damon and the character Toby Flenderson, the apathetic target of all of Michael’s anger on The Office, plus a dazzling understanding of not just every character’s background but every single one of their interrelationships. If The Office’s Wikipedia entry sprung to life, pulled you into a bar, and began explaining its own fan theory, it might be as proficient as Serrano, although I doubt it.
While this fantastical investigation unearths hidden facets of the characters’ personalities (like Pam Beesly’s penchant for being second in command and Creed Bratton’s creepy strength), there’s not a compelling reason to go on the journey in the first place other than following Serrano’s whimsy. “The Perfect Heist” also opens with a prime example of Serrano falling, what was for me, a little too hard for his own conceit. The essay’s first paragraph is a long-winded warning that what follows “will seem like a stretch,” and it’s not incorrect in saying that. More dedicated Serrano fans (notably members of his FOH Army) may disagree that this jokingly apologetic tone is an enjoyable part of Serrano’s voice, but as someone who came here for the Office fandom, I found it less endearing.
The next three essays take modified listicle approaches to detailing some of Serrano’s favorite memories and fan theories. The listicle format can go from being insightfully well-organized to a crutch for assembling otherwise disconnected pieces of information, but Serrano wields this style deftly and humorously. For anyone who’s ever thought they spent too much time thinking about the show, they’re deliciously indulgent reads. “Dwight Club,” which ranks Dwight Schrute’s most distinctive personal battles from most to least conquerable, is a clever way to achieve a complete character study.
“There Are No Accidents” is the strongest of the bunch. Through analyzing their office seating chart, Serrano demonstrates how both the characters’ placement and physical positioning, as in which directions they face in their chairs, indicates their personalities and trajectories through the storyline. It’s the kind of obsessive, microscopic close reading I sought in CRFM, and I was delighted to finally find it buried seven essays in. Serrano prefaces this piece by writing, “This is, hands down, the most intensely nerdy section … If you want to go ahead and skip this essay … I would urge you to do so.” Whatever you do, do not, as Dwight once said, “take head” of that advice.
It discusses how the many children’s toys on Michael’s desk, which are always visible but easily missable, demonstrate both his craving and failure at being a fun and approachable person. It takes into account the curvature of Pam’s desk, the filing cabinets behind Kevin, and the way that Andy’s desk, against the sides of Stanley’s and Phyllis’s desks, mirrors that of Oscar’s desk to Angela’s and Kevin’s. This essay in particular is a testament to the density of both The Office and Serrano’s thinking about the show, and I would have loved to see him expand it as far as his “nerdy” inclinations led him.
If any essay could be positioned at the center of the collection, it’s the ninth essay, which undertakes the task of deducing the show’s one “perfect couple.” It’s the kind of investigation designed to prod at fans of all levels, maybe a bit annoyingly so, but Serrano delivers it gracefully and swiftly. His conclusion isn’t the obvious choice, but it feels the most correct.
CRFM is by all means a passion project. It’s an expression of love for The Office, both in its motivation and end result. The essays rekindle fond memories for longtime fans. While that overwhelming positivity also holds some of the pieces back from having a more critical ear, it also, I hope, serves as an invitation to more Office fans to share their takes on the show. There currently exist four critical books on The Simpsons and six on Seinfeld. There absolutely is room for more Office essayizing. Bring it on.