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How ‘The Office’ Became the Internet’s Favorite Show

The mockumentary is the rare series that transitioned from the pre-streaming era to the present without losing a generation of fans in between

NBCUniversal/Ringer illustration

I got my first glimpse of The Office’s second life before its first was even over. It was around 2011; the sitcom was nearing the end of its initial run on NBC, but still airing new episodes. Meanwhile, the network’s production arm had leased the show’s back catalog to the streaming division of Netflix, the company not yet fully past its origins as a DVD rental service. Glitzy original shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black were in the works, but still a couple of years away from premiering. For the moment, Netflix was a convenient way to recreate the box-set experience in the internet age—particularly for young people without easy access to a DVD player, or even a TV.

At the time, I was living in a college dorm, the kind shoddily constructed so you could hear your neighbors’ entertainment through the paper-thin walls. And what I heard, from one neighbor in particular, was an endless loop of the theme from The Office. Like clockwork, every 22 minutes, Jay Ferguson’s stripped-down keyboard jingle would peal out across our shared living space:

DAAAAAAnanananaNAAAAA….DAAAAAAnanananaNAAAAA….DAAAAAAnanananaNAAAAA. I knew the show was popular—distractingly so. I didn’t know I was listening to the future of TV.

It’s not a straight line from that infectious earworm to a half-a-billion-dollar acquisition deal, but it’s not a hard path to trace, either. Six years after its series finale in 2013, The Office will soon migrate from Netflix to the NBCUniversal-owned streaming service Peacock, projected to launch later this summer; Netflix subscribers can still marathon Michael Scott’s misadventures through January of next year. (Netflix couldn’t resist adding an “ad-free” modifier to its announcement, an apparent sideswipe at Peacock’s commercial-subsidized setup for customers outside its Premium tier.) For legal reasons, parent company Comcast had to pay market price to buy back its own product from its collaborator turned competitor, and the market now deems a mockumentary about the Scranton, Pennsylvania, outpost of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company to be worth $100 million a year for a five-year contract.

The latter-day dominance of The Office is more than financial, though: It’s cultural. A decade on Netflix has endeared the show to an entire generation raised on streaming, more accustomed to the numbing deluge of a binge than the comforting consistency of a weekly time slot. No less a pair of Zoomer luminaries than Billie Eilish and Timothée Chalamet have expressed their devotion to Greg Daniels’s ensemble comedy, the former by sampling dialogue from concept episode “Threat Level Midnight” on the song “my strange addiction.” To teens who’ve yet to hold a white-collar office job and, given the rise of the gig economy, probably never will, there’s a pleasing exoticism to those fluorescent lights and rumpled dress shirts. There’s nothing more hilarious to a digital nomad than a meeting that should’ve been an email.

As newer, younger fans have discovered the show, its accessibility has kept it relevant for those already on board. My colleague Shea Serrano contributed to the show’s continued role in the zeitgeist with his recent illustrated essay collection Conference Room, Five Minutes. Data compiled by Nielsen and shared with The Wall Street Journal last spring indicate The Office alone accounted for nearly 3 percent of Netflix’s total U.S. viewing in 2018, amounting to 52 billion total minutes. There’s no demographic survey to go with those numbers, but the omnipresence of memes and reaction GIFs suggests The Office has become a kind of universal language. (True story: On a procrastination break just now, I stumbled on this Season 5 clip repurposed into a TikTok gag.) I can personally attest to its omnipresence in dating app bios as an easy shorthand for “I’m ‘quirky,’ but in a socially acceptable way.”

Despite a slow start for its abbreviated first season, The Office is not a show that flailed on linear television only to thrive on a new platform. Few series these days reach 201 episodes or get to experience the rites of passage that mark hit shows as victims of their own success: The Office had the departure of star performer Steve Carell after Season 7 and potential shark-jumping inflection points like the onscreen debut of the documentary camera crew, and even messed with its sacred cow of an OTP, Jim and Pam. But the throwback is, paradoxically, part of the appeal. Unlike Breaking Bad, Riverdale, You, or other recipients of the Netflix bump, The Office is the standard-bearer for a different category of show: already beloved comedies brought in to shore up streaming catalogs, then rewarded with a new influx of relevance. It’s a category that encompasses The Office’s descendants (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), forebears (Cheers, Frasier) and peers (30 Rock). Still, The Office stands alone as the show of the streaming era, both despite and because it was never made for streaming.

The Office’s only real rival for this title is Friends, another bygone staple of Must See TV given a shot in the arm by the modern equivalent of a daytime run on TBS. It’s no coincidence that Friends, too, was reabsorbed by its parent company to anchor an upcoming launch, nor that the two shows command equally sky-high premiums. WarnerMedia shelled out a reported $425 million for five years of Friends on HBO Max, plus an additional eight figures for a now-delayed (and unscripted) reunion special; before that, Netflix paid $100 million just to keep Friends for one extra year (through 2019). And Netflix has partly stemmed the tide by commissioning follow-ups from both series’ creative teams: Grace and Frankie from Friends Marta Kauffman and Space Force from Daniels and Carell.

Still, The Office is unique in its seamless transition from one TV epoch to the next. The show never retreated far enough from the mainstream to benefit from a full-bore nostalgia push. Instead, it preserved its increasingly high-wattage cast in amber even as they continued to scale the Hollywood ladder, giving us the uncanny yet reassuring sense it never left. Carell is a socially challenged middle manager and a silver fox regularly hitting the awards circuit. John Krasinski is a fourth-wall-breaking straight man and a horror auteur, and also Jack Ryan. Mindy Kaling is a bratty drama queen and a rom-com star who hangs out with Reese Witherspoon. The upward trajectory of the cast is something of a chicken-and-egg scenario: Does their celebrity help keep The Office in the limelight, or does The Office’s continued popularity help their careers? Inevitably, it’s both.

The Office is a throwback, but a deceptive one. The signs of subversion are real, particularly in the bygone context of mid-aughts broadcast television: the handheld camera work that made the titular workplace look as drab and depressing as it really was, in stark contrast to the dubiously cavernous apartments of the Friends gang and others; the biting, if diluted, cynicism handed down from the British original, via creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The Office proved influential not just in the success of its alumni, but in the sensibility disseminated through them. Producer and Mose Schrute portrayer Michael Schur turned an eye for professional foibles to the public sector with Parks and Rec, the civic slant yielding heavier and more idealistic themes. Writer Justin Spitzer created Superstore, a series with an emphasis on low-paid hourly work; it’s like if The Office were set entirely in the warehouse, and/or joined the DSA.

As television has settled comfortably into the cable and streaming era, however, The Office’s innovations don’t register as strongly as they once did. What’s left is the comfort of a solidly executed sitcom, greased with just enough postmodernism to fool our jaded contemporary palates. The Office is a deliberately, winkingly generic name, but being generic isn’t always a net negative—it’s the reason we can project every bad boss we’ve ever had onto Michael, and why we intuitively grasp the series’ expert blend of A plots, B plots, romantic pairings, colorful side characters, and long-term arcs. And with nine seasons to race through, the predictable slippage doesn’t register the way it once did in real time.

The Office’s continued success goes to show that what we want from TV hasn’t really changed with how we watch it. We still crave the experience of hanging out with our fictional friends, often alongside our actual friends. And in the absence of many new pieces of monoculture, we turn to ever-so-slightly older ones, helpfully preserved in their virtual afterlife. There’s no way to know whether The Office’s upcoming relocation will dim its exposure, and therefore its popularity. For now, the theme song is still stuck in our collective heads.