The Paper Chase

The New Yorker’s Tad Friend offers a fascinating, if not somewhat ponderous analysis of The Office, both versions.

A few excerpts:

Steve Carell does wonderful work with his voice, going from strangled and squeaky when he’s wounded to orotund when he’s feeling statesmanlike, an effect routinely shattered by his penchant for cackling and blurting out “Fo’ shizzle!” or “What’s the dealio?” All the conversational lint that tumbles around the airwaves gets trapped on the blank mesh of his brain.

… Andy, a new guy from Stamford (Ed Helms, in a scene-stealing turn as a smarmy frat-boy type), tells us he’ll have the second-in-command job within six weeks, through “name repetition” and “personality mirroring.” Michael falls for the manipulation, of course, and his credulousness made us feel the sort of sadness we feel when a computer outplays Garry Kasparov.

Get out your big dictionary for this one.

Read The Paper Chase.


  1. Sheesh… reminds me of a line from “The Simpsons”:

    “The mail’s here! Oh, it’s a rejection letter from The New Yorker subscription department.”

    Does anybody really read that magazine?

  2. I cannot say I agree with a few different points in this article.

    For instance: “for instance, that Toby has an unspoken crush on Pam, and therefore resents Jim” — I can’t say I agree with that. Does Toby really resent Jim? Have any of you seen that?

    Another point: “Michael is too dim to understand that Jan is way out of his league” I don’t think he is. Sure, they are two different people, but, I think at their core, their emotional needs are very similar.

    Again: Gervais and Merchant’s handling of the Tim-and-Dawn plot was a master class in the pleasures of delayed gratification…the American “Office” must now resolve…how to perpetuate Jim and Pam’s mating dance as the show continues indefinitely. Their flirtation is more articulated, playful, and intimate than Tim and Dawn’s longing; it’s screwball rather than chivalric. They essentially serve as the office’s cruise directors, engineering a karate bout between Michael and Dwight and conducting an office Olympics with medals made from yogurt lids (they give Michael a gold lid for closing on his condo).”

    Blech. Really? Is their yearning and flirtation “Screwball”? I disagree. Sure, they have fun together, but, less chivalric and more screwball? I hardly define Pam or Jim as screwballs.

    “…Jim and Pam’s relationship has been so poignant—it’s the show’s chief ornament—they are fast running out of reasons to stay apart…now the merger has brought him back, along with his Stamford colleague and new girlfriend, Karen. Their relationship feels much more mature than Jim and Pam’s skylarking, and so is clearly doomed.”

    Is it really more mature? It seems to me that Jim has not really opened up to Karen yet. (Enter mosby rant that too many of you have heard) There is no emotion seemingly attached to Jim’s interest in Karen except for that he’s trying to use Karen to fill the Pam shaped hole in his life.

    ok, I’m done ranting.

  3. Tad Friend appears to be auditioning to be a new cast member of “The Office:” the “deep-thinking intellectual” who can suck the joy out of any situation. He succeeds with this analysis.

  4. to make a long story short: the writer really enjoys both versions of the show.
    there! that was easy!!! but the article seemed like it was written by a pompous college sophmore who was excited to show off his vocabulary (verisimilitude!!! who ever says that except when making fun of people like the author of this article?!!?) and knowledge of “deep” works such as “Waiting for Godot” (did we really need that quote? it didn’t help the article AT ALL. it was a desperate ploy to say “look!!! i’ve read and/or seen this play!!!”). one word: pretense.
    but the gist of it is correct: the shows are good.

  5. Hmmm. A paragraph’s worth of obvious remarks, another paragraph’s worth of dubious assertions, stretched out over two pages courtesy of a rather obnoxious desire to display learning and vocabulary.
    Does anybody else disagree that the BBC version was obsessed with class? I just didn’t see it at all. The only real mechanism for this was “warehouse staff” plotlines, and these were far fewer than in the US version. One could perhaps say that power dynamics play a huge role, but to conflate this with class is false in my mind.
    Some correct (if obvious) points that he makes: Michael Scott character benefits hugely from being a more competent and sympathetic individual than Brent.
    How to keep on renewing the energy of the show’s central dynamic (Jim/Pam) without it getting stupid/straying from the documentary concept. Can this be done? I’m worried.

  6. Some interesting points made. I do think that there was excessive use of the Word Thesarus rather than just using regular words. Is that a requirement for the New Yorker that you have to use bigger words to make articles seem more sophisticated?

    Regardless, one of the few points I do agree on is near the end where he compares the Jim/Pam relationship to other “will-they-wont-they” tv couples. Should it keep going until the end of the series or will it resolve itself by the end of this season? And if they are together before the series ends, will the show fizzle out? Cheers kept the series fresh only because of all the fighting and the fact that Diane left and Rebecca entered the picture. On the other hand, Frasier wasn’t the same after Niles and Daphne got together. I guess that’s why I’m pro Karen at least for awhile. Even though I agree Jim isn’t as into her as she is with him, the fact that she is there in the picture keeps that JAM anticipation going.

  7. Orotund??? WTF? Who says that? Geesh.

    Anyway, I waded through the entire article and all he’s saying is that they’re good shows. So, well, good. Nothing I didn’t already know!

  8. Matt Batt, I totally forgot about that Seinfeld episode! Hahaha !

    First comment here, too – though I’ve been a *huge* fan of this site (and have been lurking) for the past couple of months.

    That article was definitely a lesson in over-analysis and the type of hyperbolic essay-writing that’s typically reserved for 11th-graders wanting to impress their teachers into writing them good recommendations for college apps.

    But I did like the paragraph on the “will-they-or-won’t-they” couples of past sitcoms. And I also liked the fact that he called “The Office” the best sitcom on TV.

    BTW, Great job and keep up the awesome work, tanster!

  9. It’s the New Yorker’s tone, like it or leave it. It’s well below the level of actual academic discourse–I thought the article was lucid and well-written–but I guess it’s several tiers above “People” and “Entertainment Weekly” (not that there’s anything wrong with those magazines).

    I don’t necessarily see Toby as resentful of Jim, either, but I really enjoyed the article. As far as Jim and Pam’s flirtation being called “screwball,” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s nothing but wacky hijinks. “Screwball comedy,” according to Wikipedia, spans a variety of genres, including situation and romantic comedies. That sounds pretty dead-on to me.

  10. “the article seemed like it was written by a pompous college sophmore who was excited to show off his vocabulary”

    LOL Julie! Right on! I hate it when people do that. Use words real people use regularly. kthxbye


  11. And tying into my previous comment.

    Lets look at another comment left “It’s the New Yorker’s tone, like it or leave it. It’s well below the level of actual academic discourse”

    :) I ROFL’d at that.

  12. Also my first time to comment here. I’ll agree that the Beckett references feel a bit shoehorned in, but overall I thought the article was a pretty all right read. Hating a New Yorker article for using big words is silly — New Yorker writers tend to overwrite, you accept it and move on. If anything, their silly in-house grammatical rules annoy me much more.

    I was curious about the author’s claim about the class, because I do feel like it’s very much dealt with in the American Office, albeit in a different way than the UK Office. What was “Basketball” if not a square-off b/t the white- and blue-collar employees? Or during “Boys and Girls” when Michael attempts to get on to the warehouse guy’s level, and Dwight’s comment about “the Others?” Or the whole issue Jim (white-collar, college educated, mildly effete, driving his four-dour sedan) vs. Roy (blue-collar, high-school educated, stolid and traditionally masculine, driving his truck) and the judgments the show makes on both characters?

    The article mentions Michael’s dopey trip to New York, but I think the American version says a lot about our view of class, and I would actually be interested to read someone looking at that.

  13. Discourse was not the problem. I was laughing because you were absolutely right, Michial. The New Yorker always falls well below that level.

    I don’t hate the article at all for its use of words, etc. I just think the guy was dead wrong on a few different points.

  14. I think Tad Friend confused the awkward exchange between Toby and Jim (when Jim returned to Scranton) as Toby’s “resentment” of Jim.

  15. wow.
    that was some article.. a little off though.
    the jim/pam/karen thing reallyyy annoyed me

  16. I actually liked it. He did misread the Toby-Jim situation fairly radically, but the rest of it seemed interesting. I find it a bit, I don’t know, discouraging that people seem to be so up in arms about the fact that the guy knows a couple of two-dollar words and how to use them.

  17. It’s not that I didn’t understand the two and three dollar words the guy was using, it was the tone in general. The whole thing smacked of pretension. Besides, there’s the old saying that deconstructing comedy is like operating on a live pig. You get nothing of value out of it, and the procedure really annoys the pig.

  18. I wasn’t annoyed with the fact that the guy knows and uses “two-dollar words” –

    It’s the fact that all of the words he uses seem completely out-of-place in an article about a television sitcom. When you’re reviewing or dissecting a piece of literature or something like that, fine, but this is a sitcom!

    Granted, I don’t read The New Yorker often so I’m not too familiar with its strict, quasi-scholarly tone…

  19. Ditto. As a graduate student in media, I’m used to those types of articles but I do think that he’s read a lot of situations wrong.

    Daphne was never interested in Niles, not until the end. It didn’t take seven years for them to get together, just a bit near the end. I don’t think it will bring down the show when Jim and Pam get together. In his description that the American Office defines and characterizes all the people in the office he should understand that having personalities for everyone in the office means that there are more storylines and more interest in just Jim and Pam. It’s not the Jim and Pam show, it’s The Office.

    I don’t think Toby ever showed an inclination for a Pam crush and has no ill feelings towards Jim because of it. He may be interested in her now, but that’s only because she is the most available woman in the office and she is now technically available.

    I enjoyed reading the article, but it doesn’t come from a fan as much as someone who has seen the show once or twice and is reading way too much into it.

  20. Oh, and back to Frasier – the show was 100 years old, and the character 200 if you add the Cheers days. So it was bound to die around the time that Niles and Daphne got together, not because they did but because the show was done. Some of those last ones were really bad.

    Just like the pathetic Seinfeld finale. Unfortunately, you either get an amazing show that ends before its time or you get one that outlives its usefulness.

  21. “Unfortunately, you either get an amazing show that ends before its time or you get one that outlives its usefulness.”

    So true. Here’s a couple of examples:

    Arrested Development. Best comedy ever, period, hands down. Cut down before it’s time. (In no way am I trying to ruffle Office feathers, so lay off! :) )

    Scrubs. Should have ended after the 4th season.

    The Simpsons. Should have hung it up about 8 years ago.

    Freaks & Geeks. NBC didn’t even give this show a chance.

    And, though it kills me to say it, I fear Lost is heading for the latter category.

    Maybe the Brits are on to something with six episode seasons and short run times. Blackadder was only 24 episodes total over the course of 4 seasons. The British Office was only, what, 14 episodes?

    Just something to think about.

  22. there is nothing wrong with “big” words and references to “important” fact, we could probably use more of them, rather than the dumbed-down sound-bites that are usually thrown around. i just felt like it was rediculous in the context of describing television comedy. although maybe the point was to be ironic? in that case: “HAHAHAHAHHA!!!! that was AWESOME!!!!”

  23. Is Tad Friend his real name? Sounds more like a situation of matching pompous vocabulary, which I appreciate in only the smallest of doses, to an even more pompous name.

  24. “Tad Friend” is probably short for “Thaddeus J. Friendington III” and he writes his articles from his family’s 100-year old estate in the Hamptons.

  25. You want uncomplicated read T.V. guide. I don’t care what anyone says if the New Yorker even bothers to write about a TV show it’s got to be good. That they went into a full analysis of the two series made it a fun read. Yes Cousin Mose, people read that magazine. Usually people who appreciate fine writing. GREAT article.

  26. Again…not to drill this point into the ground…

    But it’s not *uncomplicated* that we were complaining about. It’s not “easy reading” or “simple words” that we’re looking for in all of the news articles we read.

    We were just pointing out that the way the author wrote the article about two television sitcoms seemed pretentious and unnecessary.

    That’s all.

    I think we’re all smart enough here to understand “complicated” writing.

  27. Not questioning anyone’s intellect. I just love that the New Yorker, one of my favorite magazines, wrote a piece on my favorite television show. And did so with a very unique approach. I’ve never seen the British version, so it was fun to read about in such detail. I didn’t agree with all the nuances he came up with, but so what. (And he’s from Brooklyn Heights, Mose, not the Hamptons…you got me curiuos so I googled him…Harvard educated, not a surprise!).

    I would love to see them all on the cover of Vanity Fair one day, with a fabulous article and pictures by Annie Liebovitz.

  28. I thought it was well-written and agreed with most of the points, although I do think the author was a little of the mark on the Toby-resenting-Jim angle (as several others have said). Maybe it will inspire nonfans to check out both versions of The Office, which is always a good thing. I love the British version and only wonder how much more hilarious it would be if I understood more of the cultural references. To sum up (in my opinion) — good article, great shows.

  29. For the record, I read the New Yorker pretty regularly and thought this article was a complete waste of time. It’s like they took the comedy from the show, swallowed it, spit it back up and are now trying to feed it to me – minus all the deliciousness.

    In fact, I wonder if people who don’t follow the show religiously will even be able to follow it! The way he described so many scenes… confusing and rambling.

  30. In Tad Friend’s judgment, “The Office” is “the best sitcom on the air.” How dare he say that! The nerve of this pretentious bum!

    What a strange reaction. In fact, “The New Yorker” doesn’t exhibit a “scholarly tone” and the vocabulary employed by Mr. Friend is neither exotic nor arcane. His role at the magazine is to take pop culture seriously. One may quibble with aspects of his take on “The Office,” but it’s clear that Friend respects and admires the show, especially in its American incarnation. Would you rather he sneer at it, or dismiss it as “mere tv,” not worth the bother?

    “The New Yorker” takes “The Office” seriously, weighs its value, celebrates its charms, and what happens? The fans erupt!

    Newsflash! Greg Daniels, executive producer, went to…Harvard! John Krasinski went to… Brown! Say it ain’t so.

  31. It’s nice to see that Mr. Friend is visiting OT now as evidenced by post #41.

    Hopefully he’ll really learn something about the show.

    It’s not that any of us are against an advanced vocabulary. It’s a proven fact that many, if not most, hard core office fans are very intelligent and highly educated people.

    This debate is about 1- the article sucking the life out of a decent show and 2- the article being dead wrong on so many points.

    It is indisuptable that Mr. Friend respects and admires the show. Really though, when you get down to it, he was dead wrong. If you are going to pontificate, get your facts straight first.

  32. Like PT Caffey…I am a little surprised by this negative reaction. I really enjoyed reading the article. I may disagree with a few of the author’s observations..but overall…I’m pleased whenever anyone publishes an article saying the Office is great…big words, small words…it’s all goood. : )

  33. I loved the article! I was geekily hoping the New Yorker would do a write up on the show so I was so happy to read this really complimentary critique that had so many spot on observations. I’ve loved watching the American Office come into its own. It really is the best comedy on TV and I’m so glad it continues to receive such deservedly great press. I hope this article gets more people watching, and hope it made the creators, producers, writers, cast and crew’s day.

  34. PT , Opal & dealio, et al: Tried to post a comment a few days ago as the site was crashing….in short, I agree with you! – great article, a comprehensive look, though one may quibble with small points here & there. …& must confess a little shock at the anti-intellectualism ’round these here parts.
    I was especially gratified to see the Jane Austen reference, as I’ve thought of “The Office” as a 21st-c comedy of manners.
    Incidentally, speaking of Harvard, I live in Boston, and we Bostonians are obsessed with anyone who hails from here or attended school locally – and so many connected with “Office” do: John Krasinski & BJ Novak are both from Newton, a suburb (and the next town over from mine) – John went to Brown in nearby Providence, BJ Novak, Rashida Jones & Greg Daniels are all Harvard grads; Mindy Kaling is from Cambridge (graduate of Cornell, the oft-cited alma mater of Andy) – her mother & John K’s father are doctors at a local hospital. Steve Carell is from Concord (or Worcester?).
    Oh, and I work in Boston at a publishing company (we use lots of paper) with “Mifflin” in the name….

  35. This debate could reach fever pitch when John Krasinski’s adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is released next year. I’m rooting for footnotes on screen!

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