When Netflix began, it was a novel concept. You request DVDs, you watch them, you mail them back, and then the next movie in your queue gets mailed to you. Kelly Kapoor actually explains this in an episode of The Office in which the employees of Dunder Mifflin gamble on various prop bets in the office. Netflix gets name-dropped a few times on the show, all during its primarily mail-only era. Once the service moved to streaming, it was super weird. For a time, there was softcore porn and DIY home repair videos. It was a brave, new, strange world. The only way I could watch at that time was through an app on my Nintendo Wii. The pickup of The Office, among many other 2000s sitcoms was, surprisingly, the best thing that the service could have done for itself. In doing so, it changed the trajectory of careers, made the show a second-hand success, and jumpstarted the endless, mindless binge. On January 1st, The Office leaves Netflix for NBC’s own streaming service, ending one of the most important unions in TV history.
I remember when The Office was on the air in the mid-to-late ’00s. I didn’t really care for the premise of a sitcom based entirely around a mid-level paper company, and a lot of people agreed. As detailed in the podcast series An Oral History of The Office, the show barely got off the ground and soon ran into the problem of outlasting the bones of the British version from which it was adapted. The characters had to be grounded enough to engage the audience, which of course is difficult to do in about 28 episodes.
Of course, the show was picked up and ran nine seasons of increasing then decreasing quality, “jumping the shark” a few times, and rehashing early plot points again and again. This isn’t a review of The Office and its peaks and valleys, though. I’m always game for a conversation about when and how it should have ended (with Pam and Michael embracing at the airport as he leaves for Colorado). The Office was Netflix’s most-streamed show for quite a while. Like… years. And years. And it’s all because of the way the show works with its viewership.
The Office somehow felt different every week without feeling like a serialized sitcom with no through-lines in the plot. That’s a testament to the cast and writers, of course. Much like The Simpsons, Cheers, or many others, it could focus on secondary characters for a whole episode and still move along, a problem that plagues thousands of sitcoms. If we ONLY saw what was happening in the lives of Jim, Pam, and Michael, it would be a rather uneventful show. There are plenty of episodes where the show revolves around Phyllis, Kevin, Angela, Darryl, or Ryan, but because of the enclosed nature of the set, we still see what’s going on in the lives of Dwight, Andy, Kelly, Stanley, and even Creed without skipping a beat.
In doing that, the show has a feeling of continuance from episode to episode that feels, well, safe. The stakes are never really high, likely peaking when Roy confronts Jim about kissing Pam. The main, driving tension of the show is its situational awkwardness. Anyone who has made a full pass of the show winces at the thought of Scott’s Tots or the Dinner Party. The characters always somehow make it out of every situation fine, especially Michael, despite losing a little more dignity each time.
In many instances, the stream of 22-minute episodes with minimal emotional weight and consistent dry wit became a part of everyday living. The Office was what you’d put on when you didn’t have time to scroll for something else. It was a simple choice, something that could be left on for a few hours while doing something else. The convenience of streaming, rather than having to change a DVD every few episodes, made it even easier to hit play and let it ride. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve surely seen the text ‘Are You Still Watching “THE OFFICE”?’ a few dozen times. It was a part of the show, having to hit one button in order to play another 3-4 episodes. It was a kind of a signal for your inner monologue to ask ‘whoa… has that much time already passed?’
And that in itself, changed a lot. For plenty of people, The Office wasn’t the first show that they binged. And in fact, binging The Office was so casual, that you didn’t need to sit and watch every detail. Its a show that almost begged you to play on your phone or do dishes, then grabbed your attention when a familiar moment was about to happen. Other binge-able shows tend to require active attention, take for instance the phenomena of Tiger King or The Queen’s Gambit. Yes, those are limited series not intended to be drawn out, but they were there to be binged in 5-7 hour installments. It’s what the streaming market is based on- dumping a whole show and allowing it to be seen in its entirety in immediate fashion.
When Arrested Development came back with a fourth season in 2013, it was released in the middle of the night. This led to a LOT of people staying up to watch it, then binging several hours of the show. The season was fine, but I remember vividly having conversations about it soon after that weekend, and there was a good deal burnout. Binging is a very convenient form of entertainment, but it was also a relatively new concept even then, and networks were still learning the way TV shows were consumed in the New Millennium.
It was once a big deal when Netflix, then Hulu, etc. etc. would pick up an old show. I remember going through Frasier or Golden Girls, both great comedies with some of the best writing of the last 40 years. They didn’t have the consistent monotone rhythm that The Office had, often requiring prior knowledge of someone or something in order to get a certain joke. Even the best of sitcoms couldn’t manifest the kind of common, relatable malaise that The Office could. The characters felt complete and familiar, regardless whether or not you had ever worked in an office. The jokes hit without a laugh track, making the scenes feel more intimate. It was like you were a part of the action, not just a witness to it.
Those who hate the show go out of their way to tell you why they hate it or, even worse, declare proudly that they have never watched an episode. Cool, man. Much like shows that outran their welcome (looking at you, The Simpsons), there is endless debate as to the value of the Andy Bernard-centric final seasons. It show that barely made it past two seasons and was regularly on the chopping block due to low weekly viewership. A few years after the show peaked narratively, it became one of the most beloved and heralded sitcoms ever, creating its own, distinct nook in the American zeitgeist of the 2010’s.
Netflix and its competitors have tried to find something to duplicate that success, but always seem to fail on the basis that the second, larger wave of The Office fandom was by chance, not manufactured. Shows like Parks and Recreation are in that same vein, gaining a large audience on streaming-only viewership, but lean too-hard into their plotlines. It’s a good show, but unlike The Office, missing a few episodes will drop important details. Netflix struck gold with its American adaptation of House of Cards, but that’s much closer to prestige tv. Still, that show was largely consumed in binge form, in spite of its 40-minutes-plus episode length. The release of season two was a major event, broadcast months in advance via social media. The rules of how and when TV shows were made and consumed were thrown out and rewritten.
Because of Netflix’s success, more streaming networks grew in strength- Hulu and HBO became more reasonable financial decisions than cable or satellite. Crackle, Shudder, and IMDbTV focused on movies and branched off into different realms of media consumption. Then came Disney+ and its massive windfall of content. That service’s cornerstone original program, The Mandalorian is an about-face to the dump-and-binge strategy, angling for eight weekly episodes. That may have its own effect on media at-large, but that’s still yet to be seen.
Streaming just became the way we see things. The Coronavirus pandemic only boosted that, leading major studios to release tentpole movies via streaming-only or, as we saw on Christmas with Wonder Woman 1984, released via streaming the same day as in theaters. Whether or not that’s the first blow in the death of movie theaters is a different argument, but without question this is the largest entertainment movement since the advent of home video. For what its worth, film studios thought the VCR would destroy movie theaters, too, but I digress.
The tetrapod emerging from the sea that was Netflix moving to a primarily stream-based service was a successful gamble that eventually altered the future of media consumption. The Office was air in its lungs, retaining viewership in those fledgling early years.
Whether you have never given the show a chance or looped around all nine seasons a dozen times, the effect of the partnership is clear. The Office never becomes the cultural monolith it is today without Netflix, and Netflix doesn’t change the way we watch TV without The Office.