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That’s What She Said

REVIEW: 'Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office'

Steve Carell as Michael Scott in The Office (YouTube).
• December 12, 2021 5:00 am

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One afternoon in 2015, I turned on the first episode of The Office, and I've had it playing more or less nonstop ever since.

I am not unique in this regard. Americans in 2020 spent over 57 billion minutes streaming The Office. With its relatable plots, lovable characters, and humor so awkward you can't look away, it's the perfect show to binge at night or play in the background while you putter through your day.

Fan that I am, I fully expected to enjoy Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office. Edited by Office star Brian Baumgartner (who played bumbling accountant Kevin Malone) and executive producer Ben Silverman, the book is essentially a bound, glossy version of Baumgartner's oral history podcast.

It's a fun book, with plenty of fascinating production details and personal anecdotes. But it's also a weird book, the latest entry into a growing canon of TV show retrospectives written by the people who made them. At certain points, Welcome to Dunder Mifflin is bound to make even the most diehard Office fan feel like they're listening to a once-great athlete reminisce about the glory days.

Some of the most interesting revelations in the book surround the show's conception. We learn that Ben Silverman, who would eventually become executive producer of The Office, was single-handedly responsible for getting the show on the air. After getting hooked on the original British series, Silverman essentially force-fed BBC's Office to his connections at NBC until the network picked it up. It's incredible to think the show that changed the tone and format of the American sitcom forever only got made because one very well-connected executive had a penchant for a short-lived British comedy.

The roots of that paradigm-shifting tone are revealed in lengthy discussions of casting and staffing the show. Most of the actors had improv backgrounds, while the writers came from adult cartoons like King of the Hill and The Simpsons. While the cast and writers created the show's absurd comedy, director Greg Daniels worked to make everything realistic and mundane. Daniels put an incredible amount of effort into making the set feel like a real office, even encouraging the staff to do busywork at their desks when they weren't on camera.

The book is bursting with behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Most of them are fun, like the fact that the cast nailed the famous flash mob dance at Jim and Pam's wedding on the first take. Or that The Office‘s showrunners didn't tell network executives about Steve Carrell's cameo in the series finale until the morning it aired, so NBC wouldn't spoil the surprise in promos.

Welcome to Dunder Mifflin avoids gossip and finger-pointing, save for one example. The cast seems largely in agreement that attempting to replace Steve Carrell's Michael Scott with a new actor was a bad call. Jenna Fischer (Pam) says she was "disappointed" that the showrunners didn't trust the "core Office group enough to continue the show without bringing in these big guest actors."

Rainn Wilson (Dwight) says it was "not right" to bring in James Spader as the intense, elusive Robert California, Michael Scott's most permanent replacement. Spader, a dramatic actor by training, was uncomfortable improvising and insisted on rehearsing scenes over and over again. And while no one says it explicitly, several castmates strongly insinuate they found Spader unpleasant to be around.

The book's earliest chapters are its strongest. But like the show itself, Welcome to Dunder Mifflin veers further into cliché and sentiment as it goes on. While each of the first three seasons gets a dedicated chapter, the remaining seasons are lumped together and only get a cursory analysis. These chapters barely mention major cast shakeups and plotlines beyond the third season. They also avoid any discussion of how The Office gradually abandoned the trademark realism of its early seasons for the hijinks and melodrama of a standard network sitcom.

The book ditches this unsatisfying 10,000-foot view for myopic discussions of the show's final season and legacy. There is an entire chapter dedicated to the series finale, which largely consists of tearful recollections of the last day of shooting. Perhaps that's to be expected in a book born of conversations between cast members. But it also points to the book's central issue.

A good oral history uses interviews and quotes to supplement a fleshed-out story. Welcome to Dunder Mifflin may technically be an oral history, but it lacks a central narrative and anything close to a critical lens. It's fan service masquerading as history—an increasingly common genre.

Thanks to streaming platforms, shows like The Office are constantly gaining new viewers. Because that ever-expanding fanbase has the ability to watch these shows over and over, their connections to the shows run deeper than if they were simply running in syndication. The result is a bigger, weirder fan culture than we've ever seen. There are more fans than ever, and most of them are superfans.

It makes sense that alums of prominent shows—particularly those whose acting careers have stalled—would want to monetize this new dynamic. For four years, West Wing star Joshua Malina cohosted a podcast where he discussed the series and interviewed cast members and fans. Scott Patterson recently launched a similar show for Gilmore Girls. The Office has three of these shows: Fischer and Angela Kinsey's Office Ladies and two shows helmed by Baumgartner, whose Office character has made him the highest-grossing star on the video-messaging site Cameo.

Whether they're dressed up as history or appreciation, these vehicles are really just the modern equivalent of Trekkie conventions. Except, instead of individual events peppered by fringe cast members, they're books and podcasts helmed by recognizable, if not entirely successful, stars.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. But if books like Welcome to Dunder Mifflin continue to replace actual pop culture writing, then we'll have a problem. Good cultural criticism can expand our understanding and deepen our appreciation of our favorite films and television shows. Fan service books are momentarily appealing, but easily forgettable. There's nothing wrong with forgettable fluff—but shows as lasting as The Office deserve better.

Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office
by Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman
Custom House, 464 pp., $29.99

Published under: Book reviews, TV Reviews