In the second part of our goodbye to NBC's The Office (which airs its finale Thursday at 9/8c), the cast and producers discuss the show's impressive reversal of fortunes in Season 2. In just 22 episodes, the comedy went from NBC's almost canceled list to certified hit thanks to Steve Carell's newfound movie stardom, a little program called iTunes and the evolution of one of TV's most beloved romances, Jim and Pam.
TVGuide.com spoke to stars Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute), Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly-Halpert), Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin), Oscar Nunez (Oscar Martinez), Kate Flannery (Meredith Palmer), Ellie Kemper (Erin Hannon), Jake Lacy (Pete Campbell), producer and director Ken Kwapis, and executive producers Greg Daniels, Ben Silverman and Mike Schur about The Office's long, strange trip from British underground hit to America's favorite workplace. This is the second in a four-part series. (Read Part 1 here).
Office star Steve Carell went out and became a bona fide movie star, thanks to the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
I begged the head of marketing at Universal at the time and coordinated with NBC to let us tag [Virgin's] movie campaign with spots for The Office on the radio. We did this late campaign that really connected the two.
Mike Schur: It's a word that gets wildly overused in TV and movies, but the dictionary definition of "likable" is Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Greg Daniels: It made Steve a huge star and it also gave us a little bit of insight into how to write him differently — how he could be appealing as the lead.
Kate Flannery: The writers found a new way to utilize all his talents. He didn't have to just be this bleak guy. We could really kind of exploit his ability to have his heart in the wrong place.
Schur: The Christmas episode was another big step [for Michael] because his singular goal for the entire episode was just to throw his co-workers a nice Christmas party, which is a very lovely idea. He really became a guy who cared very deeply. ... That [and "The Client"] were always ones I remember as us kind of figuring out the right formula for how to make a good episode.
The day of the Christmas episode, NBC announced that episodes of the show would be available for purchase on iTunes.
The plot of the episode was that it was a Secret Santa and you weren't supposed to spend more than $20 on your gift. Then Michael, because he's desperate to be loved, bought Ryan a $400 video iPod. There was no tie-in to Apple. We had to get clearance to show the product, but totally and completely unbeknownst to us, NBC was making a deal with Apple to sell their shows on iTunes. The next day, it was like, now you can download The Office on iTunes and I think that year everybody and their brother bought video iPods as Christmas gifts.
Rainn Wilson: All of a sudden we would look on iTunes and our show was No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 on the most downloaded TV show chart. We were like, "Wow, this is really taking off in a weird way."
Schur:. Over that December and January, everybody watched at least one episode of the show who might not have seen it otherwise because of iTunes. ... We got really, really lucky in 50 different ways.
Members of the cast began communicating directly with fans.
We started very early on with the blogging back when MySpace was all the rage, before Facebook and Twitter. I knew early on that we had this small core group of just really enthusiastic diehard fans because we would talk to them on MySpace.
Daniels: For [the Season 2 finale], I needed extra time and I mentioned it in one interview with the Chicago Tribune and the fans made this giant petition. After every episode aired, there were hundreds of fans' comments debating what the future would be so you definitely knew it was striking a chord with people.
Oscar Nunez: The Office has a lot of young people watching it, and I think it kind of spread through ... social media, which is a lot faster and accesses a lot more people. So I think that had a lot to do with it.
Wilson: The Office is a very popular show with young people and it always has been for some reason. Even though it's about a bunch of people in their 30s and 40s in an office.
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The show wasted no time in fleshing out the supporting roles.
This show offered something for everyone. I remember having a conversation with someone at a party, and people would say, "You know who my favorite character is?" — and then they would name a different character. "My favorite character is Stanley or Phyllis or Oscar or Kevin."
Flannery: I didn't speak as much in the beginning. So it was like, oh, OK, wow, this is happening for everybody. We're all getting a piece of this.
Ken Kwapis: One of the brilliant things Greg did was embed several of the chief writers [Lieberstein, Kaling and Novak] in the cast. What happened is the secondary roles — the Stanleys, the Angelas, the Phyllises — grew in a way that I think they might not have had the writers not been part of the ensemble. They wouldn't get to know some of those actors the way Paul, B.J. and Mindy did.
Nunez: Definitely a lot of our quirks and parts of our lives did slip into the show.
Daniels: We also started to explore the romantic lives of more characters. Starting with "The Client," Michael and Jan started to be a thing, and Kelly and Ryan, and Dwight and Angela started to do something. To me, that was great because you always want a story that has stakes. What's the most high-stakes thing for normal people in a workplace? Their personal lives.
Angela Kinsey: Angela needed rules, and she needed other people to follow the rules, and that made her feel safe in the world. And I think Dwight challenged that for her. As much as he loved the clipboards and he loves following the rules too, he's kind of odd. She couldn't help but fall in love with him.
The will-they-or-won't-they tension between Jim and Pam had them being mentioned in the same breath as Cheers' Sam and Diane and Friends' Ross and Rachel.
It was funny because we were all comedy writers. I didn't have anyone there who was from a drama show. So we all got really into this Jim-and-Pam romance, but we didn't have a vocabulary to talk about it. We didn't have any experience in writing romance so we used to debate it endlessly.
Schur: John and Jenna were really committed to giving tiny, really, really small performances that were very real and gritty. ... As a result, it was heartbreaking when you would crash into them in moment of pain or sadness or anguish.
Fischer: We really were portrayed as real people who you could see yourself as or get behind. The show is just so honest and I think people responded to that.
Daniels: A lot of it was finding little tiny, filmic moments that people have had in their own lives, like Pam falling asleep in the boring meeting and her head falls on Jim's shoulder.
In the Season 2 finale, they finally kissed.
I remember there being more debate about how they should kiss, about who should kiss who, how it should go down, what would be more realistic.
That was the biggest fight that ever broke out in the whole time that I was there. There was a large faction of the writing staff that felt very strongly that they should not kiss and Jim should not say, "I love you" to Pam. This is a romance that everyone is super-invested in, and if we bring it to a head this early, it's totally going to screw everything up. ... We shot four other scenes that could go there instead. We could not come to a consensus and ultimately, Greg was like, "This is what we're doing. Everybody shut up."
Daniels: I watched the first two seasons of Ed and I was very frustrated because it seemed like Ed and the girl he was interested in were just about to get together and then his fiancée knocked on the door or something, so I was always very much of the opinion that you can't yank people around too much. ... We had a strong opinion that, whatever we did, we ought to lead the audience, so we brought them together a little earlier than people thought.
Kwapis: As soon as they kissed — that first take — there was no doubt that that was what the story needed.
When the series returned for Season 3, Jim was working in Stamford after having been rejected by Pam.
The question was: Did the kiss work? It was very romantic, but it was kind of a maximum cliff-hanger because you didn't know what happened. ... Also, we had this feeling of what are we going to do for Season 3 now that they've kissed?
Schur: I'm so happy we did that because that's how we got Rashida Jones and Ed Helms. There was a real kind of infusion of new and exciting characters that happened and it really made it feel like it was a different season.
Daniels: Another debate was making sure that Rashida was likable enough by the audience, where some people might want Jim to be with Rashida. I thought if she looked too good, people would immediately identify her as a Pam threat and hate her. And she's gorgeous, so on the first day of shooting, I was there in the makeup and hair trailer trying to make her look bad. [Laughs] We combed her hair in a stringy way. We didn't give her good makeup and didn't give her flattering clothes.
At the end of Season 3, Jim dumped Karen and asked Pam out on a date.
I often try and sit next to the camera so that the actors can talk to me like I'm the documentary filmmaker. That scene just felt very personal when she shot that, and I remember being so choked up, I could barely say, "Cut."
Schur: It felt like, look, they're soulmates. They're going to be together and there's no point in dragging it out any longer. It's just going to annoy people if we drag out forever.
Fischer: At a certain point, why aren't they together if they are meant to be together? We didn't want to just keep introducing all these other people — all these kind of what felt like phony roadblocks. ... The show is about more than Jim and Pam — the show is about an entire office full of people. It's a comedy and this is just one element.
(Additional reporting by Liz Raftery)
Part 3: Producers and cast spill on spin-offs, Steve Carell's tearful departure and forging on without the World's Best Boss.
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