Oh, sure, there's plenty of great competition from the past 15-20 years, but I feel most of them have some critical drawback. Friends and Seinfeld both are solid, well-written, long-running shows with interesting characters, memorable episodes, and a critical collection of nostalgia, but they both seem freeze-dried in the 90s. Arrested Development will always have a place in my heart, but its short run will always be an albatross around its neck. 30 Rock is awesome, but it already feels dated and was too clever for its own good. Parks and Rec and Modern Family are still on and have the potential to be solid frontrunners, but we'll have to wait and see for both. Instead of maturing, most of the cartoon shows suffer from their long-running status. Other successful sitcoms around this timeframe--Everybody Loves Raymond, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Two And a Half Men, and so on--are generally good but just don't differentiate themselves enough to be outstanding.
Of course, let's be honest: the last 20 years have not been kind to sitcoms. After The Cosby Show made sitcoms hip again, there was a flourishing of comedy from the 80s into the 90s, but around the end of the decade sitcoms were getting pushed over for dramas--mostly medical shows, reality TV, and police procedurals. You can hardly flip through the stations without bumping into a Law & Order rerun or a CSI spinoff. (This isn't all that unusual, by the way--the history of television tends to go in cycles. Hell, there was a time in the 60s when there wasn't a single night of the week when a Western wasn't on.)
At any rate, I'm not plucking The Office out of a decimated lineup just for the hell of it. My wife and I have recently been watching it again from the beginning, and it's astounding to me how fantastically written that show was. It wasn't perfect--we'll get to that in a bit--but I can't think of a single television program that manages to piece together sharp writing, interesting characters, and an easily accessible environment.*
Here's what makes The Office great:
- It's a familiar situation. Even if you have never worked in an actual cubicle farm, you at least understand the relationships between people who work in any organization. Sure, you may have never understood the frustration of a copier that just won't do what you need it to do or having to deal with that person who thinks they have more authority than they really do, but you have something similar wherever it is you spend your time, whether that means your home, your church, or your gym.
- The characters are interesting. At first glance, many of the characters come across are boring old office drones, but that quickly falls away as each develop their own quirks, foibles, and personalities--all of whom are someone you know. Every office has an Angela, or a Kelly, or a Creed.
- We can't really go any farther without discussing Michael Scott. Played to perfection by Steve Carrell, he shed a lot of the cringe that his UK counterpart had--although he still had plenty--and added in a little bit more competence and compassion. In fact, one of the biggest departures from the original UK version was that while David Brent was useless, Michael Scott was, at the end of the day, actually good at his job--useful, since it made sense as to how his antics were tolerated by those both above and below him. By converting him from a loathsome annoyance to a competent authority figure with a believable level of obnoxiousness, it lifted the entire show up and made its longevity much more likely.
- Dwight deserves special mention, When I first watched the show, I kind of dismissed him as a sort of artificial antagonist; the whole concept of him obsessing over petty victories grew old. But on a re-watching of the series, I find that his character is much, much more than that, and it's downright hilarious.
- The romance between Jim and Pam was tricky. On the one hand, you can't have everything happen at once; the driving force of most of the series was the trajectory of their relationship. We all knew how it was going to end, but half the fun was watching the details unfold. On the other hand, stretch it out too long, and it becomes boring and unbelievable. A lot of people criticize the show for basically becoming uninteresting once they get married, and there's a little truth to that, but it's unlikely that could have been stretched out any more than it already had.
- Regardless, every episode showing a new step in their relationship just blew everything out of the water. Whether it was their first kiss, or Jim moving away, or Roy assaulting Jim, or Jim proposing, or their pregnancy, or their marriage...the list goes on. Each episode treated their relationship with respect and yet also managed to make it amusing and interesting.
- The ensemble cast grew to be incredibly interesting, so much so that by the last two seasons the entire show could stand on its own without the focal point of Michael Scott. And whether it was by design or not, the balance of introducing new characters and developing old ones was done remarkably well.
- The writing: there's an incredible balance between sharp wit, throwaway jokes, physical gags, heartwarming moments, and legitimate dramatic tension. It's also very consistent.
- And finally: the end. (Minor spoilers follow.) The series finale is widely considered one of the best, right up there with M*A*S*H and Six Feet Under. It conveniently wraps up everybody's storyline with something that's satisfying. The entire premise of the show--being shot as a documentary--is not only addressed but displayed in a believable manner. And the return of Michael Scott--which at the time was a legitimate surprise, since news sources had stated he wasn't coming back--was done with the appropriate amount of understatement; he had, maybe, two or three lines total, but it was still pretty awesome. Wrap it all up around Dwight and Angela's wedding, and it was fantastic.
And Season 8 bears special mention; after the departure of Michael, Robert California (played decently by James Spader) just wasn't very interesting and his character was wasted. (In addition, most of the plots of season 8 stretched even the already-expanded levels of believability as far as they could possibly go.) They also wasted the character of Nellie (played by Catherine Tate), who could have been something amazing but they basically did nothing to develop her personality and she just came across as a weird bitch, and then when they did finally flesh out her character it was too late. On the plus side, after season 5 the introduction of Erin (and, to a lesser extent, Gabe) added a huge amount of just flat-out fun to the series.
Thankfully, season 9 picked up and the writing was on par with the series' heyday. Even with the departure of Ryan and Kelly, the addition of Clark and Pete (two decent characters that just didn't have time to contribute much) and a weird plot line dealing with one of the sound guys (which thankfully ended after a few episodes), the last season is not only memorable but fantastic. Those who understandably dropped out after the 8th season would be well advised to power through it; it's well worth it.
At any rate, why does this make it the best sitcom of an era? As I mentioned in the first few paragraphs, it's a series that is clearly of a decade but not defined by it; its appeal is largely universal; and, most importantly, it has the writing and the characterization and the execution to back it up. While it's only been off the air for a few years, it already seemed to have been able to stand the test of time--re-watching shows from over a decade ago don't seem dated in the least. I can't say for certain if The Office will be regarded as the Cheers or M*A*S*H of our time, but I suspect it will be pretty close.
*The only other candidate is the previously-mentioned Arrested Development, which I would rank a little higher. But as I said, with only four seasons--with two of them shortened, and the fourth an admitted awkward half-effort--it's hard to propel it higher than The Office.