By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
There is no Chili's in Scranton, Pa.
You won't find a Hooters there either. And if you plan to hit Poor Richard's for happy hour, be prepared to enter a bowling alley before you get there.
In other words, not every detail on "The Office" -- the NBC comedy about a group of disgruntled Scranton paper company employees and the unhinged manager who thinks "That's what she said" is the funniest phrase ever invented -- is accurate when it comes to this former coal-mining mecca.
Hey, it's television, people.
But while some creative liberties have been taken so characters could, say, down a few "Nagasakis" during the Benihana Christmas episode (no, there isn't a Benihana there, either), that hasn't stopped Scranton from playing a crucial role on the show, whose fourth season premieres tomorrow night. The writers often pepper their plotlines with references to real restaurants, shops and other sites around town, which has transformed the perception of this city as a weird, vaguely scary Dwight Schrute-type of place into one with an affable, cool Jim Halpert-like vibe.
The area's visitors bureau regularly fields calls from fans hoping to see "Office" hot spots; officials are exploring the possibility of creating a tour. And an event next month could further cement Scranton's status as a pop culture touchstone: Tickets went on sale yesterday for the first "Office" convention, which will bring together writers and actors, fans obsessed with every move Michael Scott makes and Scrantonians dumbfounded by the hoopla.
Of course, this is hardly the first time a TV program has capitalized on a city's haunts (see "Seinfeld" and "Sex and the City"), or that a sitcom's popularity has created a tourist attraction (hello, gang at Boston's "Cheers"). What makes the Scranton/"Office" connection unusual is that it has raised public awareness of a city much smaller than the New Yorks and L.A.s typically featured on TV -- and it does so by mentioning places only a true Scrantonian would know.
"It's a mock reality show, so sometimes these details that are true are better than what you would have made up," says Greg Daniels, the executive producer of "The Office" who adapted the BBC hit for American television.
After selecting Scranton as the show's setting -- a decision based on several factors, including its proximity to New York, where the fictional Dunder Mifflin paper company is based -- the writers started sneaking in the names of businesses and attractions plucked from the Scranton Yellow Pages. It's a trend Daniels says will continue.
"Sometimes the names are even slightly worse [than what we come up with], maybe because the words are more awkward or have too many syllables," he concedes. "But then we keep thinking about how delighted the locals will be."
The "Office" buzz comes at a particularly fortunate time for downtown Scranton, which is in the midst of a major revitalization, including multimillion-dollar upgrades to streetscapes and the arrival of upscale boutiques.
While one is walking the streets, the clash between old and the start of something new is strikingly evident. Within a few blocks, some gorgeous 100-year-old office buildings and churches -- all turrets and spires and lovely aged brick -- stand near simpler structures in the process of being gutted and redeveloped. The city hasn't quite shaken its case of the drearys (on a recent Friday night, downtown wasn't exactly bustling), but twinkles of potential, from a funky gift shop called Outrageous to the gorgeously verdant Nay Aug Park, are there.
Mayor Chris Doherty, who was elected six years ago, admits he was a little nervous when he first heard about plans to locate "The Office" in his city. But the scads of free publicity and the relationship that has developed between locals and the show's staff quickly assuaged his concerns.
"As a mayor, I am always concerned about how we're depicted as a city. And they always depict us favorably," says Doherty, who notes that after "The Office" won the Emmy for best comedy series last year, he received a call from Daniels and from the executive producer's father.
It also helps that Doherty and other folks there have a sense of humor. That explains a sign in front of City Hall sponsored by, yes, Dunder Mifflin. The mayor says officials put the Dunder Mifflin mark on the banner to signify their approval of the show.
But locals may not fully realize how much "The Office" has changed their lives until they leave town. Just ask Michele Dempsey, 35, president of a Scranton architecture firm and a member of the planning committee for "The Office" convention.
While returning from a trip to England last fall, she endured a long wait to get through security at Newark Liberty International Airport. When she finally reached the front of the line, she caught the agent's attention when he checked her ID and spotted the words "Scranton, Pennsylvania."
"He wanted to talk about 'The Office' for the next five minutes -- literally five minutes, with all these really cranky people in line behind me," Dempsey recalls. "We didn't get that before 'The Office.' "
* Scranton is about four hours from the Capital Beltway. Take Interstate 270 north to I-70 west to U.S. Route 15 north to I-83 toward Allentown to I-81 north, which meets the Central Scranton Expressway. For more info about what to do and where to stay, check with the Lackawanna Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-229-3526, http://www.visitnepa.org).