As the coronavirus outbreak began to spread and accelerate throughout the country in early March, forecasting an unprecedented crisis, fans of NBC's "The Office" turned to the Internet. One began a popular Twitter thread that hypothesized how Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute and the rest of their Scranton, Pa., co-workers would respond to a pandemic. Joining the fan fiction, Reddit communities thought up their own Dunder Mifflin dispatches, while the rest of social media quickly became saturated with similar crossover memes, including an edited scene from the show's fifth season, in which Dwight starts an office fire drill by locking all the exits. "What's the procedure?" Dwight, a proxy for the World Health Organization, yells at his colleagues. Michael, portraying the United States, abruptly screams. "Everyone for himself!"
For the past couple of years, “The Office” has been one of the most-streamed television shows on Netflix. Although the nine-seasonTV series has been off the air since 2013, it has found a second life through the popular streaming service, connecting with young first-time viewers who have rejuvenated its online pop cultural relevance. That notably hasn’t changed during the pandemic. In a recent Nielsen study, which surveyed streaming service viewership from March 9 to 15, “The Office” exceeded all TV shows with 1.23 billion minutes watched, excluding mobile and PC devices. With fear spiking and the crisis throwing many into economic uncertainty, “The Office” has remained the primary comedy currency for navigating life during the pandemic, a binge-watching balm for those looking to alleviate their social isolation.
Considering the ethos of the sitcom’s early seasons, that shouldn’t necessarily be obvious. When it premiered in 2005, the show highlighted the depressive nature of drab office life — fluorescent lighting, bland decor and annoying colleagues — where the threat of downsizing at an obsolescent company was a persistent theme. While many who are sheltering in place have escaped their daily commutes, layoffs and furloughs have affected millions of workers, and those with children at home have added educational responsibilities. “The Office” doesn’t exactly provide pure escapism for those feeling trapped in a new kind of mundanity. “So much about ‘The Office’ is the notion of just getting through the day,” says Warren Lieberstein, a producer on the show during its final four seasons. “People are penned up. When you’re stuck in a job, you can’t see the forest for the trees. You’re just watching the clock and you’re bored out of your mind.”
That monotonous office grind, where the days blend together, mirrors the stressful sameness of staying indoors each day. Without social connectivity, returning to what’s familiar, and sometimes humorous, becomes an act of self-preservation. According to Krystine Batcho, a licensed psychologist and professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., who researches nostalgia, “Being able to experience positive feelings in stressful situations is a psychological resource that contributes to resilience and bodes well for good mental health.” She adds: “Programming that engages people in such mixed emotional experiences allows viewers to navigate complicated, blended feelings vicariously through the characters from the safe distance of fiction.”
Of course, for those who have been invested in “The Office” for the past 15 years, the show’s characters now feel like something closer to family. That’s a testament to the writing and the actors, as well as the natural course of a television series that’s renewed for multiple seasons. As the series extended its run, characters such as Jim Halpert seemed less inclined to escape their circumstances than to make the best of them. Lieberstein, whose older brother, Paul, played Toby Flenderson and was the series’ showrunner in its final seasons, has thought about a similar inclination as stay-at-home orders have remained in place. “How many of us have had that experience where you go to a job and you think, I’m only going to be in this job for a year at most, and you cut to 10 years later?” he says. “That’s kind of what we’re going through now. … Maybe you get to know your neighbors a little more. It becomes a new normal.”
The show’s actors have continued to ride its wave of relevance during the pandemic, too. John Krasinski, who played Jim, started a Web show called “Some Good News,” highlighting the positive events of each week, and naturally had Steve Carell join as his first guest to reflect on their recent “Office” anniversary. Meanwhile, Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, who played Pam and Angela, have continued recording their “Office Ladies’’ podcast, which peeks behind the scenes of every episode. And because “The Office” is a comedy that at its core follows Carell’s portrayal of the paper company branch’s fearless leader, plenty of episodes and moments have now been reinterpreted as transparent stand-ins for the current administration, particularly prescient during the pandemic. “Part of what Michael Scott is about is wanting to be liked. … All he cares about is his ratings,” Warren Lieberstein says. “His audience is a little smaller, but it’s a funny microcosm.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine “The Office” maintaining its heavily streamed status without Gen Z eyeballs watching and re-watching all 201 episodes and creating relevant social content with decade-old jokes. Kent Zbornak, one of the show’s original producers, knew immediately when it debuted that “The Office” would connect with audiences, but as the father of a college student now, he has gained a greater appreciation for how well teenagers can relate to bad bosses and passive-aggressive emails. “Throughout every episode we blur the line between immaturity and maturity,” Zbornak says. “This difference between young and old, silly and serious, immature and mature, resonates heavily with high school and college students, who themselves are in the midst of transition. They are starting to leave their childhood behind and enter the world of adulthood, to join their own office somewhere.”
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a writer in New York.