I’d always heard that the British version of The Office was hilarious, but I never got around to watching it. When the American one premiered, I heard great things about that too, but I didn’t really make the time for it, basically because I already had enough shows to watch. This was to the mild chagrin of my two closest friends at work, who are big fans and would love to share it with me. Well, now that a member of my family is working on the show, I figure it’s time to catch up so that I can fully enjoy season 4. Towards that end, I’ve bought the DVD sets of the first two seasons (no idea yet what I’m going to do about season 3), and I’ve just finished the first one.

I have to say: I really, really like it. I’m shocked at how different it is from what I think of as a sitcom — no laugh track, very naturalistic acting style, mostly handheld camera. It’s so refreshing, so dark, and so funny. I find it heartening that a show like this can actually be a success on network TV. I also kind of can’t believe for Ryan’s sake that he actually gets to work on a show that’s really good. The odds of getting a job as a TV comedy writer seem long, but the odds of getting a job on a good show seem EXTREMELY long. I’m still kind of stunned.

Anyway, here are a few semi-spoilery notes:

1) I’d heard people say the show is painful to watch, but I always thought that meant because it reminded them so much of dysfunctional things in their own work environment. I was surprised to discover that no, it’s painful to watch because there is so much suffering! You’re actually watching people go through emotional pain and humiliation on a regular basis. It’s the old “Tragedy + Distance = Comedy” equation at work, but sometimes the pain is large enough and the distance is small enough that the result balances unsteadily on the line. It’s like a meme that I picked up back when I used to spend more (okay, let’s face it: any) time on ifMUD: “ha ha ow.” It’s that laugh that just barely crosses the pain threshold. For me, this is the saving grace of the “talking head” segments. It’s sometimes hard to laugh when the horrible incident is actually happening, but hearing everybody tell their side of it is often very funny. Also, I note that the bad guys sometimes win (such as when Dwight steals Jim’s biggest sale of the year in Diversity Day.) I actually love how dark it is, though. I feel like those really painful moments are part of what makes the show feel so real, what sets it apart from other sitcoms. I hope this element always stays in the show, because I think its satire would be pretty toothless if the characters weren’t actually in pain.

2) Along this line, I love how this show is unafraid of socially taboo topics like race, age, and weight. Seeing satire that lances through prejudices and cultural mores makes me really happy. I think it’s pretty brave (again, especially for a network TV show), and I really hope it continues into later seasons.

3) I’m quite intrigued by the pseudo-documentary format — as somebody notes in one of the commentaries, it creates this invisible extra character, the camera operator, whose presence or non-presence (as in the “spying” scenes) affects people’s behavior. Part of what works so beautifully about this is that it allows the cast to constantly break the fourth wall without having to be all postmodern about it. The documentary style creates a sort of “fifth wall”, maintaining the integrity of the fictional universe while acknowledging the presence of the audience. This works especially well with Michael, who is constantly trying to perform the idealized version of himself for the benefit of the camera. I appreciate too how this style works as a subtle jab at reality shows — I was amused to learn that the cinematographers for this season included people who worked on Survivor and This Is Spinal Tap.

4) I expected Steve Carell to be great, and I’d seen enough of Rainn Wilson to know that he’s good at the kooky thing he does, but I’m really impressed at how good every single person in the cast is. John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer are just fantastic, wonderfully appealing without coming across as stylized or scripted. I think Jim is the character I like the most right now, though my favorite character would have to be Michael (more on that in a bit.) All the minor characters are wonderful too — they’re still sketchily defined at this point, but they’re distinguishable from each other without falling too much into “types”.

5) It was fantastic to see Larry Wilmore, one of my favorite correspondents from The Daily Show, appear as a guest on Diversity Day. I think that was my favorite episode, though I quite enjoyed them all.

6) These shows really reward multiple viewings, because there are often so many subtle things going on in the background. Also, I think there’s more interesting facial acting in an episode of this show than in an entire season of many others.

7) Finally, I have to talk about what a brilliantly written character Michael is. The show does an amazing job of making him into a jerk without making him seem like a bad person. I just love how every stupid, offensive thing he says is completely well-intentioned. (“Stanley! I don’t think of you as another race.”) Unlike the pointy-haired Dilbert boss, Michael really cares (to the degree of which he’s capable, anyway) about his employees and wants the best for them. He’s obviously ruled by fear and not very bright, but is that his fault? Well, maybe a little, but the lines he’s given and the way Steve Carell delivers them are just fantastic. His line — “a friend first, a boss second… probably an entertainer third” — perfectly sums up how he thinks of himself, and I just love how he’s written to be utterly sincere and utterly terrible at all three. He’s one of the funniest, most interesting TV characters I’ve seen in a long time.