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Why The Office is still a massive Netflix hit, 15 years after it started

(Image credit: NBC Universal)

According to a Nielsen report from last year, The Office was still Netflix's number one show in the US. It's arguably a problem for the world's biggest premium streaming service, then, that it'll soon lose the show to the free-to-stream Peacock service – it'll represent the end of an era for the series in a lot of ways.

Netflix and The Office were perfect for each other. It's the ideal bingeable sitcom, and so many younger people discovered the show that way, without necessarily being familiar with its origins as a weekly NBC show that ended in 2013. 

"My belief was a great number of people, the young viewers who don't even know what NBC is, believe that the show just sort of always existed on Netflix," says Brian Baumgartner, who played Kevin on the show, and hosts the recent podcast An Oral History of The Office on Spotify.

This is part of the narrative of the podcast. After a bumpy first season in 2005, The Office firmly emerged from the shadow of its UK predecessor in its second season ,helped enormously by the success of Steve Carell's film 40 Year-Old Virgin, and became a smash hit for the remainder of its run. Yet the show's appeal hasn't waned in the time since The Office went off of the air – it's arguably only increased, and this is part of what led to this podcast's creation. 

"There were a number of reasons that we decided to do it, but one of which is we have so many young viewers now and people who had found the show later," Baumgartner explains. "I think the story that happened behind the scenes is as compelling as what happened in front of the camera in terms of the difficulty we had getting picked up initially, how close we were to only doing six episodes of the show, and then how we almost [only] did 12. All of us thought we were done at that point. It's been been fun to hear people who didn't know that story – and didn't know the story of how the casting was constructed."

An Oral History of The Office is impressive because of the level of access – everyone from network executives to original UK Office creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are interviewed by Baumgartner. The main cast is all accounted for, too, including Steve Carell, John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer. You truly get an insider's perspective of how it happened – and the story is surprisingly dramatic at times. 

"For me, what's crazy about it is that we were the number one show on NBC for most of the time we were on. We were the number one scripted show on NBC. But the fact [is]...the show is even bigger than it was then, it's become this cultural phenomenon." Baumgartner also wanted to explore "the attraction that young people have to the show" in the podcast, and whether the way the series was brought to life by this group of people, including executive producer Greg Daniels and director Ken Kwapis, is part of the reason it's so evergreen. 

"Is there something about how the show was constructed, how the team was put together, how the cast was made, that that gave it some sort of special sauce that has led to its longevity? And not just surviving – but thriving now, seven years after we'd filmed our last shot."

Baumgartner found it pretty simple to get his old colleagues on-board for the podcast. "It was really fairly easy. I have maintained a connection to a lot of the people and had a special connection that sort of crossed disciplines, from producers to writers and directors, and cast. I was surprised at how generously people gave up their time and how like myself, people wanted to go back there." Executive producer of The Office, Ben Silverman, who originally got the rights from Gervais, Merchant and the BBC in the early '00s, is one of the producers behind the podcast too. 

There are hours of extra interview material that didn't make the finished series of podcast episodes, and some of it is likely to emerge at some point or another in the future, Baumgartner teases. "I think that there's a chance that you're going to hear some more of the material."

We ask if the reason The Office's popularity persists is down to the characters, and the way they resonate with audiences. "Ben Silverman says: it's just funny. So I think I think there's some truth to that. Like, it's just funny and it holds up. But yes, I do think that is the case."

It also comes down to the fact that office life is very relatable to many people, even if this year, many have seen their working environment change. "There was some narrative as we were shooting the show that 200 million Americans work in offices across the country. So as we were making the show, and we were struggling early on, [we were like], 'if we can just get a small percentage of those people to relate to the show, then we're gonna be great.' Right? Like, we get 10% of that, or 5% of that. Okay, that's a 10 million audience. That's great."

"But none of us knew the attraction that young people would have to the show. And I think that the parallel between being stuck in an office with an unreasonable boss, and having to go to school with a sometimes unreasonable teacher, the parallel of those two places – being stuck together with a specific group of people that you haven't chosen with a boss that maybe you don't like – I think that that's more real than I thought. That really does exist, and the archetypes for those characters exist not just in workplaces or in families, but in schools as well. I think that's a part of the attraction to younger people watching the show."

Acts of kindness

An Oral History of The Office also allowed Baumgartner to learn things about the show he never knew before. We ask what surprised the host in the making of the podcast – and mostly it came down to the kind acts of the cast and crew.

"Greg Daniels sending an individual check to every single crew member out of his own bank account – I never knew that story," Baumgartner says. This is an act revealed to the host in real-time on the podcast. When the Writer's Guild of America went on strike in 2007-08, Daniels made this magnanimous gesture to non-writer colleagues who depended on the show's production for income. 

Baumgartner also points to another big gesture by the show's lead actor. "Steve Carell standing up when NBC wanted to cut the budget and potentially some cast and saying, 'No, no, you're not doing that.' There are a number of stories like that that happened throughout that were stories that were so good, and yet the fact that I didn't know those stories, made me see the people involved in an even higher light."

If you're a fan, the podcast is illuminating, and it covers the complete run of the show, including the later introductions of new characters like Andy (Ed Helms) and Erin (Ellie Kemper), and the eventual departure of Carell as Michael Scott. 

We ask Baumgartner about his personal favorite episode of The Office. 

"My favourite episodes, and maybe this is how my brain works and so why the podcast is the way it is, are like 'The Injury', where Michael burns his foot on the George Foreman Grill – it doesn't get any funnier than that for an episode of television in my mind. Mindy Kaling wrote an incredible episode. I never mentioned that one because for me, so much of it is tied into what was happening around the show. So like our second episode, 'Diversity Day', that was the moment where I thought, 'Oh, man, we're doing something different and cool'."

"I always think about the Christmas episode, our first Christmas episode, in season two ['Christmas Party']. It was the first really big ensemble [episode] – every single character had something to do. It was the first time we got over 10 million viewers on NBC, and it's when the video iPod came out for the first time and we became the number one show on that." The Office's fortunes were helped by the success of episodic downloads on the iPod, with the show regularly topping the charts. 

Baumgartner continues. "For me, a big one is 'Stress Relief', which is Dwight and the fake fire drill and the CPR and it's an amazing episode. Also, I'm a big sports fan and football fan. An that was the episode that aired after the Super Bowl that year and gave us our largest audience we've ever had on a single night for the show. Maybe that's weird or whatever, I think they're great episodes. But for me, it's always tied into what was kind of happening around [the show], if that makes sense."

All 10 episodes of An Oral History of The Office are streaming now. Click the link above if you fancy listening. 

All 10 episodes of An Oral History of The Office are streaming now. Click the link above if you fancy listening.  (Image credit: Spotify)

An Oral History of The Office is available now on Spotify. The Office is streaming now on Netflix in the US, and will be streaming on Peacock starting in 2021. In the UK, you can watch it on Amazon Prime Video and Sky/Now TV. In Australia, it's streaming on Stan, Foxtel Now and Amazon Prime Video.