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''The Office'': Back to work

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Mindy Kaling, Rainn Wilson, ...
Photograph by Art Streiber

There is no way you will find The Office‘s set unless someone tells you where to look, and even then, it ain’t easy. Buried deep in a swath of Van Nuys warehouses, the soundstage sits at the rear of a dead-end street where 18-wheelers turn around and the hot sun bakes the concrete blister gray. The first thing that catches your eye is a sign for Vance Refrigeration, and then another for a paper company by the name of Dunder Mifflin. Soon you’re idling past that familiar parking lot, the very spot that’s been home to both a tear-jerking confession of unrequited love and a ridiculous bouncy castle intended to catch the faux-suicide attempt of an unhinged boss desperate to prove a point.

On this mid-September day, though, the anonymous lot, clogged with trailers and craft services, is almost unrecognizable. Inside, you’re ushered into a small room just off the stage, and things become more familiar. Two monitors transmit shaky, nausea-inducing images from the mockumentary cameras: boxes of paper, drab carpeting, venetian blinds, a poster of some very scary babies. You watch an ordinary day in the life of The Office unspool as cast members wander in one by one to talk about how blessed they feel to be a part of this show. But that’s where the conversation starts and ends: They’re reluctant to spill any details about the series’ fourth season, which started Sept. 27. If they do, it seems, executive producer Greg Daniels — described by one actor as ”the most quiet badass you’ll ever know” — will kill them. So here we are in a tiny room on a dead-end street in an industrial section of Van Nuys not being told anything. In a way, it’s appropriate: a very awkward story on the awkward genius that is The Office.

Bear in mind, there was a time when this show couldn’t give it away, and we’re not talking about secrets. The first season, in 2005, averaged but 5.4 million viewers for NBC, thanks to apathy fueled by the critical suspicion that only lunatics would attempt to adapt a beloved British series for American television. (The disaster known as Coupling had just come and gone two years earlier.) Yet there were flashes of unique hilarity, which led to a charitable second-season pickup — and that’s when, like employees on soft pretzel day, the fates began to align. In the summer of ’05, star Steve Carell wowed crowds with The 40 Year-Old Virgin; season 2 won the Emmy for best comedy; millions of new viewers discovered the show via the magic of iPods (makes a great Secret Santa gift, by the way); and little by little, the emotionally stunted, frequently spastic, and cringe-worthy antics of Michael Scott (Carell) and the Dunder Mifflin crew scrambled from the ratings basement toward something approaching cult success. Last year, in season 3, the show became a demographic power player — ranking 13th for all programs that were watched live or within seven days of broadcast by those ridiculously important 18- to 34-year-olds. Plus, cast members besides Carell started showing up in movies — a Blades of Glory here, a License to Wed there. Two weeks ago, Daniels won another Emmy, this time for writing. And now it appears that The Office, no longer feeling the ax over its head, is in a position to tell a national magazine with a not-inconsiderable circulation that they won’t be disclosing all that much information about season 4, and they hope we understand.

We don’t, of course. So we push harder until they finally begin to crack.

NEXT PAGE: ”We’re going to have stories of disease, misery, jealousy, lawsuits, car wrecks, homelessness, betrayal, financial ruin, broken hearts, and kidnapping, but funny.”

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