To start out with the obvious, The Office is a great show. In terms of all-time sitcom hierarchy, I would go 1. Arrested Development 2. Peep Show (a British sitcom I would strongly recommend) 3. The Office 4. Seinfeld, followed by a Grand Canyon sized quarry, after which the rest of sitcoms (i.e. Friends, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, etc.) can be debated. Critics of The Office might argue that, as a remake, it cannot be ranked higher than its predecessor, made in the U.K. But they are wrong. Here is why: the British Office existed for only six episodes, while the American version encapsulated 201, even surviving the exit of its most popular character and continuing to make strong (though not quite as good) television. Taking something that was six episodes and extrapolating it with that much length, not to mention outdoing the original, is enough to make the fact that The Office is technically a remake irrelevant.
Obviously, writing an article just to talk about The Office’s hierarchy in the sitcom ratings is not that interesting or worthwhile. What I would like to investigate is something that does not get talked about much, but after watching the show all the way through several times, has become self-evident: if you look at the series as a whole, Dwight Schrute is the main character and protagonist. I realize it seems odd, but it’s true. If you look at each character’s story ark over the entire time period of the show, there is really no other possible choice. The most important thing to consider when answering this question is that the show is called The Office and thus, things that happen inside the office itself are more important than the personal lives of the characters. Creed probably has the most exciting personal life of any character on the show, but most of that never seeps into his place of work, so we never get to see any of it.
Michael Scott: If you were to ask random viewers of the show who the main character was, approximately everyone would answer Michael Scott. And that’s fair. He is the first character we are introduced to, the most culturally influential, and has had the most successful career since The Office ended (including an Oscar, congrats Steve Carrel). He has the most influential television catch phrase of the 20 years (“that’s what she said”) and really, he was the character for whom the show was created. However, he is not the protagonist. To begin with, he doesn’t stick it out until the end of the series. He moves to Colorado and leaves the office (the place and the show) behind to start a new life with Holly. This is important because, if he was in fact the protagonist, how could the show have survived without him. Also, after he leaves, The Office doesn’t become a spinoff, it’s the same show, just without one particular character. It continues humming along, making quality television without him. But the main reason Michael is not the protagonist of the show is because Michael acts most importantly as the de facto setting of the show. Much like The Wire is about how a number of different people from different areas of society react to the setting of urban Baltimore, which is riddled with crime and drugs, The Office is about how a number of differing people react to working in a typical business environment, but with a boss who is delusional and incompetent. Of course, the setting of being in Baltimore is extremely important to The Wire, but you would never say that Baltimore is the protagonist of the show. Lastly, consider how much the place where they work matters to each character. Michael, seemingly, is obsessed with Dunder Mifflin, even considering his coworkers his family. But, is this because he actually loves Dunder Mifflin or because his life outside of it is an empty husk and he is forced to bring all his energy to work to make up for it? Michael has nothing and no one in his life, so he is forced to give exorbitant meaning to the only thing he does have, which is work. But does he really care that much about Dunder Mifflin? He is much more interested in finding a wife and having a family than he is at doing whatever he can to help Dunder Mifflin. In fact, as soon as the opportunity presents itself to do just that with Holly, he leaves with barely a second thought. Is it painful for him to go? Of course, he had been there for fifteen years. But he was always going to leave when a better opportunity presented itself. Keep this in mind too: Michael quit and started his own competing paper company, which he was completely content doing as long as he got to have his “friends” Pam and Ryan alongside him. There is nothing wrong with Michael prioritizing having a wife and kids above his work. In fact, it is the smart move. It does, however, make him the setting and the not the protagonist of The Office.
Jim Halpert: Besides Michael, Jim would seem to be the obvious answer, especially in the later seasons after Michael has gone. And in fact, for the first couple seasons, Jim is, in fact, the protagonist of the show. Before he and Pam get together, the will they won’t they aspect of the show around the office is the most important storyline. However, this storyline concludes less than halfway through the series. And once they do get together, they have the occasional argument or hardship, but there is never a real possibility that they will breakup or that anything about their relationship will dramatically change. In fact, in the last season, the writers even create a storyline playing off of this where Jim regrets that he has wasted his life working at Dunder Mifflin all those years (he did) instead of doing what he always wanted to do. They create this storyline in an attempt to draw Jim back into the center of the show after several stale seasons where he basically did nothing and didn’t attempt to evolve or change in any way. Jim begins by not caring about his work and continues to do so throughout the rest of his paper-selling career, even turning down promotions to manager in order to have his life stat exactly the same. He is only there because of Pam, even saying so when rejecting a job offer in Maryland. So while it is admirable that he cares so much about her, it does disqualify him as a protagonist of a show centered around a paper company, a place he clearly does not want to be unless the woman he loves is also there. Basically what I am saying is that Jim, as a character, does not develop at all, and even leaves Dunder Mifflin in the end. He learns nothing and changes very little throughout the entire course of the show, thereby disqualifying him from being the protagonist of The Office.
Pam: Pam is great and likeable, but she is basically completely incompetent. She fails at art school, she fails at being a salesman, she almost marries Roy, who she clearly doesn’t like very much, and she is a mediocre artist, at least according to Oscar and Dwight at different points. She is also the least funny character on the show. Any time she tries to make a joke, it completely falls flat and anytime she tries to pull a prank without Jim’s help, she fails miserably. It was hard for me to write those things about Pam because she is lovely and great and I love her. I think it’s a shame what the writers of the show did to her, but that cannot be changed. Everyone loves Pam, but she is simply not the protagonist of The Office
He-Day: This is the Japanese warehouse worker who used to be a surgeon in Japan, but then he killed a Yakuza boss and fled to America, where he got a job in the Dunder Mifflin warehouse. He is obviously not the protagonist, but a spinoff prequel about his life in Japan and his journey to America would probably be cool, even though he hardly speaks English. I’m also fairly certain I butchered the spelling of his name, and he is not the protagonist of The Office.
Phyllis: Just no. Phyllis is not the protagonist of The Office. Toby: Toby is everything that is wrong with the paper industry. He is not the protagonist of The Office.
Stanley: Stanley is just running out the clock on his own life. He is not the protagonist of The Office.
Creed: Creed is only there so he can SCUBA. He is not the protagonist of The Office.
Dwight K. Schrute: Here we go. The main event. The most difficult thing about making the argument that Dwight is the protagonist is that the creators of the show clearly did not have that in mind when the show began. In the first season or so, Dwight basically exists in the show to antagonize and stand opposite of Jim and to be Michael’s bitch. He is annoying, overbearing, and generally the opposite of what you want in a co-worker. But here’s the thing: the dude can sell paper. He is the top salesman at the company and it’s because he cares more about selling paper than everyone else in the office combined. His only goal is to gain more and more power in the Dunder Mifflin hierarchy. Despite this, he is passed over for promotion time and time again, losing out to Michael (who said he was going to corporate then returned) Jim (who became co-manager), DeAngelo (Will Ferrell), and then Jim again (who turns down the job) before finally being given his chance, at which point he claims he is as happy as he could ever be. Unfortunately, he accidentally desk pops in the office and is immediately, deservedly, fired. At this point, he is distraught, even stating that he will never recover from this setback. However, he refuses to give up even against insurmountable odds because he knows he can run the branch better than anyone else. You might say that, like Michael, he is simply obsessed with Dunder Mifflin because he has nothing else in his life, but that isn’t the case. He has a successful working beet farm, a laser tag team he gets drunk with, a neighborhood watch type club, and is able to get seemingly any girl he wants for some odd reason. He even has a son. He has no real reason to stay at Dunder Mifflin, but he does it nonetheless because he cares about his work for its own sake. After being demoted back into sales, Dwight continues to change and grow. Is he still overbearing? Sure, but not nearly to the same extent. Over time, he dulls down some of his sharp edges and becomes friends with his co-workers. Even him and Jim, though still pranking each other, evolve to have a friendly relationship built on mutual respect instead of the original animosity. Over the course of these changes, he is passed over yet again by Creed, Robert California, then and Andy, who is inferior to Dwight in every way. But he stays and continues to produce excellent work. “If there is anyone who cares more about paper than Dwight, I would not like to meet him,” Jim states as a backhanded compliment. In the end, Dwight finally is named permanent manager, the only thing he ever wanted. And while he still makes some personnel changes (firing Kevin), they are nowhere near the changes he claimed he would make in earlier seasons when he tells Jan he plans to fire nearly everyone there. He has matured and discovered the value inside many of them. The Dwight who returns from Florida after having led a team has matured in abundance.
If you watch The Office the entire way through, it is partially about the working of a small paper company over the course of several years, but more than that, it is a love affair between a man (Dwight) and his job. A man who suffers a myriad of setbacks and humiliations both at work and in his personal life, but who, in the end, through perseverance, and hard work, eventually reaches his goal of becoming regional manager of Dunder Mifflin Scranton. It is because of this that Dwight, not Michael or Jim or anyone else, is the protagonist of The Office.