Cliches and drudgery: part of the job at 'The Office'

TELEVISION PREVIEW

March 11, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Office" is not the place to be on Saturday nights.

I'm talking about the new CBS sitcom "The Office," which premieres at 9 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

The CBS public relations department calls the series "An 'Upstairs, Downstairs' look at office life in America." Right, and "Married . . . With Children" is an "Upstairs, Downstairs" look at the shoe business in America.

"The Office" does have Valerie Harper ("Rhoda") in the lead and some experienced hands behind the camera. But neither amounts to a pile of paper clips if the concept and writing aren't there.

Produced by Witt-Thomas Productions, which has given us such hits as "Golden Girls," "The Office" features Harper as Rita Stone, a 19-year veteran in a secretarial pool. The point of tonight's pilot is how she and the other secretaries really run things. What an original idea.

The management team for whom they type, file and -- it's suggested, think -- consists of three dense men and one semi-OK woman. Most of tonight's 22 minutes is spent with the management team behind closed doors wondering what the women on are plotting .

The issue is overtime pay. It's been eliminated by corporate headquarters and the secretaries are upset. With their bosses ,, facing an all-night session to try to save a key account, the secretaries have to decide whether to stay and work through the night for free or punch out at their 6 p.m. quitting time.

None of this is depicted cleverly or convincingly. As a result, tonight's pilot plods along, with the conclusion never in doubt, and the punch lines rarely sharp, insightful or funny.

The boss (Dakin Matthews) is so limited he tries to type a letter on his fax machine. Please.

And the women aren't much better. When Stone relays the news that overtime is being eliminated because "New York says we're spending too much money on it," another secretary says, "Well, I guess we are, if a whole city knows about it."

Witt-Thomas is probably best known for creating memorable female characters from Sophia (Estelle Getty) on "Golden Girls" to Blossom Russo (Mayim Bialik) of "Blossom." That's one of the things that makes this pilot so disappointing: The women are all so cliched, cardboard and one-dimensional.

Had the producers gotten it right, they might have had a series that plugged into the live wire of anxiety which so many workers feel in this downsized corporate world, where you work overtime fTC with or without pay simply to keep your job.

Instead of a live wire, what we have is dead air in "The Office."

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