More than twice as many people watched any given episode of The Big Bang Theory than ever watched The Office when it was on air. Modern Family has earned six times as many Emmy awards as The Office ever did. And the affection people feel for the show’s spiritual successor, Parks and Recreation, probably trumps that of The Office, at least if internet memes and breakfast diners inspired by its characters are any indication. But that feels appropriate for a comedy about a regional branch of a mid-sized paper company from Scranton, Pennsylvania. This is a show about people who are no one’s first choice, serving a dying industry in a part of the country that no one tends to think about much.
But as Shea Serrano—a best-selling pop culture writer from San Antonio—knows, The Office is rich with material to explore. When it premiered in 2005, it was a dubious prospect. It was an American remake of a beloved British cult favorite, starring a Daily Show correspondent named Steve Carell leading a cast full of nobodies, written to be roughly as weird and uncomfortable as its U.K. counterpart. It emerged during an era of multi-camera, laugh-track, filmed-before-a-live-studio-audience comedies and the peak of the cheap-to-produce reality TV boom. The year The Office debuted, the highest-rated sitcoms were Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and the highest-rated shows on television by a wide country mile were the two nights a week of American Idol. The Office, meanwhile, was shot in a mockumentary style, with handheld cameras and no cues to tell viewers when to laugh, which made sense, because most of the jokes were the kind you take in while cringing and watching through your fingers.
The Office matters, in other words, but its cultural import takes some explaining. Caring deeply, and writing with sincerity and passion, about things whose relevance to the wider world may not be immediately clear is something that Serrano has built his career around—so it makes sense that, for his third book, Conference Room, Five Minutes, he’d go all-in on writing ten essays—complete with illustrations from Arturo Torres, the Dallas-based artist who collaborated with Serrano on his other two best sellers—all about The Office. Where his previous books, The Rap Yearbook and Basketball (and Other Things), tackled subjects with large enough constituencies that Serrano’s searching, obsessive investigations into the heart of what makes them great make sense in print, a book that offers a similar treatment to The Office is relegated to the realm of an eBook.
A book about a show surrounding the trials of a paper company being published without paper is a very solid Office joke—and Serrano is clearly as passionate about the show as he is about rap and basketball. Conference Room, Five Minutes cares deeply about the people of Dunder-Mifflin, and Serrano gleefully nerds out about their relationships, their talents as paper salespeople, and the various personas they adopted over the course of the show’s nine seasons. The book’s best essays take the absurd things in the show extremely seriously—in a Season 1 episode, for example, there’s an extended sequence in which the employees who work in the office take on their counterparts in the company’s warehouse in a basketball game. Serrano devotes 3,000 words, complete with nearly a dozen footnotes, to analyzing the skills of each player on the court during this seven-minute sequence. (One can assume that the genesis for the project was probably Serrano having to scrap this labor of love from his Basketball and Other Things.)
Asking whether a sitcom that’s been off the air since 2013—and which, by its conclusion, had lost its biggest star and three-quarters of its viewers—warrants this kind of attention misses the point. The appeal of Serrano as a writer is his willingness to so fully follow his passions and share them with readers. With The Rap Yearbook or Basketball and Other Things, you didn’t need to know much about rap or basketball to be invited into his enthusiasm—in fact, part of the joy of those books is that you could easily learn about basketball and rap music by reading them, and come out of the process with a much fuller appreciation. Conference Room, Five Minutes is a lot more insider-y—in the intro to one essay, Serrano explains that the target audience for it consists of people who can sketch out a rough map of each character’s workspace—but there’s something really fun in having a writer of Serrano’s talent and insight brought to bear on your shared obsession, if you care as much about The Office as he does. Does the seating arrangement on the show tell you everything you need to know about who the characters are? (Michael, despite having the only desk next to a window, keeps his back to it, because all he really cares about is what’s happening within Dunder-Mifflin’s walls.) Maybe, or maybe not—but it’s fun to have the opportunity to indulge the question.
A book like Conference Room, Five Minutes wouldn’t work for every show. There’s not enough meat on the bone for even a lot of long-running, well-liked sitcoms to go so deeply in their subjects or themes, and a book about them would mostly end up just re-hashing the best jokes. The Office warrants the treatment, though, because the show invested its characters with enough heart to keep such a sincere labor of love from feeling ridiculous. You can show up for the basketball scouting report, or the weird chapter where Serrano attempts to cast the characters in a hypothetical Ocean’s 14-esque heist crew, or the chapter that’s just an ongoing email correspondence where Serrano and his wife argue over whether the character of Jim Halpert is hot or not. But if you care enough to read a whole book about The Office, you also want to explore why the connection between Pam and Michael in the season three episode is such a turning point in their relationship, and what it tells us about loneliness and hurt feelings and why we all sometimes just need someone to tell us that they’re proud of us. Those moments might not exist to make it into a book about Two and a Half Men, but that’s what’s so great about The Office: The emotional energy fans expended on it came back to them, too.
Conference Room, Five Minutes spends a lot of time digging into the minutiae. Serrano analyzes what makes a great “that’s what she said” joke, and what makes Phyllis the office’s (and The Office‘s) underappreciated MVP. And it doesn’t really matter if you agree with his specific conclusions—the book encourages readers to care deeply about the things they care about, even if one of those things is a now-canceled sitcom that overstayed its welcome by a few seasons.
Basketball and rap music are both undeniably cool things to care about. The Office is not. Serrano, by giving permission to his readers to care as much about this show as they do things that are objectively much cooler, serves the themes he’s built his career around—passion, sincerity, big-heartedness—in a unique way. Whatever it is you care about, Conference Room, Five Minutes is one of our most important cultural commentators giving you his express permission to think about it, long and hard.
And that, in the end, is what she said.