February 27, 2021Podcasts
As they say at the beginning of every episode, Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey were on The Office together, AND they're best friends. Starting in late 2019 they got together to produce a weekly podcast that breaks down an episode of The Office in each installment. As of this posting they're about halfway through Season Four (out of nine seasons total). I'd been wondering about this show for awhile, based on the good buzz it was getting. Now that I've started listening to the back catalog, RIP my free time. It's completely addictive and a great endorphin lift, especially as we're circling around to a full year in quarantine.
I'll start by saying Fischer and Kinsey could put in as much as 75% less effort into this show and I think it would still be a hit, given their inside knowledge of a beloved sitcom, plus their access to the cast, writers and directors. So MAJOR props to the two of them - they are running a tight ship with a consistent structure, a minimum of self-indulgent tangents, and a depth of preparation that impresses me every week.
If you've read my podcast reviews before, you'll be familiar with my discussions about the production spectrum of podcasts. Shows I've recommended before (It's Been a Minute, With Sam Sanders, The Sporkful, Decoder Ring and Dead Eyes) all fall on the MORE but not MOST produced end of the spectrum. (As a side note, I think that Dolly Parton's America is the MOST produced podcast I've ever listened to, and despite the awesomeness of Dolly could not continue to listen - the production choices, especially the music cues, were too distracting. So I definitely have preferences here!) Office Ladies falls more in the middle of the production spectrum - it has specific story beats that it follows each week, but there is a lot of time and space for Fischer and Kinsey to chat (seemingly extemporaneously) about the episode they're unpacking. What they avoid (and what I deeply appreciate) is seemingly endless conversational rabbit holes that are typically interesting only to the people in the discussion, not the listeners. (This is why, despite my deep and abiding love for Gilmore Girls, I couldn't tolerate the very popular Gilmore Guys which could be seen as a progenitor of Office Ladies, without the inside track).
So how does an episode work? Jenna Fischer (who played Pam on The Office) starts with an episode summary followed by three "fast facts". For example, the season three episode, "Diwali" was the first time the Hindu festival was depicted in an American television comedy series. Fast facts might also talk about who directed or wrote the episode, if it represented a big location or story change, and lots more.
After fast facts, the Office Ladies will go into great detail about the episode, referencing specific time stamps (where someone is about to break, where a new hairstyle or wardrobe choice needs to be mentioned, where someone improvised versus stayed true to the script). What they decide to highlight comes from both their extensive preparation - they've both rewatched the episode, including deleted scenes from the DVD sets, Fischer has reviewed the script or "shooting draft" as she mentions a lot, and Kinsey has a journal she kept during the series that she'll consult for more immediate impressions. In addition to their own areas of interests, Fischer and Kinsey will bring in listener questions and comments every week, and I think the fact that they mention these listeners by name (and implicitly them acknowledge as fellow fans) is charming.
Finally, every in every episode Fischer and Kinsey will supplement their own recollections with those of other key players on the show. Sometimes they'll just text or call them for information - one listener asked about "The Merger" in Season Three, wondering if Rainn Wilson's Dwight was really running around the whole set and how they timed it properly. Fischer, who was also in the scene, couldn't remember, so she called Wilson, who was able to fill in the gap. Sometimes writers or directors will send in audio files answering questions Fischer and Kinsey have asked them, and sometimes (in what I think are the best episodes) they are joined on the show itself. Mindy Kaling, who played Kelly and was also a writer on the show, came to discuss "Diwali", Rainn Wilson and BJ Novak (who played Ryan and was a writer as well) are part of the episode discussing "The Initiation".
Office Ladies runs longer every week than I would generally prefer (usually a minimum of 50 minutes, often well above an hour), but it never seems to drag. It's extremely well done and I'll say again, it doesn't have to be, given the access Fischer and Kinsey have.
Fischer and Kinsey are extremely enthusiastic about each other, the fans who write in to the podcast, the actors, directors, writers, crew - everyone associated with The Office. I am totally here for that level of positivity, but it does sometimes occur like DVD commentary on steroids. There is a LOT of mutual admiration and praise of the team the put the show together. But there is some value in that. As the veil gets lifted on different behind the scenes conflicts (the most recent example I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it can become complicated to love entertainment that you learn later was created under a culture of fear or harassment. As you listen to Office Ladies, it seems that everyone involved had a truly positive experience, and has stayed in close touch. I appreciate having a show that I can love without an asterisk.
I'm going to say that Office Ladies would probably be less interesting to a casual fan of the show. I've watched many episodes of The Office many times, and Fischer and Kinsey are operating with the assumptions that listeners of their show have a similar familiarity with the entire series. It's a treat when they'll explain something I wondered about (like how Pam does her hair differently for the first few episodes when Jim returns to the Scranton office) and get to hear the behind the scenes thought that went into even the small details. I found it fascinating to hear more about the writer's room and how something could be on a "card" for a long time before they found a way to work it into the show, like Michael's film "Threat Level Midnight", which we first hear about in Season 2 but doesn't come to life until Season 7. Sometimes knowing TOO much about what happens behind the scenes can ruin the magic of the onstage experience. In this case, my appreciation has only deepened. I find it particularly sweet, for example, how much they all wanted to have scenes with Steve Carell - so much so that when Mindy Kaling's parents were guests on the "Diwali" episode, she was actually a little jealous. They got dedicated screen time with Michael Scott, something she rarely got herself.
The very best recaps can help extend and amplify your enjoyment the source material. That is ABUNDANTLY true of Office Ladies. If you loved The Office, you will definitely love this podcast.
You can listen to episodes on the Office Ladies site, and also wherever you get your podcasts.