One Long, Last Look at The Office

Last week’s penultimate episode of The Office gave us a frustrating glimpse of what might have been.

In a season filled with mediocre comedy, intelligence-insulting plot choices[1], and inexplicable character development, we got a flawed but good episode centered largely around a familiar dynamic, with Dwight as regional manager and Jim as assistant to the regional manager.

Where has this version of The Office been the last two years?

TheOfficeJimAndDwightThe Jim / Dwight interplay wasn’t some groundbreaking revelation—it was merely a smart and natural extension of their original relationship.  That evolution of the show would have been a logical choice that could have lead into a nice season-plus send-off for the venerable NBC program.

Instead, viewers were treated to absentee Andy, an Erin / Pete romance that suddenly stopped being referenced at all, a failed backdoor pilot, evil Andy, the Jim / Pam debacle, pathetic Andy, and Dwight being told he was the father of Angela’s baby after all (despite being told by a doctor that he wasn’t in an earlier episode).[2]

But I’m putting all of that aside.  Tonight is the final episode of this show.  I can’t really call this “SitCombat,” per se, since the only competition for tonight’s finale of The Office is the series’ own legacy.  But I see no reason why I can’t use the tried and true SitCombat format.

I’m writing all of this before the episode begins, but my fear is that we’re going to get a run-of-the-mill, C-plus wedding episode.  The fact that the creators chose to go out with one of the most cliched plots in television is disappointing yet somehow appropriate.

But, as always, I sit down in front of my television with an open mind.  Let’s begin . . .

The Office (NBC) – “Finale”[3]

Tonight’s Episode: It’s the final show in a nearly-decade-long series.  Duh.  Oh, and they’re going with a wedding episode as a coda of sorts, set a year after the airing of the fictional documentary.

Good Stuff: “(*sob*) At least I got chocolate (*sob*)” . . . Dwight rehiring Devon (a character most viewers probably don’t even remember) was a nice touch that I appreciated . . . Phyllis trying to turn the new black guy into the old black guy . . . “I live in Poland now.  The Scranton of the EU” . . . “I thought I unfriended you.”  “Anyone can follow a Twitter feed” . . . “A bazooka!  You remembered!” . . . “Just do your work!  Pretend your mom’s not here!” . . . “GOOD SONG CHOICE!” . . . When Kevin said “That’s six ‘wells.’  Did I get that number right?”, he actually only said “well” five times, which was a nice touch . . . “Waste of a good hatchet” . . . I like Stanley’s new life . . . “I guess this was worth being filmed non-stop for nine years” . . . “No one recognizes me, but now all my friends call me ‘Plop.’  Thanks, PBS!” . . . The shot of Creed in the crowd . . . “I can show you my Social Security card if it helps” . . . I said this two years ago, but Ryan was always a “big shot” character (as in Robert Horry), and this episode just reminded me of how much he’s been missed, along with his interaction with Kelly . . . “They’re called ‘premature,’ sweetie” . . . “He’ll be fine.  I let him suck on a strawberry.  He’s allergic, but he’ll get over it fast” . . . Stanley’s carving of Phyllis with bird legs . . . “I’VE FINALLY MASTERED COMMITMENT!” says Ryan, as he abandons a child . . . “Kelly was hoping that YOU would keep the baby, so that they could start a new life together” . . . Dwight mocking Austin, Texas . . . “I don’t have coworkers anymore.  I have subordinates” . . . “Thanks Dad—DARRYL” . . . Oscar’s origami . . . Creed living at the office . . . Creed getting arrested.

Non-Good Stuff:  “Nobody buys DVDs anymore,” says the regional manager of a paper company . . . Still not used to Stanley’s hairpiece (or whatever it is) . . . The secret language thing was annoying in an unfunny way . . . Dwight not being able to understand that the stripper wasn’t a waitress “tore it” . . . It possibly wasn’t as absurd as Mose stealing Angela, though . . . Didn’t we resolve this Jim / Pam stuff already?  Why did we go through that exercise last week if we have to re-hash it now? . . . Odd choice to resolve the Erin adoption storyline as well . . . It’s weird how that family that showed up out of nowhere in “The Farm” didn’t make it to Dwight’s wedding, huh? . . . It was great that Carell came back, but he wasn’t entirely in character . . . Jim’s reaction to the camera after Pam’s mural is revealed . . . Having behind-the-scenes people (like Greg Daniels) appear on the show seemed unnecessary . . . Pam answering the phone (at, what—9:00 p.m. on a Saturday night?) as a reminder of how it all started.  We get it . . . The ending was far too sappy.  This is a “stupid” and “boring” job, not the last day of Beach Week the summer after high school.

Line of the Night:  “I feel like all my kids grew up . . . and then they married each other.  It’s every parent’s dream!” – Michael Scott

Overall:  The episode had some funny moments, as usual, but the fact that so many of them revolved around departed characters speaks volumes.  Plot-wise, the contrivances necessary to (1) reunite Erin with her birth parents, (2) reunite Kelly and Ryan, (3) give Nelly a child, and (4) have Jim inexplicably be able to pick up where he left off with Athlead Athleap were exhausting.  I understand this isn’t Breaking Bad, but not every issue ever introduced on the show needed to be resolved.  This was an episode directed at folks who watched the show for its sentimentality more than its humor, and who wanted to see characters ride off into the sunset (sometimes literally).  As a sitcom, I think it failed.

The recently-departed 30 Rock provided a great example of how to be reflective without letting the wistfulness overwhelm the humor.  I’m a viewer who doesn’t mind nostalgia, heart, feelings, or any of that . . . as long as the comedy comes first.  I didn’t feel like that was the case tonight.  This was more like fan fiction written by someone who’s been living vicariously through Pam for the last nine years.  Trying to give every character (except Toby, interestingly) a happy ending wasn’t necessary.

This wasn’t the worst show I’ve seen, and they get points for the surprise Carell appearance.  But there was just too much that didn’t add up, especially the idea that these people would be so invested emotionally in this job.  Part of what made the show funny early on was how mundane and soul-sucking the job itself was.  If you want to see a series finale that is heavy on emotion and sentiment but also makes sense and is consistently funny and well-executed, look no further than The Office Christmas Special, which was the finale of the original, UK version of the series.

Not terrible, not good.  People who found themselves crying during the episode will swear by it.  But I don’t watch this show to cry.  I watch this show to laugh—which I did.  Just not quite as much as I would have liked.

EPISODE GRADE: C

Final Thoughts . . . 

“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.  Isn’t that kind of the point?”

It wasn’t at the beginning.  But I admit that sort of became the point.

The parade of female questioners asking about (and fawning over) Jim represents the latter-day primary target audience of this show.  And Pam’s monologue at the end represents the final destination of this show thematically.  That speaks, in part, to the problems with the last couple of seasons.

When this show first began, it didn’t exactly work.  That’s because it was an almost line-for-line recreation of the UK series, which had its own sensibilities and talented star with a unique style.  Then, the American Office began to find its own voice, largely as Dwight became a break-out supporting character who was quite different than his very funny UK equivalent, Gareth, and as Carell really came into his own as Michael Scott.

I’ve said for years that The Office was funniest when it was actually about the most mundane aspects of working in an unremarkable office, as opposed to getting into more outlandish plots.  The relatability of being in a crummy job was what resonated.   Even the awkwardness of office relationships meshed perfectly with that model, which is why the early seasons of the Jim / Pam relationship could tug at the heartstrings and succeed on a comedic level.

At some point, though, this show lost its way.  It’s easy to point to the departure of Carell, and that was certainly a huge moment, but the show had started to change even before he left.[4]  I remember at the time that Michael Scott told the office that he was leaving, the reaction from his coworkers was universal sadness.  I recall thinking that it was implausible that Stanley, to name just one, would be sad to see Michael go.  There should have been a range of emotions: Dwight devastated, Jim and Pam bittersweet, Stanley celebratory, Creed oblivious or indifferent, and others somewhere among those extremes.

I think that was just one example of how the show had begun to value sentimentality over narrative integrity or perhaps even pure comedy.  It became clear that the characters were reacting not to Michael Scott leaving, but Steve Carell leaving.  I had a problem with that.

The OfficeThat brings me back to the quote from Pam that closed the series.  At its best, precisely what made the show good was its identifiable ordinary-ness, not some kind of higher-order beauty to be mined from that pedestrian existence.  It was Jim and Pam as two ships perpetually passing in the night, or awkwardly navigating the beginnings of an inconvenient romance.  Not Jim and Pam as the perfect couple whose idyllic relationship could only be disrupted by some absurdity like the painfully contrived boom mic operator storyline this year.

But, as Pam said, that’s not what the show became.

To be fair, even at its worst, the show had some funny bits sprinkled in.  And the good episodes outnumber the bad ones by a substantial margin.

Yet, I’m left placing The Office in the same category as Friends.  It was a show whose early years were often very funny, well-written, and sometimes poignant.  But it began to focus more on audience wish-fulfillment in the form of life events, as the audience itself grew older.  Marriages, children, happy endings.

I enjoyed Friends when it was on.  But, for all the reruns and opportunities to revisit it since it went off the air, I haven’t felt the need to do so.  I suspect that The Office will be in that same category.  Meanwhile, I re-watch Arrested Development in its entirety once every 18 months or so, I’ll always stop and jump into a Seinfeld episode when I stumble across one, and I’m happy to fire up an old Cheers every so often on Netflix.

A year or two from now, I’ll think fondly of 30 Rock, go to my streaming app of choice in 2015, and spend an evening watching four or five favorite episodes.  That will never happen with The Office, and that is what puts it in that second tier for me.

The last couple of seasons (especially this one) hurt the legacy of the show a bit, but it was still one of the better sitcoms on television for much of its time on the air.  If they go out with a strong eighth and ninth years, Carell or not, this is probably an “A” or “A-minus” show as a whole.

As it is, it’s still a pretty darn good series.

It’s a show that was culturally relevant in its heyday.  It’s a show that I enjoyed for most of its nine-year run.  It’s a show I’ll probably never need to watch again.

You could do a lot worse than that.

SERIES GRADE: B

____

[1] Boom mic.  Enough said.
[2] By far the most egregious blunder was having alleged Phillies superfan and Athlead founding father Jim refer to Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels as “Cole Hamel.”  I mean, even if you shoot it that way, that’s an easy fix.  Assuming someone is actually paying attention, that is.
[3] The fact that they used this placeholder-esque title might say something about the state of the creative side of this show.  For comparison, the final episode of M*A*S*H was “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” Cheers was “One for the Road,” Newhart was the tongue-in-cheek “The Last Newhart,” Lost was the weighty “THE END,” 30 Rock was “Last Lunch.”  Oddly, St. Elsewhere and Friends final episodes were both titled “The Last One.”  Seinfeld‘s disappointing finish was “The Finale,” but even that article was too tall an order for The Office at this point.
[4] There was actually a “jump the shark” moment as early as Season Four, when Michael Scott drove into a lake.  It managed to jump back, but that was the first example of the show sort of veering off into overly-absurd territory.
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One Response to One Long, Last Look at The Office

  1. Pingback: Best of 2013 | The Axis of Ego

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