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Farewell, Michael Scott

For seasons 2-4, I thought the American version of The Office was one of the funniest shows on television — hitting near genius-level comedy with extreme regularity week-to-week.  Things started to slide a bit during season 5, and I thought the last several years have been pretty hit-or-miss.  One of the big problems with the show, I think, is how they’ve lost the thread of the Jim character (played by John Krasinski).  For the first several years, he was the real hero of the show.  Oh, sure, he shared screen time with all the other major members of the ensemble (all of whom are very talented and funny in their own right), but I always thought that Jim was the major audience surrogate character.  We saw the office, and all the characters who populated it, through Jim’s eyes, and we invested in the emotional ups and downs of his love for Pam.

But for the past few years, with Jim and Pam a happy couple, it’s seemed to me that the writers haven’t known what to do with him.  He’s faded to the background in many episodes, and when he does have a central part to play, it’s often been to appear incompetent.  (His hapless efforts co-managing the office come to mind.)  That can sometimes be good for a short-term laugh, but I’ve felt for a while that it seemed like a betrayal of the Jim we knew and loved for the first several years of the show.  I always though that if that Jim Halpert ever actually tried to work hard and apply himself, he’d quickly be running the office — or, more likely, he’d leave Dunder Mifflin and find himself a more rewarding gig.  That neither has happened has puzzled me, and the inconsistent and often uninteresting characterization of Jim lately has been disappointing and, I think, a large reason as to why my interest in the show has started to wane.

In Jim’s place, Michael has stepped to the forefront as the hero of the show.  Don’t get me wrong, Steve Carell was always the biggest name in the cast and the star of the proceedings.  But in terms of the actual narrative of the show, he seemed to me to be mostly there as an impediment/frustration for Jim.  But with Jim sliding into the background, the last three seasons have seen Michael in the more heroic role — achieving victories (most notably the triumphant ending of his “Michael Scott’s Paper Company” story-line in season five) and winning the girl (the delightful Amy Ryan as Holly Flax).

And so I am very curious as to what sort of show The Office will become now that Steve Carell has exited.  Will this be an exciting rejuvenation of this seven-seasons-old show?  Or are we about to relive the pain of how The X-Files tried to continue for two years without David Duchovny?

Who knows, but I will say that I quite enjoyed Mr. Carell’s extended sawn song to the series, “Goodbye Michael.”  The device of having Michael plan individual goodbyes to every member of the office was clever, as it lead to some really funny moments and a great showcase for the series’ vast ensemble.  It’s fun to see how differently Michael interacts with them all, from telling Erin that she doesn’t need her mom because she has his number, to gifting Dwight with a stupendous letter of recommendation and an epic game of paintball.  I was actually quite touched and saddened when it was revealed what Michael was doing: lying about leaving a day later so he could have a no-drama final day.  That was clever and sweet, and better still it lead to some wonderful comic and emotional payoffs, with Michael harrying Phyllis to finish knitting his gift gloves despite his arthritis and his growing concern at Pam’s absence.  (That shot of Pam walking into The King’s Speech was PAINFUL!)

But what really shot the episode into the stratosphere for me was the final scene.  Not so much Deangelo Vickers (Will Ferrell)’s antics, but rather Dwight’s quiet, worried “uh oh” to Jim.  That moment KILLED me.  It’s everything The Office once did so well — killer comedic moments that have their basis in awkward, often painful emotional truths (in this case, the nervousness of having to begin work under a new boss).  It was a great moment, and Rainn Wilson absolutely nailed the delivery.

(Though, as I commented to my wife, how much funnier would that scene have been had Deangelo not been acting like a psychopath for the whole episode?  What if he had been quirky but pretty normal, and it was only in that last scene with the cake that we — and the office staff — began to get a hint that he was unhinged?  I think that would have been a far more interesting way to go with the character, and a more powerful clincher to the episode.)

Still, Deangelo’s sales-call-from-hell with poor Andy (Ed Helms) was a lot of fun, though it was of course just a distraction from the main event: Michael’s farewell.  For the most part, I think the show’s creators got things just right with that story.  I was pleased to see Jim acting like his old self again by being the only one on-the-ball enough to figure out that Michael was actually leaving that day (though I thought his teary-eyed non-goodbye to Michael was a bit much.  I could see Pam getting emotional, but it seemed a little forced for Jim to be so broken up.  But what the hell, I’ll go with it.)

Congrats to Greg Daniels (the show’s executive producer and author of this episode) and Paul Feig (a recurring director of the show who was also the key creative force, along with Judd Apatow, on Freaks and Geeks) on pulling off this farewell to their series’ star.

While Dwight’s “uh oh” would have made a phenomenal season-ending moment, there are still a few more hours of The Office remaining this year.  It’ll be very interesting indeed to get a taste of what this show, sans Steve Carell, will be like.

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