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Josh Bids Farewell to The Office

May 20th, 2013
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As a big-time fan of the British version of The Office, masterminded by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, I was, like many, extremely dubious at the prospect of an American interpretation of the show.  The Office was so magnificent, so brilliant and so unique, how could an American remake be anything other than a disappointment?

Mostly out of curiosity, I watched the six-episode first season of the American version of The Office, and I was not impressed.  The pilot was a direct remake of the first episode of the British version, and it was a real clunker, nothing more than a homogenized, watered-down version of what had been a great TV show.  The remaining five episodes, while featuring original stories, still felt highly derivative to me of the British original.

I didn’t watch the show when it returned for season two, but a few months later my sister convinced me that I had to give the show a second try.  I grudgingly agreed, and was immediately shocked by how great the show had become.  I was quickly hooked, and relished the chance to catch up on the beginning of season two when the DVD set was released.  I have been following the show ever since (with only one exception which I’ll get to in a minute).

The makers of The Office made two extremely canny changes, between seasons one and two, that in my mind were critical to the show’s longevity.  One, they shifted the show’s tone.  Season one had attempted to imitate the British version’s uncomfortability.  Ricky Gervais’ version of The Office was often absolutely unbearable to watch, in the very best possible way.  He made an art of mining the worst sorts of awkward, uncomfortable moments for the show.  Those terrible-to-watch moments are really what the British version were all about!  The first season of the American version did the same thing, but not as successfully.  But with the start of season two, the makers of the American version seemed to me to shift their focus, slightly, from the uncomfortable more towards the funny.  The show became a little gentler, the edges of the characters (especially Steve Carell’s Michael Scott) were softened just a little, and the show became a LOT funnier.  Not that the show didn’t continue to mine the awkward and the uncomfortable.  (I know some friends who detested season four’s “The Dinner Party,” but that episode’s depiction of a nightmarish dinner hosted by Michael and his then-girlfriend Jan is one of my very favorite episodes.)  But it seemed to me that the show regularly focused more squarely on just being funny, and my goodness were the show’s writers able to be successful at that.

The second critical change made between seasons one and two was the way the show-runners expanded the series’ focus from Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight and Ryan to the larger ensemble of the office.  This was a big departure from the British original, and suddenly it was as if a whole new universe was opened up for the show to explore.  Suddenly the best jokes, the best moments from each episode began to come from Angela, Phyllis, Stanley, Kelly, Toby, Kevin, Creed, Meredith, and Oscar.  This enormous ensemble became, in my mind, the show’s greatest asset.  Suddenly you would see these scenes (in the main bullpen of the office, or in the conference room) with ten or more characters, bouncing off of one another, and it seemed like the jokes would be endless.  It’s easy to forget how insanely challenging it is to make a scene with so many characters in it work, and yet The Office did this so regularly and so effectively as to make it seem effortless. Those conference room scenes became the show’s bread and butter!

I think seasons two through four of The Office are among the very best seasons of a TV comedy that I have ever seen.  Brilliant episode after brilliant episode, those three seasons were funnier than almost anything I have ever seen on TV.  And not only were the shows funny, but I thought they were endlessly clever and sophisticated in the way they created a whole new format for television comedy (a format that has been much-imitated in the years since).

And also, like most of the very best TV comedies, there were some wonderfully emotional, human stories anchoring the comedy and providing a through-line to the series.  I am talking, of course, about the Jim-Pam romance.  For those three years in particular (seasons 2-4), I was delighted by how effectively the show wove this story of the two lonely, clearly perfect-for-one-another Dunder Mifflin employees.  The show mined emotion from the tiniest of gestures or moments (Jim making Pam smile, Jim’s delight when Pam falls asleep on his shoulder) and the delicate dance between the two.  The show found great, honest ways to separate them (I loved the season three extended run in which Jim took a job at a different Dunder Mifflin branch — which not only provided a great Jim-Pam obstacle but also demonstrated the show’s boldness in shaking up the format.  I couldn’t believe the number of episodes in which our focus was suddenly split between two different offices, and how many great characters came out of Jim’s foray to the Stamford branch) while also moving their relationship forward at a reasonable progression.  In the climax of the season three finale, Jim returns to the Dunder Mifflin office and interrupts Pam’s talking-head session to ask her on a date, a moment which still stands as one of the highlights of the show and also, for me, the emotional pinnacle of the Jim-Pam romance.  By the end of season 4, I felt they were pretty secure as a couple.  That felt like a satisfying pace for their relationship to unfold, and I for one thank the lord the show-runners didn’t drag out their will-they-or-won’t-they romance for ten years.  (Though the progression in the romance and the resolution arrived at by the end of season four did spell trouble for future seasons.)

For me, The Office was never quite the same after the end of season four, and while there were certainly some great moments in seasons five-through-seven (I particularly enjoyed the run of episodes dealing with The Michael Scott Paper Company), the show was never quite the same for me after that.  Without the beating heart of the Jim-Pam romance, I felt the show lost a piece of itself.  I also felt the writers began to flounder a bit in their writing of Jim in the later years.  Once his main goal — wooing Pam — had been achieved, I think they struggled to give the character anything good to do.  Often-times they resorted to mining humor from Jim’s basically being an idiot, which felt out of character to me.  (I’m thinking in specific of several story-lines in which Jim was briefly given some authority in the office, only to immediately screw things up by turning into an uncharacteristic boob.)  When the Jim character began to flounder, I think that the show as a whole began to as well.

There’s no question to me that the show should have ended with Steve Carrell’s departure at the end of season seven.  Mostly because I never really bought Michael’s departure from Dunder Mifflin.  It was fun to see the character fall in love (with The Wire’s Amy Ryan killing it as the delightfully weird Holly Flax), but still, I always imagined that Michael would never ever leave his beloved office.  I loved Steve Carrell’s send-off episode (click here for my original review of that episode), but it did feel like the show had to bend its story-telling to fit the reality of Steve Carrell’s wanting to leave.  The final two Michael Scott-free seasons of The Office have been extremely uneven.  (I was continually reminded of the last two seasons of The X-Files, when they tried foolishly to continue without David Duchovny).  I actually stopped watching about three-fourths of the way through season eight.  I was fed up and just didn’t find the show remotely engaging any more.  Once I heard that this ninth season would be the last year, though, I started watching again, curious to see how they would wrap things up.

It’s been an extremely shaky season over-all, in my opinion, with the show a far cry from its former greatness.  I have enjoyed the writers’ efforts to bring back many of the supporting characters from the previous seasons, but almost all of those attempts have felt like huge missed opportunities to me.  The comedic gold-mine of seeing Pam’s former fiance Roy again, now a happy and successful man, was ignored in favor of an uninteresting-to-me story-line of Jim-Pam marital strife.  I was delighted to see David Koechner return as Todd Packer, but whereas I had hoped to see this horrendous person finally get his come-uppance, instead we just got a tale of him once more making fools of our friends in the office.  But the worst mis-step of this final season, to me, has been the horrendous treatment of Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard.  In the later years of The Office, the writers tried to make Andy and Erin (Ellie Kemper) into the new Jim-Pam, weaving a number of stories centering around the potential of a romance between the two sweet but dim bulbs.  I obviously never felt that story-line held a candle to the original Jim-Pam romance, but I certainly found it to be entertaining enough.  So I was rather disheartened to see the writers squash that romance in this final season, turning Andy into an absolutely horrible, selfish, borderline psychopathic creature.  His treatment of Erin was horrendous, and the once-funny character became jarring and abrasive.  (In the series’ penultimate episode, the hour-long “A.A.R.M.,” I was delighted by what felt like a strong return to classic form for The Office, with a story that was clever and very funny, and also one that brought a lot of resolution to many long-running character arcs.  But the scenes of Andy auditioning at an a cappella TV show were unwatchable, unfunny and painful in the extreme.  I never disliked the character more than I did in that episode.)

I was surprised and intrigued to see, in the final season, the show addressing the existence of the documentary crew.  I liked the spin of finally seeing some members of the documentary crew, and I liked the idea that the characters had unsurprisingly grown close to many of the members of the documentary team who had been following them around for a decade.  I was bummed, though, to see most of this documentary storyline used as nothing more than a springboard for a forced season-long story of Jim and Pam having marital problems.  I found it uncomfortable and unfunny to watch these beloved characters be unhappy for much of the final year, and worst of all it seemed to me that their marital troubles were the result of both Jim and Pam acting completely out of character.  The smart, sensitive Jim was an unusually large idiot, making huge decisions without talking to his wife.  And Pam’s stubborn refusal to leave Scranton and Dunder Mifflin didn’t make any sense to me.  Since when was she so attached to her job in sales for that paper company?  I thought she wanted to be an artist?  Wouldn’t she be pleased to see Jim finally wanting to make something of himself professionally?

For the show’s finale, I was intrigued to see the show — as it did in the very first episode — once again taking a page from the British version by jumping ahead to after the release of the documentary.  That worked wonderfully for the Christmas Special finale of the British version, and it worked well here.  I was delighted by almost all of the finale.  It didn’t reach anywhere near the comedic highs of the show’s early years, but how could I have expected it to have?  I did think the final episode was, over-all, extremely funny throughout.  But more than being a laugh-out-loud riot, I found the finale to be an appropriately sweet send-off to these characters we’d been watching for a decade.

Sweet is the most appropriate word to describe the finale, I think, and frankly I don’t have any problem with that.  I think it was the right tone to take.  When I watch the finale of a long-running television show, I find most important of all that I want to see an appropriate, happy resolution to the stories of the characters I have been watching for so long.  I want to be satisfied with where the characters are left at the end.  And on that score, I found the finale of The Office to be terrific.  I was pleased to see the Jim-Pam relationship wrapped up nicely.  (Yes, it took them a whole season to end up where they should have been at the beginning of the year, but whatever.)  (And props to the show, by the way, for bringing back Michael Scott’s former girlfriend for a quick appearance as Pam’s realtor.)  The Dwight-Angela wedding was terrific, a great framework for the episode, and over-all I was delighted to see all of the members of the ensemble get their moments in the sun.  (Phyllis’ “you can take that to the bank” was a particular highlight for me.)  I was happy to see Mose one last time, and I was even mostly satisfied with the depiction of Andy.  I am glad that him pooping on David Wallace’s car (in “Livin’ the Dream”) wasn’t the last we saw of him, and this episode almost redeemed the last year of terrible Andy stories.  Almost.

Most of all, I was stunned to have been fooled by the months of statements by folks involved with NBC and the prodiuction of The Office that Michael Scott would not be returning to the finale.  They totally fooled me, so it was a genuine shock to see Michael appear.  That moment, and Mr. Carrell’s lovingly underplayed delivery of “that’s what she said” was the highlight of the episode for me.  Thank goodness for that.  I was annoyed at the idea of Michael’s absence from the finale — that would have felt wrong.  But his appearance at Dwight’s wedding was absolutely perfect, and his one talking-head moment (‘it’s every parent’s dream!”) was terrific.

Really the only small off-moment in the finale was my disappointment that there was no resolution to Erin and her relationship with Andy and/or her infatuation with Pete (“Plop”).  Since those stories were such a huge part of the last few seasons of the show, I’m surprised we didn’t get to find out who she wound up with.  (I was sort of rooting, until the end, to see Andy redeem himself and woo her back.)  Instead, the writers chose to return to the issue of her search for her biological parents.  I was pleased to see that story-line wrapped up, and the guest-appearances by  Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr. were terrific (though I wish they had a bit more to do in the episode).  But frankly I was far less invested in that story-line than I was in the romantic one, so I was bummed to see that ignored.  Oh well.

(I also was sort of hoping that years of references to The Scranton Strangler would lead to something.  Oh well again!)

Over-all, last Thursday’s finale to The Office was a fine, fitting farewell to a show that was, for a few seasons, one of the very finest TV comedies ever made.  It’s been many years since those seasons of greatness, but over-all The Office was a strong, entertaining show, and I was very happy to see such a sure-footed landing for the series.  The finale of The Office won’t join my list of the greatest TV finales ever, but it was a great episode and a strong, confident finish to the series.  I really enjoyed it, and I will surely miss The Office.

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