Has any great television series ever had the protracted, agonizing death of THE OFFICE? We’re used to shows that stay on the air past their prime, and to those with disappointing or even disastrous finale episodes (the technical term for the latter is Episodus Lostus). But watching The Office for the past two seasons has been like witnessing a loved one suffering all the way to the end.
The worst part was that like a random, deadly infection, there seemed to be no good reason for the show’s plunge. Yes, Michael Scott left Dunder-Mifflin and Steve Carell left the show, but even though he was clearly the series anchor, this was above all an ensemble piece–surely it could weather even such a significant loss. But the very able and talented people calling the shots on The Office made one terrible mistake after another, as the ratings for the show fell along with its quality. It started literally as Carell was departing, with the off-tone introduction of Will Ferrell as a transition figure. Then there was the stunt-cast-fest of the search for Michael Scott’s replacement, with people like Warren Buffett and Jim Carrey turning up. The first really crippling blow, though, was the awful decision to bring in James Spader’s Robert California as the new authority figure, a creepy, uncomfortable character who had no place on The Office. Even worse was promoting Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) to Michael’s job–Andy was a fine supporting cast member, but his brand of inappropriateness (a mix of perpetual failure and sudden bouts of anger) was wince-inducing where Michael’s had somehow been lovable. The show couldn’t figure out what to do with Nellie (Catherine Tate), and could never quite get rid of her. Angela’s (Angela Kinsey) marriage to the closeted State Senator (Jack Coleman) became a soap opera when his affair with Oscar (Oscar Nunez) broke up their marriage. In Season 8, half the cast was sent–in sheer desperation, it seemed–to Florida for a chunk of the season, and new characters Clark (Clark Duke) and Pete (Jake Lacy) were introduced to little real purpose.
This final season continued to make missteps. Even though we always knew, deep down, that no one behind the scenes could be dumb enough to permanently break up Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer), their marital troubles became the main storyline of the season, made worse when the show insisted on suggesting that Pam might have an affair with the newly-introduced documentary sound guy, the fact of the documentary being another misguided part of the season as well.
The last couple of pre-finale episodes were something of a return to form, although it all felt like the hospice patient who finally has their meds adjusted so that at least they can be lucid and in as little pain as possible before the end. Still, at least Dwight’s (Rainn Wilson) ascension, finally, to Michael’s job, and his proposal to Angela, were handled well, as was the sentimental rapprochement of Jim and Pam.
I wish I could say The Office came all the way back in its finale, written by series creator Greg Daniels and directed by pilot director Ken Kwapis, but the result was more mixed than that. Set a year after the PBS documentary had aired, and built around Dwight and Angela’s wedding and a “one-year later” panel discussion of the documentary, the episode got off to a sour start with a flashback to earlier that year and Dwight making a tone-deaf spectacle of suddenly firing Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) and Toby (Paul Lieberstein). Everyone was reconciled by series end, but it was a harsh way to start the hour (actually, a Jeff Zucker-styled “supersized” 75 minutes). This was a pattern The Office had developed in recent seasons, digging itself into a nasty plotline and then having to scrape its way out, and it was true, too, of the silly Andy story, which featured him becoming a national joke for his YouTubed meltdown at a reality show audition. Daniels and the other writers also felt the need to tie up stories that hadn’t even felt like they were hanging–like having Erin (Ellie Kemper) finally find her birth parents (guest stars Joan Cusack and Ed Begley, Jr), and giving Nelly a baby to adopt/steal, thanks to the (still very funny) reappearance of Kelly (Mindy Kaling) and Ryan (B.J. Novak). The saving grace was the much-rumored, semi-denied, fleeting return of Steve Carell to serve as Dwight’s surprise “besten mensch”. Carell was only in a few minutes of the episode (and oddly, he didn’t participate at all in the pre-finale clip show), but his choked-up delivery of one last “That’s what she said” alone was a reminder of what The Office had once been.
Luckily, the finale pulled itself together in the last few minutes, when post-panel, post-wedding and post-afterparty (where Daniels himself and other members of the behind-the-scenes staff made cameo appearances), the regulars gathered in the office one last time, the news being that Pam had finally decided to leave Scranton with Jim and let him pursue his career. It was a lovely scene, with grace notes like the discovery that Creed (Creed Bratton), wanted by the law, had been living in a Dunder-Mifflin storage room, and the retired Stanley’s (Leslie David Baker) gift to Phyllis (Phyllis Smith) of a bobble-head doll in her image. It ended with a sweet reminder of Pam’s drawing of the office that Michael had bought at her first art show.
Truthfully, it was something of a miracle that The Office worked as well as it did for as long as it did (and that it even had the chance, given the lousy ratings it had at the start and the lack of support for it at the top of NBC). It was a genuinely original piece of American television, even–after its first few stumbling episodes–original as compared to its British forebear created by Ricky Gervais. At its best, it had a heightened reality, idiosyncracy and heart that many shows since have chased after with little success. If it had ended after 7 seasons, it would be remembered as one of the all-time great TV comedies. As it is, it’s legacy will be of a show that kept going 2 long, sad years after it should have stopped.