(Includes spoilers for NBC’s The Office, all the way up to—but not including—the series finale).
There comes a time in every sitcom’s life when the viewers find themselves doing a lot more smiling than laughing, when the characters are so familiar that both the sits and the com feel repetitive, rote. Supporting character’s nuances and shading are rubbed off in favor of one-note, broad jokes of the “X is dumb” and “Y is sex-crazed” variety. The characters can never do anything new because we’re not conditioned to accept that sitcom characters are three-dimensional and anything out of the ordinary is “out of character”.
Just like in life, there are ways to fight the signs of sitcom old-age. The writers can bank on our affection for the characters and stop trying to go for big laughs, and instead go for the drama. If you can’t make them laugh, at least make them feel something. Shows like M*A*S*H, which were comedy-dramas from the start, go full-on maudlin. Family sitcoms will get forty-something year old mom pregnant again, and that same child will be four years old within six months of being born. Cousin Oliver or Luke the runaway teen will help the Bradys and the Seavers limp through another year. Office shows will bring in new bosses, new co-workers, new corporate shake-ups in the hierarchy. All that stuff can seem desperate and cloying, but it can often work, too.
It worked on the ultimate office show, the US version of The Office (which airs its series finale tonight on NBC), at least for a little while. The branches merged. Jan was fired and Ryan got the job. Pam got promoted, Erin came in. Ryan left, and Stringer Bell showed up, causing Michael to leave in a huff and start his own paper company. All that was good. But then all of Dunder-Mifflin was sold, and Kathy Bates promoted Jim and Michael as co-managers and then Gill showed up and then Pam started having babies and Ryan came back and then Michael left and then James Spader came in and everything was just really lost in the weeds at that point. It was a fucking disaster. Characters that were kind of dumb became legally retarded. A year ago, The Office was in real danger of becoming a show that was completely unwatchable. The only show I can think of that fell in quality more from its early years to the final year is Roseanne. Maybe The Simpsons, too. Christ. Why is The Simpsonsstill on? Why does God allow such suffering in the world?
But I digress. As I said, that was a year ago. And what a difference a year makes. As we have bitterly learned from Community, this year, writers are far more valuable than we might have previously given them credit for. Greg Daniels, who left The Office in Season Six, agreed to come back and take the reins as show-runner once again. And believe me, it shows.
The characters we recognize are back, and the affection we had, then lost, is back again. Jim and Pam, once their will-they-or-won’t-they dance was resolved, faded somewhat into the background. They became boring, settled. This year, though Jim’s job offer and new potential career, they found a way to make a believable strain to their relationship that didn’t involve either of them cheating with a third party? I mean, how often does that happen in TV Land? Relationships are almost neverthat nuanced.
The resolution appears to be Jim deciding that Pam’s happiness is more important than his career, and though I’d have loved to have seen Jim make it big, this is probably more in character. Another great development this year is the Dwight/Pam/Jim relationship. Jim and Pam like Dwight, and he likes them, and it’s about damn time they show it. And so they have, but in a way that didn’t cheapen the characters. Jim’s fully on board with Dwight being the manger, (and he, Jim, being the assistantto manager, which is the one joke they imported from The Office UK) but he’ll still find a way to undermine Dwight when the need arises. Dwight and Angela have finally cut through all the shit and gotten together in a very Schrute-tastic way, which involved a shouted proposal through a bullhorn.
And speaking of Angela, there’s a character that has grown in ways that are believable, while still keeping the core of who she is. In “Gay Witch Hunt” in S3, after Oscar is outed, Angela is spraying everything Oscar’s touched with Lysol. Last week, they were living together. They way that relationship has changed this year has been great fun to watch. Earlier this year, when Jim needed Stanley and Phyllis to cover for him in sales while he worked at his other job, they claimed to be reluctant and ordered him to take them out to lunch while they considered it. After they ate and drank themselves into a coma, they giggled at Jim, scoffed at the idea that they wouldn’t help him, and revealed that they were the Jam shippers we always knew they were: “We love you guys!” Darrel has gone from warehouse worker to office drone to higher-paid office drone working in a new company. He left last Dunder-Mifflin week, after agreeing to dance one-on-one with everyone in the office. It was ridiculous, shameless pandering. And I watched it twice.
There’s not much to be done with the likes of Toby, or Meredith, or Creed, but their jokes are funnier than normal this year. Erin’s cute and funny, but she’s still too new for me to love her. Ditto her hottie boyfriend, what’s-his-name, and Catherine Tate, and that guy who looks like Dwight. Pass! Kevin, unfortunately is still too dumb. Remember how funny it was when Holly thought he was retarded in “Goodbye, Toby”? Well, now no one would think otherwise. And Andy continues to be the problem he’s been from the beginning. Is he annoying or endearing? Evil or just oblivious? Steve Carrel could do awful things as Michael and we never stopped loving him. Ed Helms as Andy mostly just grates. A part of me wishes he had floated away down the river in that giant sumo costume and never returned.
But the absolute best part of this season has been the making the documentary crew a part of the story. Many people bristled when we met Brian the sound guy, who clearly had feelings for Pam, but I had faith they wouldn’t use him as a complication in the Jim/Pam relationship, and thankfully they didn’t. What they did, though, is make sure we knew that unlike on Parks and Rec or Modern Family,the “documentary-style” isn’t just a style. It’s real. There is a documentary and at the end of the last episode it was about to air. We’ll get our favorite paper company employees’ reactions in tonight’s episode, which takes place six months after the documentary has aired. Though the official line is Michael isn’t coming back, I can’t imagine that’s so. I think it would be a damn shame if we don’t get to see him reacting to his new found fame.
I won’t lie and say it’s as good as it ever was; it’s not. The apex was clearly Season Three. But it’s a damn sight better than Seasons 6 and 8, and on par with 4, 5, and 7. (S7 had help in the emotional resonance department with Michael’s departure).
So if you left The Office at some point in the past, I understand. I don’t judge. But it’s time to come back home. One last time.
Ryan Roach lives in Studio City and suffers through traffic indignities on a daily basis. He also has a cool movie blog: http://rtrmovietime.com/