Monday, May 20, 2013

Assessing The Office's Hand-Holding Stroll to the Finish Line

"I always cry at endings," Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian sings on the band's most acclaimed album, If You're Feeling Sinister, and it's a line that has always stuck with me.  While I don't legitimately cry at the end of all stories, there's something about a sense of finality that automatically wrings emotion out of me.  Whenever I finish a book, there's that mixture of satisfaction from having read a great story and melancholy from never being able to experience that world for the first time again.  It's even worse with television shows.  At most, a book will take me a few months to finish, which is nothing compared to the years and years of investment that comes from watching certain TV shows.  Part of what makes the TV ending so special to me still is the fact that I've experienced so few real ones.  Many of the shows that I love like Pushing Daisies and Terriers end up getting cancelled, and even though the rushed endings can often be beautiful, there's still a protracted feeling to many of them.  Additionally, because of my young age, I often caught up on classic shows like The Sopranos and The Wire later, so I didn't get to experience the endings of those shows as they happened.

On Thursday night, The Office came to an end, closing the chapter on one of the biggest influences on my early television tastes.  While I jumped onto the show at the beginning of the second season and caught up on the six-episode first season later, it was still early enough to feel like I was with it on the ground floor.  From there, The Office basically grew up as I did, starting when I was in 7th grade and finally concluding just as I'm a year away from finishing college.  Although there's some debate about when exactly the golden age of the show ends, I consider seasons 2 through 5 to be the gold standard of American comedy.  Back then, I didn't watch as many television shows as I do now, so The Office was really a touchstone show for me at the time, and even if I didn't realize it, the show made a huge impact on the way that I think about comedy.  I was young and didn't think as critically when season 6 aired, so I still have some lingering affection for it (which contains the brilliant "Scott's Tots"), but that's generally where fans find the show to have tanked in quality.  Season 7 had some inspired arcs, most notably Michael's farewell, but it doesn't hold together overall and is largely abysmal after "Goodbye Michael."  None of that can match the trainwreck that was season 8.  It's hard to believe a show that once made me bellow with laughter and get caught up in its sweeping emotions was now responsible for giving me Robert California and the Florida arc.  Things were getting grim and there were often times where I contemplated giving up on the show altogether, only staying out of some perverse desire to finish what I started so many years ago.

With the prospect of the show finally ending and Greg Daniels returning to the helm to be the showrunner, many people were hopeful for a turnaround as the The Office approached the finish line.  And there were certainly some promising seeds planted in the early going, particularly with Jim and Pam.  While some people found the ongoing conflict between Jim and Pam to be inorganic and not truthful to the characters that the writers established over the course of 8 seasons, I thought it was the best part of most of the season.  Sure, it might have been useless to sell the idea that this cosmic love story was ever in danger of crumbling, and the resolution to their troubles was ultimately poorly done, but somewhere in between there was a really honest arc about how marriage is hard work and happily ever after isn't something that just falls at your feet.  It didn't help that the Jim and Pam storyline dovetailed with the weakest part of the season, which was the revealing of the documentary crew.  By the middle of the season, the show had fallen back into the forgettable rut in which it dwelled for the past few years, and the "Brian the Sound Guy" storyline just drummed up conflict that felt out of place for the show.  The completion and airing of the documentary was important to the show's final arc, but that ill-conceived plot had no real bearing on the master plan.

Luckily, the season benefited from a major uptick in its final three episodes.  "Livin' the Dream" and "A.A.R.M." featured a number of great plotlines.  Andy Bernard's slow descent into monstrosity was one of the more unpleasant aspects of season 9 and while they weren't able to completely pull his arc out of its tailspin, the writers at least decided to punish him, and his parts in these last few were more enjoyable because of it.  Once the show moved past toying with whether or not Jim and Pam would get a happy ending and became about how they'd achieve their happy ending, things felt a bit less wheel-spinny.  Seeing Jim's video to Pam in "A.A.R.M.," which featured numerous scenes from them throughout the years, instantly made me well up.  These last few episodes worked best when they were playing to the strengths of long-form storytelling, paying off on dynamics that have been in play over the course of the show.  There was nothing funny about Angela's misery, perhaps my favorite of these final few episodes, but latter-era Office frequently shined when leaning more on drama and it was no different here.  Oscar and Angela's relationship had been fraught with complications and entanglements, and to finally see them bond was awfully moving.  But nothing was more satisfying in terms of long term payoff than Dwight's promotion to Regional Manager.  The triumph of his long-anticipated ascension, along with his budding friendship with Jim, brought some warmth to the show that was missing for a long time and set the stage well for the finale.

Opening with an hour-long cast retrospective that was an indication of how self-congratulatory the series ending would be, "Finale" was certainly a bit of a pat on the back to the show itself.  The Office, with its relatable workplace antics and fourth-wall breaking winks and nods, was always about involving the audience as much as possible, so it was just as much a pat on the back to the viewers as well.  In this way, "Finale" was not just the ending of a show, but a goodbye to people we've known and (sometimes) loved for 9 years.  Fortunately, the goodbye gets just the proper amount of weight -- the episode is loaded with joke callbacks, character returns, and happy endings.  There's something celebratory about Michael Scott returning and immediately making a "that's what she said" remark or seeing Ryan and Kelly again and learning that they're still the same as they always were.

That's not to say that this series finale wasn't without its faults.  No, there were a few moments where the show slipped back into the mean-spirited and cartoonish nature that plagued the last couple of seasons.  "Finale" tries to mine comedy from child abandonment in the Kelly/Ryan story, and it just comes off as bizarre and unfunny.  At other times, the episode seems overly concerned with giving every single character a happy ending.  In a sense, the series finale I was reminded of the most was Friday Night Lights' finale.  That was another show that was completely in love with its own characters and while there wasn't any individual happy ending that I disliked, the culmination of happy endings made it seem slightly overstuffed.  So while I didn't necessarily hate the conclusion of Jim and Pam's storyline, it felt like another close to a chapter that already felt closed.

Yet none of those minor quibbles are able to take away from the overall success of the finale, for two big reasons.  The first one is the Q&A panel in the middle of the episode, which uses the format to speak for the audience and depict how we feel about these characters.  To a more cynical person, this may be just another in a long list of examples of how this episode was too self-satisfied, but I found it to be an interesting look back at some of the joys of the series and address the problems that plagued this season.  Plus, without the Q&A panel, you wouldn't be able to get to see Erin finally meet her parents, which may be the best moment in the entire finale.  Perfectly played by Ellie Kemper (who was consistently a shining beacon when the show's quality began to dip during dark times), the scene has a quiet beauty to it, while still managing to be funny too.

The second of these reasons is the last 15 minutes of the episode, after the weddings and all of the parties have ended, and the whole gang gathers in the office for one last hoorah.  It almost feels like an epilogue to the finale, transitioning into a sequence that's one of the most beautiful and reflective things I've ever seen on television.  All at once, it's somber and regretful and sweet and joyous, as the group basks in the warmth of just being together.  In a medium that always wants a gag or a laugh or just something going on, the smallness of these scenes was particularly gut-wrenching.  Almost everybody gets a final talking head segment and they're all lyrical and fantastic, but the one that has lingered in my mind is Andy's quote: "I wish there was a way to know that you're living in the good ol' days before you actually leave it."  After all of these years of grousing about how much the show had gone downhill, suddenly none of that seemed to matter, and I found myself only remembering all of the good times that I had with these characters.  In the grand scheme of things, does the awfulness of "Stairmageddon" take away from the brilliance of the Michael Scott Paper Company arc?  Does the misguided Florida arc diminish the amazing cringe comedy setpieces in "Dinner Party"?  No.  Those bigger flaws also just wash away to the show itself, which closes out by focusing on what made it so special in the first place -- the little stuff.  As Pam said in the final words ever spoken on The Office, "there's alot of beauty in the ordinary things."

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