It may not be pretty, but it’s somehow fitting that The Office should end this way: humbled, overlooked, and, increasingly, unloved. No one was paying much attention when the series debuted in 2005 and, in retrospect, it’s easy to see why. It was a prickly, initially slavish adaptation of a culty British comedy, shot in a jarring, shaky-camera style that appeared more suitable for Cops or a drunk uncle’s home movies than Must See TV. NBC thought so little of it that only six episodes were ordered and then promptly dumped in the midseason swamps of late March. The pilot featured a cast of relative unknowns ventriloquizing Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s cringe-inducing dialogue and, when subsequent episodes lost half the audience, the show’s prospects seemed thinner than Steve Carell’s pre–movie star hair. It was a fluke box office smash that kept it alive; it was a network-wide dearth of better options that eventually made it a hit.
So there’s some symmetry in the fact that after eight years, four Emmys, three regional managers, and an untold number of parties in the conference room, The Office‘s farewell feels more like an afterthought than an event. In the two seasons since Carell departed, the show has shed both viewers and purpose at an alarming rate, like one of Angela’s beloved cats on a hot summer day. NBC is rightfully devoting two hours of prime time to the finale tomorrow night, but all of the network brass will be busy partying and praying in Manhattan, hoping that at least one of the half-dozen new sitcoms unveiled during upfronts this week will break through.1 And among comedy nerds, all but the most devoted Scrantonites are already looking ahead to May 26 and the return of Arrested Development, a show far more beloved in death than it ever was in life. It’s a rough lesson worthy of a Northeastern Pennsylvania winter and one written in the DNA of The Office‘s collection of wacky sad sacks and dippy drones: that attention and appreciation are only given to the new or the too-soon-departed. There’s financial reward but precious little glory in putting in the work for the long haul. On TV, surviving just means you haven’t yet had a chance to be missed.
In this case, “breaking through” would probably entail getting half the ratings The Office got in its prime or, hell, matching what it managed in its decline. Season 8’s average hovered around 5 million viewers — down from 9 million in its prime — which made it NBC’s highest-rated scripted show for 2011-12, which is insane.
That said, those who are returning just for the emotional pull of the finale haven’t missed much. I’ve spent the better part of two years chronicling The Office as it struggled and failed to find a creative reason to continue its existence without Carell. (Seventeen months ago I was even presumptuous enough to prescribe some fixes.) I have little interest in revisiting the bizarre season-long performance of James Spader as sexual gasbag Robert California — watching him was like eating a ham sandwich laced with tryptophan — or the deeply unpleasant heel turn of Ed Helms’s over-his-head Andy Bernard.2 Besides, it seems churlish to speak ill of the almost-dead. Part of me always admired the writers’ bravery in attempting the unfeasible, even as I disparaged the results. A drowning man will splash around like crazy trying to stay afloat. It’s not pretty but it sometimes works.
I continue to believe that The Office could have aged gracefully had it handed the big chair to Nellie instead of the wildly unsuitable Andy. I have no insider knowledge, but it doesn’t take a Cornell diploma to assume NBC was much more keen on promoting the star of The Hangover than one of Doctor Who’s time-traveling companions, especially considering the way things worked out the last time the producers bet on a Daily Show star turned R-rated comedy headliner.
In this case, it didn’t. Yet whether you consider The Office‘s overdue demise a tragedy or a mercy kill, it’s still no less deserving of a wake. When it was good, The Office was truly great. In contrast to the aspirational noisiness of other sitcoms, this was a show that celebrated the smallness of everyday life, the quiet indignities and tiny failures that mar our days and the shy smiles, raised eyebrows, and harmless pranks (well, mostly harmless) that give us the resilience to do it all again tomorrow. The Office thrived on the paper-thin edge between resignation and giving up, a task that would have been impossible had showrunner Greg Daniels not made the key decision to declare total independence from the English source material after the uneven first season.3 He and Carell quickly understood that Ricky Gervais’s hilariously appalling lowball of cluelessness and creepitude would never work on American TV. Not because Yanks can’t handle a spot of unpleasantness, but because no audience could endure it for the length of an American television season, let alone nine of them.
The best episode out of the first six, “Diversity Day,” by B.J. Novak, is beloved by fans but totally unrecognizable in the context of what the show became. At one point Michael explains “colored greens” to Stanley, saying “you don’t call them collard people because that’s offensive.” This is moments after Kelly has slapped Michael in the face for his barrage of crude Kwik-E-Mart jokes. It took awhile for the writers to elide the difference between a lovable clown and a dangerous buffoon. But eventually they nailed him. TWSS.
The U.K. Office was an intentionally limited glimpse into a menial existence that felt like jail; audiences were rooting more for Tim to make it out alive than to make out with Dawn. The domestic version always needed to be more expansive — in 2013, it has aired as many episodes as the British version produced in total — and so Daniels cleverly reimagined his Office not as a place to be escaped from alone but as something to be endured together. Instead of filling out the margins of his canvas with faceless extras, he invested in faces not usually seen on television — the rumpled Stanley, the gonzo Creed, and Kevin, that melting scoop of vanilla ice cream — decorating the set with Rushmores of disappointment and ennui. He even let star writers in on the action, allowing Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak to both dream up and play out a delightfully dysfunctional bad romance. It’s a credit to this uniquely deep bench of talent that even when the A-stories on The Office went sour it could still count on the B-listers to score some effortlessly easy points. Thanks to this cast The Office could, even in the midst of the worst run of its existence, produce something as self-aware and oddly moving as an opening teaser about the slow, mortal descent of an old helium balloon.
There had been romantic sitcoms before The Office, and workplace sitcoms, too, of course. There had even been sitcoms starring Steve Carell.4 But no comedy before or since better captured the temporarily inflating rush of impractical desire, probably because no American comedy has ever been so unafraid of acknowledging desire’s black sheep cousin, regret. It’s what made Michael’s hapless quest for happiness feel heartfelt, not foolish, and imbued Dwight’s slow rise to power — and last week’s achievement of it — with the sort of recognizably human emotions the black-belted beet farmer would never cop to feeling.
If Come to Papa hadn’t debuted and instantly flopped on NBC in June 2004, thus freeing Carell for the role, Michael Scott would likely have been played by Bob Odenkirk.
And it’s what fueled the show’s essential story line for the best years of its life: the gradually romantic evolution of Jim and Pam from work spouses to actual spouses. Yes, the ham-fisted shenanigans of the final season made it plain that The Office had punted for years on the inevitable flip side to this fairy tale: Jim and Pam had gotten each other but they’d given up their hopes and dreams in the process. But I think it’s worth remembering just how bracing and essential those flirty looks and missed connections once felt, how understated and remarkable Jenna Fischer was in a role that so easily could have rankled with cuteness or veered into doormat. The end of Season 3 remains one of a handful of perfect television moments from my lifetime: Pam is doing a talking head to the camera assuming Jim, whom she’s lost to the wiles of Rashida Jones’s Karen, has gotten a corporate job in New York. Then Jim bursts into the room, a little flustered and a lot excited. He asks Pam out on a date. She accepts. He leaves. She turns back to us, asking “I’m sorry, what was the question?” And her skyscraping smile fills the screen in a way that standard sitcom laughter never could.
The warmth and width of the cast5 is what allowed NBC to keep The Office afloat after the loss of its star in 2011. But what if it hadn’t? Had The Office closed up shop the moment in Season 7 when Michael Scott boarded the plane to Colorado, as many (including yours truly) had hoped, it would have been possible to view the series, in sum, as a happy one: It was the story of a man of modest means and even more modest intellect finding true love and, within that true love, the key to free himself from the workaday chains of mediocrity and borrowed catchphrases. Even a contrarian like Oscar would have to admit it would’ve made for a conventionally satisfying ending.
For a time The Office was able to extend its window with a page from the New York Yankees’ playbook, spackling over deficiencies with a high-priced parade of imported MVPs, from Ed Helms to Ellie Kemper and Catherine Tate. Consider James Spader and Roseanne Barr the Kei Igawa and Carl Pavano of this analogy.
Who wouldn’t leap at the chance to stop peddling sheets of blank paper and start writing your own story instead?
Yet there’s a part of me — a trolly, masochistic part, I’ll grant you — that’s actually glad The Office didn’t fly away with Michael but instead remained trapped in the drop-ceilinged confines of the Scranton Business Park for two increasingly claustrophobic seasons. Though the tone grew even more cartoony and light, the cynical impossibility of the circumstance — network demands more stories from people who have clearly run out of things to say — communicated the darkness that’s always been at the root of the series far better than any ginned-up fourth-quarter Halpert marital discord ever could. The show danced around the subtext but it didn’t need to: Michael’s romance had given him a way out; Jim and Pam’s had just provided companionship for the long way down. Sticking with the latter didn’t make for good television, but on some level it felt like the natural endgame for a show that always tried to pass a cul-de-sac off as a destination.
There’s a version of the American Office that’s more aligned with its British forefather, one that has always lurked just beneath the surface and is more upsetting than any drama: a show about dead-end people clinging to petty distractions and each other to stop from falling completely into despair. Fans rightfully point to Michael’s exit — and particularly to Steve Carell’s otherworldly chemistry with the brilliant Amy Ryan — as the last time The Office truly soared. But The Office was never about soaring. More than anything, it was about gliding — which is really just a prettier word for coasting. Like some sort of mutant Hotel California, characters could occasionally leave Dunder Mifflin — Pam and Ryan to New York, Jim to dot-com dreams in Silicon Philly — but they always came back. Early on in “Casino Night,” the indelible and delicate last episode of The Office‘s second season, Jim leaned over the reception desk and offered to help Pam sort through a box of audition tapes from local wedding bands eager to serenade her first dance with Roy, her dud of a fiancé. “These are people who have never given up on their dreams,” Jim said with a classic Krasinskian blend of earnestness and irony. “And I have great respect for that.”
It’s ironic, though, that a show so resistant to change should end up responsible for so much of it. It was The Office that popularized the mockumentary format on TV — though it would be Modern Family that would truly take it to the bank — and The Office that made single-camera the preferred visual style for smart sitcoms on every channel. The Office made big stars out of its performers and its writers, and it was the first sitcom to take big advantage of new media to boost its chances and its audience. (It was the earliest NBC series available on iTunes, and the number of downloads factored into its surprise early renewal.) In an era — and on a network — that privileged concept over character, it made intimacy feel expansive and made smallness feel larger-than-life. I have a feeling tomorrow’s 75-minute finale will change the conversation yet again because, despite everything, I fully expect it to be great.
Yet as Stanley or any of the other Dunder Mifflin lifers would surely agree, change is not always good. When the fax machines, ringing telephones, and constantly jamming copiers power down for a final time, a tradition more proud than the Dundies or the breaking of a pig rib at Amish Christmas goes with them. For 30 years, NBC has maintained an unprecedented streak of comedy excellence in the 9 p.m. hour on Thursdays. From Cheers to Seinfeld and The Office, these shows weren’t just the best sitcoms of their eras, they helped define them. That The Office overstayed its welcome may hurt its reputation in the short term but won’t matter a bit in the long run; Friends wheezed its way to the finish line, and no one has ever forgiven Larry David for the way Seinfeld ended. But this week, NBC announced that it’s replacing The Office in September with Sean Saves the World, a broadly mawkish, backward-looking half-hour starring Will & Grace‘s Sean Hayes as a zinger-spouting single dad. With its studio audience and canned laughter, it’s a deadening reminder of corporate groupthink, how safety and stability are always favored over creativity and how, in the real world, risk is very rarely its own reward.
Maybe The Office really was a documentary after all.