Steve Carell's final episode confirms something that's been true for a long time: The show's original magic is gone
For a few years now watching The Office has had all the bittersweet frustration of checking in on an old flame. You want to feel that spark. You want to feel the love. But when you re-connect all you really feel is nostalgia for times past, when things were happier and funnier, and before it got weird. Sort of like how Michael Scott felt at the end about Jan Levenson Gould.
A diehard fan of the embering show for many years, I can't tell you how many times over the past couple of seasons I have dutifully checked in on Thursday night to see if Steve Carrell and the gang were funny again. And I have lost track of how many times during that period I've changed the channel when I've discovered that they weren't. For me anyway, there have been far too many gimmicks, sideshows, and plots that diverged for too long from the alchemy that made the show, for all those years, so immensely watchable.
Even before Jim and Pam got married (the show's obvious shark-jumping moment), the series' deft balance between the funny and the uncomfortable—always a delicate affair in matters of art—seemed off kilter to me. There just hasn't been enough clever humor to take the edge off the show's legendary scythe swooping down on workplace mores, relationships, and whatnot. Trotting out creepy Todd Packer every now and again was funny. Building a show around him and his sexist shtick was decidedly not. I liked the meat-and-potatoes Office of yesteryear. Not the inside-joke one of today.
The further the show's creators and writers moved away from the core workings of the Scranton branch, the less funny the show became. The more they tried to round out the character of the characters, to make them more than just gag-transmitters, the less tenable became the original premise of the American version of the show. The more we liked Michael Scott, or at least rooted for him, the less amusing (or becoming) were his antics. Nothing good lasts forever. But there is something to be said for not messing with a good thing, either.
I don't fault the artists in charge of the show for wanting to stretch their creativity in this manner—to go beyond the literal walls of The Office's offices. But that doesn't mean I had to like the direction in which they chose to go. Traditional sitcom characters are supposed to become caricatures of themselves. But too often lately "The Office" has felt like its characters were just another network promotion. Right now, The Office is consistently less funny and imaginative than 30 Rock or Community or Parks and Recreation. The anchor show for NBC's legendary Thursday night lineup has become, literally, a comedic anchor weighing down the rest of the ship.
To make matters worse, the contrast between the discordant new shows and the harmonic old ones is consistently thrown before us thanks to the hours of The Office re-runs which air Tuesday nights on TBS. And now Carrell, the brilliant Carrell, the irreplaceable Carrell, will be gone. It'll be like All in the Family without Edith Bunker (except that Norman Lear and company actually retitled that sad show to Archie Bunker's Place). Without Michael Scott, what exactly will be the point?
There. That is the essence of the rant about the show that I have held inside me since at least 2009. But I write tonight not to bury "The Office." I write instead to review Carrell's final episode on the show. I wanted to absolutely fall head over heels in love it. I wanted to write that for me it happily resurrected the glory of the series' best days. I wanted to say that the show's extremely talented writers took Michael Scott out with a bang—and a perfect blend of sentimentality and chaos, poignancy and humor.
I wanted to say all these things—and yet I found myself bored halfway through the episode (about the time that a commercial came on for a new movie in which Carrell is starring this summer). Last month's episode, where Michael proposes to Holly Flax, was far funnier and more poignant than this week's offering. So was last week's show in which the gang in the conference room (will that end up in the Smithsonian one day, I wonder?) serendaded Michael after he announced he was quitting Dunder Mifflin and moving to Colorado with Holly.
There just wasn't much that was funny last night. Michael and passed-over Dwight Schrute playing paintball by the dumpsters? Michael shooting blind basket after basket in the warehouse? The ubiquitous Will Ferrell (whose work I generally love) playing "Will Ferrell" playing Michael's replacement, a character named Deangelo Vickers? The women of the office fighting again over cakes and party planning? Surely it says something that two of the best lines in the show had to do with its two bathroom scenes. Creed coming out of that stall was brilliant. So was Jim Halpert's line about the crew's filming in the toilet. But over 52 long minutes too little else was.
In the absence of great comedy, of either the high or the low variety, Carell's final show would have benefited from a bracing dose of sentimentality. After all, 30 years later we remember Henry Blake's (McLean Stevenson) final episode on M*A*S*H mostly because he died at the end. But here, too, The Office was schizophrenic. Michael Scott spend much of the episode holding back tears and the scene in the break room, in which he was listening to the gang chatter about a new shredder, was powerful. But then Mr. Sentimentality himself blew off his own going-away party. Similarly, the final scene at the airport with Pam Beasley was well played. But we never got to hear precisely what Michael said to his favorite employee.
I get all the sophisticated reasons why the show's writers would have skewed toward a non-traditional "counter" closing to end Carell's reign. And it surely couldn't have been easy for the writers to send him off in proper style while still maintaining some sense of continuity toward whatever future the show holds. Henry Blake wasn't the star of M*A*S*H, after all, and it would have been unthinkable for that show to have continued in the absence of Alan Alda. Still, even with the low expectations I brought to Thursday night's episode, I was greatly disappointed. It didn't make me laugh and it didn't make me cry.
At the end of the episode, NBC sought to reassure loyal viewers that the final three episodes of the season will be raucous affairs, with cameo appearances from actors like James Spader and Ray Romano and Jim Carrey. I can understand why the network is self-concious and insecure about its cash cow's future. But it's another sign that a show has run its course when its core characters have to be shored up by celebrity guests. On second thought, maybe I did come to bury The Office. To me, especially now that Carell is gone, it's pretty much dead, whether its creators and the network yet are willing to acknowledge it or not.