"I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them."
Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) wistfully offers that future yearbook quote during a confessional in one of his last scenes in The Office finale. He might've been speaking for those longtime viewers of the NBC sitcom who wish that the series' creators had decided to call it quits several seasons ago, when it still starred Steve Carell as Michael Scott, before it became more known as the show that used to be good as opposed to the show that was undeniably great.
But the fact is, The Office was a great show, full stop. Though in its final few seasons it was nowhere near as sharp, surprising, or relevant as it was before the departure of Carell, it never really strayed from its status as groundbreaking and inventive. Thursday night's perfectly fitting finale proved just that.
The Office never should've worked in the first place. The single-camera comedy with a weird mockumentary format launched in a post-Friends, post-Everybody Loves Raymond time when comedies were still supposed to have laugh tracks, jokes were supposed to be understood by both young and old audiences, and new series were supposed to be led by stars. It was this offbeat, sarcastic, unique thing starting up in the middle of an early-millennium crisis when some critics had declared sitcoms "dead." Steve Carell was an unproven lead. Its jokes skewed young. Its documentary style was, at the time, untested.
But it had something big going for it: being really funny.
What The Office did so brilliantly in those early years was marry its odd new concept and tone with the standard expectations of a sitcom. Michael Scott was the kind of character who is so unusual and buffoonish that he would typically be the second-tier supporting character. But he was, as we want our heroes to be, easy to root for, and somehow worked as the lead. The people around him, too, made you care about them even as you laughed at them. The show's sitcom-y office hijinx came punctuated with instantly quotable one-liners. And in the middle of all this insanity, there was this achingly realistic Jim and Pam romance.
So The Office was always an unlikely concoction of weird and traditional elements. The Office finale, true to form, was the same.
Yes, there were weird, Office-y twists. The episode opened with the harsh firings of two beloved characters. There was a creepy scene in which Meredith reunited with, and then danced with, her stripper son. A character fakes his death and no one much notices. Yet at the same time, it was a pleasingly traditional finale. Old favorites came back—hello, Mindy Kaling, BJ Novak, that stripper from the "Ben Franklin" episode, and, yes, even Steve Carell. There were montages to remind us of how much characters have grown. Hell, there was even a wedding. Can a sitcom's finale be more traditional than being a wedding episode?
The discussion panel was a clever plot device that allowed the show's writers to address audiences' grievances, especially about those last few, subpar seasons.
Traditional, yes, but with unexpected genius.
The finale was framed by the wedding, but more important was a reunion panel to discuss the documentary about Dunder Mifflin that filmed over the previous nine years and finally aired on PBS. The clever plot device enabled writers to fast forward to everyone's happy(ish) endings—Erin finds her birthmother (Joan Cusack!), Andy is finally a viral video star (on less than ideal terms), Dwight and Angela are getting married. But it also allowed the show's writers to address audiences' grievances about what had unfolded throughout the course of the series, and especially in those last few, subpar seasons.