"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?
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.
The women attending the panel nearly all swoon over Jim, who over the course of the series was painted as an infallible Adonis. We watched him grow from goofy everyman, to hopeless romantic, to dashing, ideal husband, even when Pam doesn't realize how good she's got it. The panel attendees demand to know how a romance can be so perfect. Pam even gets asked during the panel why she never realized she was living a fairy tale. It's shrewd commentary on two characters whose arc, as boring and groan-worthy as it became, was pretty revolutionary for television.
The conventional wisdom has always been that getting a will-they/won't-they couple together too soon was a creative death sentence for a TV show. Yet The Office didn't just make Jim and Pam a couple at the height of the series' popularity—seemingly prime time to drag out the romantic tension—it went further. It made them happy. Not only that, it made them happy for seasons to come. Yes, the last year finally threw obstacles in their path, and watching them deal with them was the surprising highlight of the season. But The Office changed the rules in television once again by daring to explore what humor could result when a comedy's First Couple live genuinely in love with each other. Jess and Nick "shippers" who watch New Girl can thank the show for that.
It was pretty smart to have the panel address the significance of that innovation—as was giving the couple one last grand romantic gesture to elicit an "aww" from fans. Recognizing the value of an occasional "aww" was always one of the show's strengths, a realization that though the modern trend in comedy was towards irony, sarcasm, and meanness, there was still value and even laughs to be had in sweetness. The way Michael Scott's return was unveiled, as a wedding gift from Jim, made for one of those moments. So did the reunion of Erin with her birth mother. And who didn't cry during those last few minutes of the episode spent with the original cast members in their office chairs?
This balance of subversive and the sweet is what made The Office succeed. It's why Michael Scott became an icon. He was an absolutely destructive imbecile, but so earnest and well-intentioned that you couldn't help but love him. Nothing normal came out of his mouth, but it was said with so much affection that you forgave every offensive, bizarre, nonsensical thing. In a sensational piece of writing, especially given the lofty expectations, Michael's final line last night perfectly captured all of that: the mix of weird and lovable, over-the-top and recognizable, heartfelt and laugh-out-loud funny. It was the prime example of why he worked as a character, why the finale worked, and why The Office worked as a show for so long.
"I feel like all my kids grew up and married each other," he said, beaming with pride. And then: "It's like every parent's dream." Laugh, cry, and cringe: There's the The Office.