A farewell salute to “The Office”

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Last night, I watched the second to last episode of The Office. I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of the same kind of lack of interest in the show that many fans experienced after Steve Carell’s Michael Scott left. I will watch an episode here and there, but it was never with the full attention or satisfaction I derived from earlier seasons. The show is still pretty good. But it’s only pretty good.

Last night’s episode started the two episode wrap up to the series that has been on for nearly a decade. While it tugged at heart strings and coerced a laugh or two, the whole thing doesn’t seem as emotionally charged as the Michael Scott farewell episode. The actors seem emotionally drained and it gives the whole thing a sense of closure, not of loss. “We’re ready,” they seem to say.

What struck me, especially from the position of having not been keeping up with the series, is the thing that I’ve always admired about The Office: it’s commitment to developing its characters past their comfort zones. A lot has changed in 9 years at Dunder Mifflin, and it’s only now, looking back, can you really see how risky that was.

English: Logo of the fictitious Dunder Mifflin...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In many sitcoms (and remember, The Office began in a necessarily pre-Office world), the characters must remain in perpetual chaos. Whatever character flaws or problems they had on the first episode remain until the bitter end. It cheapens the experience, especially for a long running show, because when you turn back towards the beginning you see that nothing has been accomplished, no lessons learned, nothing resolved. You begin to wonder if the whole thing was just one big waste of time.

Not so with The Office, it has never wavered in taking its characters into bizarre arenas. Jim going to another branch, Dunder Mifflin being absorbed into a larger company, Michael Scott settling down, and – recently – Andy leaving to pursue his dream of becoming a musician (maybe). Some of these were misfires (I never liked the “Creed as manager” story arc, which seemed less about furthering the story, and more about providing a few cheap laughs), but it added up for a wild ride. By allowing the characters to grow, it allowed us to grow with them.

What’s so cool, and should be viewed as one of the lasting successes of The Office, is how common this is on TV now. With the rise of AMC and HBO original programming, long story arcs that propel a story forward in novel ways are becoming the norm, and even more traditional sitcoms have taken notice (“Parks and Rec” is an obvious example, “Community” creator Dan Harmon has also expressed a desire to move past his series’ origins). The Office did that from the beginning and it’s paid off. I can’t imagine a 9 season run to “The Office” that never resolved the Pam and Jim “will they, won’t they?” drama that kicked off the show. Instead, Pam and Jim provided some much needed heart to a story which at its core was really about the unchanging, unending doldrums of office life.

I’ve heard it said that any good story there is a hidden line at the end which reads “and nothing was ever the same again after that.” The Office took that advice to heart and made an experience that, like life itself, twisted and turned, slowed and quickened, but never stopped moving forward. Farewell, Dunder Mifflin, your paper company may have been dysfunctional but your people were a joy, and isn’t that the point?

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