May 17, 2013

That's All She Said: Goodbye, The Office

By Josh Oakley

"I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days, before you've actually left them."
-Andy Bernard

I was in line for the bathroom at a bar last night, and a stranger followed a number of unintelligible words with "Life's a lot of give and take, you know?"

I've watched every episode of The Office, so yes, I'm well aware. That show, one of the great sitcoms of the past 20 years, gave us so many things, and took almost two years of wading through misguided plots. But I'm not going to focus on the bad years. There are plenty of great write-ups to serve as reminders that The Office faltered, and it faltered dramatically. It's not that I, as a television critic, am oblivious to faults within the shows I love. I'm well aware that The Office's eighth season was largely rancid, but this is a eulogy. Most obituaries don't mention the shitty things that a person did, and I'll pay The Office the same respect. I can acknowledge the show's faults, and may write about them at a later date. But I'm here to discuss why this show meant as much to me as it did. The Office was an important sitcom for the genre itself, and for myself on a deeply personal level. I wept from the moment Pam wished to have inspired at least one person, to a good minute or two after the credits rolled. If you're not in for that kind of thing, check back here later. If you're ready for me to go on about my ultimate love of The Office, keep on reading.

Sentimentality is underrated in criticism. That's not to say that every critic should be as autobiographical as I am; rather, it means that many in the field are willing to eschew their own feelings for the sake of "objectiveness", and criticism is, ultimately, a subjective artform. That's not an insult lobbed at critics much better than I am. It's an acknowledgment of my personal style, at least within the confines of this website.

A series finale can either serve as a period or as a comma that we'll never see the other side of. Lost is an example of the former, The Office of the latter (Battlestar Galactica is an example of a finale that attempts to have it both ways; it excels at the former, fails as the latter). While I love the concrete ending, most often found in serialized drama, the unseen continuation is far more compelling and "realistic" (this is fiction; realism only matters insofar as unrealistic situations do not strip character development of its meaning). Just because we, the audience, are exiting, does not mean these characters are finished with their personal reality. The Office had the guise of documentary to provide its comma: obviously we only picked up and left off the employees of Dunder Mifflin within the confines of a specific time. But what an important time it was.

When I think of The Office, the amount of time it encapsulates is vital to my life. I began when the show did and I was 13, in 7th grade. I'm now 21 and nearing the end of college. For those who have read my How I Met Your Mother work, this information may seem repetitive. But I think it is vital for providing context of my relationship with this show. While I was watching the various exploits of Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight and many others, I fell in love, entered high school, graduated high school, forced myself away from my love, entered college, and all of the obnoxious shit that fills the ground in between.

The Office, for me, recalls the only time I bonded with my freshman roommate. I can think of half-hours spent with my parents, marathons of the show on my own, and various episodes revisited with one of my best friends that I only see once or twice a year. The Office has provided me with more than some laughs and good times; it has helped me to build and sustain relationships, and given me a common cultural ground to relate to others within.

And more than that, it has given me hope. Michael took decades to heal his loneliness. Jim met, pursued and married his once unrequited love. Pam explored her career options and found herself largely content within her seemingly-middling existence. Perhaps that last part is the most important: we can find comfort and true happiness with the confines of a normal life.

Whatever lessons The Office offered, it provided them as entertainment, giving some of the funniest half-hours that the sitcom genre has ever seen. “The Injury” or “Ben Franklin” may not have the emotional resonance of “Casino Night” or “Beach Games”, but all four of those episodes are hysterical, and those final two give an emotional gut-punch rarely experienced on the network comedy schedule. Michael Scott’s exit from the show, in “Goodbye, Michael”, The Office’s last great episode before its finale, reminded us, after a weak season, why we would miss this iconic character.

So let’s get to that series finale, and discuss why it is, largely, a success. It is by no means a perfect episode of television; it’s bloated, occasionally staid, and periodically goes for emotional beats that are undeserved. That proves, rather than negates, how it works as a series finale for The Office. This wasn’t a perfect show. As great as Michael Scott was a character, he would once in a while venture too far into “asshole” territory. The final two or three seasons of The Office were mostly bad, with flashes of the show’s former self. Some characters didn’t work, and reality often turned into farce (for better and worse). But The Office was, overall, a magnificently loveable and hilarious beast that utilized strong writing and performing to churn out two perfect seasons (2 & 3), and two great ones (4 & 5). It gave us Jim and Pam and Dwight and Michael and Angela and Oscar and any other number of characters that fans will recall for the rest of their lives. It gave us the Office Olympics and introduced us to Ellie Kemper and taught us a love of Chili’s that seemed impossible. With how much The Office gave, it seems foolhardy and unfair to treat its end as just another episode. Yes, the show became bad. But before that, it was one of the greatest things on television.

The other reason that The Office finale works so well is that it deals in moments. There is some semblance of plot here (the events leading up to and extending from Dwight and Angela’s wedding), but there’s not act-based structure. And that’s fine. The Office could tell capable stories, but it was at its best when it invested in small, perfect moments. The most profound of these concern Jim and Pam (specifically his admission of love, and his asking her out), but they were provided for many characters over the course of the show’s run. The Office could pull off great episodes, but Michael feeding pigeons, feeling more alone than ever? When I think back on the show, those scenes will first jump to mind. And the series finale has that vignette quality in certain parts. It indulges in thirty-second sequences of various characters dancing. It provides somewhat happy endings for each character. And even those range from a daughter and her parents reuniting to something as small as people kind of wanting Toby at an after-party. The comma that the series finale provides serves to acknowledge that journeys aren’t finished when the cameras stop rolling.

So, the quote I began this essay with: I could have picked any number of great, inspiring lines from the last ten minutes of the series finale; from Pam, hoping that she gave someone self-confidence to Creed recalling his years at Dunder Mifflin in a strangely sentimental fashion (though strangeness was, of course, his gift). But Andy’s line sums up the experience best, especially given the last few years. It can be easy to under-appreciate what The Office gave us, especially once it began to decline. But those early years were golden, and nothing will ever take them away.

Though maybe it is Pam who said it best: “There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn't that kind of the point?” Those little things, from the yogurt-lid medallion that Creed kept for years to Jim’s secret teapot-letter to Pam, defined The Office. And those touches added up to a series finale that reminded its viewers: we won’t be here every week any more, so it’s your turn. Be your own Jim, your own Pam, your own Michael. Go out and discover the small, beautiful things that this world has waiting for you. But if you ever need The Office to remind you of that, it will be there, captured in memory like the rooftop dinners and the Flonkerton races you long to have again.

Goodbye, The Office. Thank you for everything, even the weak years, because the good and the bad come together to define and shape our lives. But what am I telling you for? You're already well aware: the mundane jobs we take may lead to our best years. And if not, at least we'll have a good story to tell. Have you heard the one about the boss that told wildly inappropriate jokes, or the one concerning two would-be strangers who found love with each other amidst a series of roadblocks? You have? Well, I for one, am ready to queue up episode one and hear them again. Because the experiences never leave, they just become memories.

And that, my friends, that's all she said.

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