The series finale of “The Office” offered a satisfying mix of the elements that fueled the best big-network sitcom of its time – proving by turns delightfully absurd (Angela and Dwight exchanging wedding vows while standing in his-and-her graves), cringe-worthy (Dwight firing of Kevin, via a message on a cake) and hilarious (Michael’s surprise return to deliver the dirtiest – and funniest – “That’s what she said!” line in the show’s history).
The last wave of humor flowed amid poignant moments that reminded us why we cared about “The Office,” a mockumentary featuring fictional characters, who, for all their silliness, banality and struggles with futility, became precious to us. As Pam, who found art and true love in a dysfunctional Scranton, Pa., paper company, put it in the show’s final line: “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things, isn’t that the point?”
The extraordinary, bittersweet closing episode of “The Office” solidified the long-running NBC show’s place in TV history among the rare sitcoms able to make us laugh until it hurts while occasionally – and unexpectedly – touching our hearts.
“The Office,” which shares its creative DNA with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's brilliant original U.K. version, joined “All in the Family” among the few British-inspired comedies to thrive on this side of the Atlantic. Like “MASH” and “Cheers, “The Office” survived the departure of major characters. The program, which barely made it through its inaugural season, ultimately became the best office-set ensemble comedy since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the greatest of the genre.
Sure, it was too much to expect the kind of ratings and hoopla that surrounded the farewells of past classics, such as “Seinfeld,” which left the air 15 years ago this week as more than 76 million fans watched. “The Office,” after all, was a show of its time, reflecting an era of downsizing – from jobs to TV audiences.
Dunder Mifflin didn't always offer ideal or stable working conditions (remember Michael's nasty fake-firing of Pam? The absorption of the Stamford branch? The corporate takeovers?) Comically uncomfortable moments filled an eight-year run that coincided with one of the toughest economic downturns in decades.
“The Office” also echoed the shifting entertainment landscape, using the Reality TV convention of characters addressing an off-camera camera crew – unseen until this compelling final season, in which the documentary team emerged as a key character, adding a new, welcome layer of depth.
The camera crew returned for Thursdays’ finale – six months after the nine-years-in-the-making documentary aired on PBS and just in time for Dwight and Angela’s wedding.
The crew captured some great closing images: Dwight and Michael dancing to Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita” at Schrute Farms. Phyllis giving Angela a piggyback ride down the aisle. Erin meeting her birth parents. Self-absorbed Kelly and Ryan running off together for a life likely to be lived unhappily ever after. Andy, a viral video laughingstock, learning to live with – and even embrace – his odd brand of fame.
We also saw Michael show off pictures of his real family – and tear up while watching his surrogate children Jim, Pam, Dwight and Angela sharing their joy at the wedding.
“I feel like all my kids grew up and then they married each other – it’s every parent’s dream,” he said – aptly goofy and touching last words for a clueless bumbler whose heart, if not his mind, ultimately landed in the right place.
But perhaps the most telling moments came when the characters took the stage for a “Survivor”-like reunion show before the nuptials.
“Do you find that your life feels pointless now that nobody’s actually filming you anymore?” one audience member asked.
Sad sack former human resources director Toby instantly answered, “Yes” – a line worth more than a reflexive chuckle.
The question struck at issues the characters – and, by extension, the TV audience – grappled with in the last show. Was the Dunder Mifflin gang better off for having exposed their lives to the film crew? Did they learn anything about themselves? Was the audience better off for having watched all these years?
Jim and Pam, whose romance
gave “The Office” much of its heart, offered answers in the series’ moving final minutes, affirming their commitment to one another – and fans' commitment to the show.
Pam said she got frustrated viewing the documentary because she realized that she didn’t grab her chance at happiness soon enough. Watching also helped her rectify her error in pressuring Jim to stop pursuing his dream career with a sports marketing startup. “Act fast,” Pam said, “because life isn’t that long.”
Jim told the documentary crew that in the end, he was grateful for their presence: “Imagine going back and watching a tape of your life … You guys gave that to me and that’s an amazing gift.”
“The Office,” over nine seasons and some 200 episodes, gave us all an amazing gift – a show we’ll cherish and deeply miss. (That’s what she said!)
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.
Published at 12:30 AM CDT on May 17, 2013 | Updated at 8:28 AM CDT on May 17, 2013
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