On Thursday afternoon, in all the build-up to the thoroughly satisfying (but a tad too long – that’s what she said – and certainly too heart-strung) series finale of NBC’s “The Office,” a radio reporter from the BBC asked me to explain why the American version of the show seemed so much warmer, fuzzier and more emotionally-invested than the meaner-edged, cringier British version.
Well, there are plenty of reasons for that, not the least of which is that our version had a nine-season run compared to the 15-episode original series over there. That’s a lot of years to grow attached to a group of people, no matter their character flaws.
But the main reason is that, for all our recession-era bitterness and anxiety, Americans are huggers and criers. We completely buy into what “Generation X” author Douglas Coupland once termed the “air family” – those co-workers and fellow travelers to whom we become attached simply because of the time we’ve done together in the cubicle trenches. In America, familiarity may indeed breed contempt, but it’s also an excellent way to harvest sap. Like all real-life office workers, the characters in “The Office” may yet discover the real meaning of air family now that they are largely apart: Over the years they’ll have less to talk about and nothing in common. They’ll forget about one another.
This seems an obscene and frigid notion in the face of the lovefest we were shown Thursday night. After an hour-long special spent luxuriating in “The Office’s” tender trap, the writers and producers of the show chose to fixate more (much, much more) on happy endings instead of the sharp comedy that got them to this point. This meant that Steve Carell returned late in the episode as Michael Scott, to serve as the surprise best man at the wedding of Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) and Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey) – a welcome sight, but oddly lacking in funny lines for Michael. “I feel like all my kids grew up and then they married each other. It’s every parent’s dream,” he said, in a prime example of the finale’s propensity to favor Kleenex over comedy.
In other (spoiler) news: Kelly and Ryan (Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak) ran off together once more. (Kaling had one of the smarter observations during the hour-long special: All you young couples who model your own romance on the Jim-and-Pam ideal might do better to admit that most relationships look a lot more like the narcissistic doom that surrounds Kelly and Ryan.) The PBS documentary project that formed “The Office’s” mockumentary conceit aired in its entirety and brought little tumult to the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, but it did reunite the office receptionist – never-adopted-foster-child Erin (Ellie Kemper) – with her birth parents. (Played by Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr., in a clever bit of casting.)
Both the retrospective special and the final episode leaned heavily on Jenna Fischer (both as herself and as Pam Beesly Halpert) for emotional grounding and articulate finish. My favorite part about the end of “The Office” was Pam’s confession that she never finished watching the documentary. She just couldn’t stand to watch herself missing out on life – taking too long to fall in love with Jim (John Krasinski) or pursue her art career or move beyond Dunder Mifflin. Pam had the exact reaction we all had to Pam in the beginning: She wanted to scream at her. “Life just isn’t that long,” Pam cautioned the viewers, in a moving speech that veered close to the platitudes of the YOLO handbook.
But it was also Pam who most succinctly wrapped up the reason why America became so hooked on a show about something as banal as life in a drab office that sells paper: “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things,” she said. “Isn’t that the point?”