It was 15 years ago this week that NBC’s “Seinfeld” ended with a walk-off so disappointing and bizarre that most of us have suppressed the memory. The real lesson from that point forward was to always act casual about final episodes of our beloved TV shows.
The end of NBC’s “The Office” arrives Thursday night not only to these lowered expectations but with the added dents and scrapes of viewer neglect and covered in the duct tape that has held it together for the final two seasons of its charming and successful nine-season run. Since the departure of the show’s star, Steve Carell, the pop-culturati have come down with a severe and epidemic case of Dunder Mifflin Fatigue, the main symptom of which is announcing over and over again that you no longer watch “The Office.” I’m sure admitting otherwise greatly reduces one’s Klout score.
So I write this for those of us who stayed behind, the losers who kept clocking in with “The Office” after Carell’s Michael Scott character left. We watched the rest of the series without shame or apology — and, in fact, a pleasant sense of satisfaction, especially this season. My own contrarian streak runs so deep that I might be the only TV critic on the planet who put the first post-Carell season (when James Spader’s Robert California character briefly helmed Dunder Mifflin) on my top 10 list of 2011.
So sue me. The overall narrative epic of the lives of the Scranton branch employees began to drift, and yet I always believed that the show’s writers should have done exactly this, concentrating on the tale of a rudderless ship. That felt precisely like what happens in an office when one idiosyncratic boss leaves and is replaced by a steadily declining parade of micromanaging weirdos. That felt more real.
This was especially true when Dunder Mifflin was bought by Sabre, a company that made computer printers. Sabre sent half of the Scranton branch to Florida to help launch a high-tech boutique to sell the company’s triangular iPad knock-off — a disaster from start to finish, and painfully familiar to any group of employees who came to work one day to find themselves reassembled into teams with revised core goals and quarterly initiatives that seemed to be invented on the fly. Through it all, the real workhorses of the “Office” cast never failed to shine, especially Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute and, starting in Season 3, Ed Helms as Andy Bernard.
And so, in its final season, “The Office” came to feel like the story that the documentary “crew” intended to capture. Until this spring, in accordance with the mockumentary genre, a certain strain of “Office” viewers was left in the dark about what sort of film was being made here; to whom were the characters talking? (God? Errol Morris? Werner Herzog? Themselves?) Michael Scott’s parting line to the camera was to ask if he could somehow get a copy mailed to him of whatever it was they were allegedly filming. It wasn’t supposed to matter, but to some of us, it did.
Then a flirtatious boom mike tapped the head of Pam Beesly Halpert (Jenna Fischer) in an episode in the back half of this season, launching us into “The Office’s” most precarious story line to date, suggesting that she might leave her husband, Jim (John Krasinski). The sound guy had developed a crush on Pam after filming her and her colleagues for all these years. It was our cue that the end was really near.
Bit by bit, the mockumentary walls came down. We learned that “The Office” is a multi-year documentary set to air on Scranton’s public television station. In last Thursday’s penultimate episode, the Dunder Mifflin employees, including a romantically rekindled Jim and Pam, were off to a bar to watch it together, come what may.
TV critics were understandably not offered a preview of the final episode, since we’d probably blab, but it apparently picks up months later, after the documentary has aired. Some of the characters — including Angela Martin (played by Angela Kinsey), the office sourpuss who has at last learned to let go and let Dwight — have spent weeks fretting about how they’re going to come off in the film. What did the camera see? How humiliated will they be?
This puts them in that smoldering debris of any Heisenberg principle or journalistic endeavor. For a show that put a primacy on awkward situations, can there be anything more cringey than that Janet Malcolm territory, in which the subject of a documentary or work of nonfiction prose discovers, with true horror, how the audience might perceive her? Will the characters of “The Office,” like a thousand reality-show participants before them, cry foul over editing decisions and subjective viewpoints? Will their workplace family finally be ripped apart?
Whatever the outcome, it’s been a wholly satisfying thread to follow, and a perfect way to end the show. “The Office” now joins a slim canon of millennial-era portrayals of the cubicle farms we called home — a list I would narrow down to the earliest of Scott Adams’s “Dilbert” comic strips; Mike Judge’s 1999 film “Office Space”; Joshua Ferris’s 2007 novel “Then We Came to the End” and . . . what else, really? (I continue to be amazed at how plugged in “The Good Wife” seems when it portrays office life and office politics; and I suppose, if you were willing to entertain a transference theory that some of our
present-day workplace angst is projected onto the throwback human relations depicted at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices in AMC’s “Mad Men,” then it could also join this list.)
In a nation that continually tells its president and Congress that “jobs” and “the economy” are the No. 1 concern by far, it would seem Hollywood hasn’t done its job of portraying our jobs — or our lack of them. “The Office” will continue to have a nice life in reruns for a time and then will go on to a better and more highly regarded life, standing as a
comedic totem to an era of panicky résumés, mindless memos from the HR department and a deeply unsatisfied American work psyche.
My last impression of “The Office” was the miracle suggested all along by its basic plot: that there was a paper company that hadn’t been subsumed by Staples or OfficeMax, and that it had a branch office in which the white-collar division worked alongside the blue-collar warehouse. That the Oscars and the Kevins and the Phyllises and the Merediths and the Creeds — played by a superb comedy troupe that formed the real backbone of the show — all had full-time work in this mythical paper supplier as employees rather than contractors; that they came in at 9 and left at 5, collecting a salary and benefits; that they were never downsized, right-sized or otherwise laid off; and that they toiled in relative peace for nine years and counting.
It’s the sort of American Dream job — and job security — many people stopped believing in eons ago. That’s why we loved “The Office” and hated the office. It was meant to look real, but it was pure escapism all along.
(two hours) farewell special followed
by final episode, beginning
at 8 p.m. on NBC.