After four-and-a-half excellent seasons followed by three-and-a-half so-so seasons, The Office is entering it’s final year (survived by a Dwight Schrute spinoff). I first encountered the show in its third season when every episode was at or near the top of the show’s potential and immediately caught myself up. Until the birth of the Michael Scott Paper Company in season five (which coincided with showrunner Greg Daniels giving more attention to younger sibling Parks and Recreation), the show was at turns satirical and witty followed by moments of poignancy and cringe-inducing awkwardness, all with an ensemble cast that ran without a flaw.
Longtime fans will have noticed, however, the change in tone after the exit of Holly Flax, Michael Scott’s overdue soul mate. The show became notably more goofy and reliant on poorly-timed slapstick. Characters became caricatures of their former selves (read: Kevin, Dwight, or Ryan) and it became increasingly like work to follow the different up-and-down relationship patterns. Whereas the will-they-won’t-they of Jim and Pam was some of the finest tension building of its kind, the sad attempt to rebuild some of that magic between Andy and Erin over the past three seasons has often felt shoddy, forced, and unbelievable.
The plot became chaotic, with something (like an off-camera love interest) existing for one episode then disappearing. Sight gags (such as the prank wars between Jim and Dwight) that were once original yet believable turned into references to planking, parkour, and other sad attempts at keeping the show relevant. Then, of course, came the exit of Steve Carell’s character Michael Scott, which felt a bit like Andy Griffith leaving Mayberry. While the show had worked hard to develop a steady cast of characters — growing and shrinking as time went by — the connecting factor was Carell’s offensive and naive sociopath. The show used to feel like real life with Michael believing it was a TV show — now it’s just a TV show.
I’m critical of The Office because, even though I know each new episode may be filled with disappointment, I continue to watch it. This speaks to the quality of those first few seasons and how life-like the characters managed to be. One of the greatest assets in accomplishing this was the show’s format; a mockumentary sitcom was quite new to American audiences, but it has been imported to the aforementioned Parks (a show that improved while The Office declined) and Modern Family, a hit ensemble show in its own right. It made the characters and scenarios feel dramatically convincing, and no less credit is deserved for Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, and Jenna Fischer for bringing what were at first very understated roles to an iconic status simply by making them real.
Two decades after The Real World first aired, reality TV feels feels less authentic than the first four seasons of The Office. Take “Dinner Party”, one of the more notorious and beloved episodes from season four. Jim and Pam are invited to a dinner thrown by Michael and his BDSM mate (and former boss), Jan Levinson. Even after Andy and Angela (and Dwight and his old babysitter) crash the event, Michael and Jan have one of the more hellacious fights ever filmed, with nothing (not even vasectomies and reverse vasectomies) off the table. It makes for scenes that are nearly unwatchable; not because they are of poor quality but because the scene is so well conducted. “Dinner Party” is a sword-swallowing act of social awkwardness, necessitating your squinted attention but making you doubt your current existential state in a purely delicious fashion. It’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for a generation that willingly watched Hostel. But even given the extremities this episode reaches, Jan and Michael’s domestic dispute feels far more relatable than anything Jersey Shore has done with its “real” people.
And that work early on continues to pay off for the show. Despite near-consensus amongst critics and fans that the show has lost quality and ambition, it remains one of the few ratings highlights for beleaguered NBC, having more valuable ad–space than any other show on that network. However, many were hoping the show would have ended with the finale of season seven (the last episode for which Daniels returned in full-force, though he is running the final season). Michael Scott following Holly to Colorado, removing his clip-on microphone and handing it to the diegetic cameras, could have been the perfect wrap for the show. No storyline really needed resolved or added after that emotional peak and it centers the plot around its original focus. While Daniels has made the titillating promise of revealing who’s behind the documentary that follows the characters, he has to pick up on several useless storylines we all could have done without (Pam and Jim’s forgettable second child, Sabre’s takeover of Dunder-Mifflin, Gabe’s ensuing insanity, etc) and somehow make sense of the mess left by executive producer (and the actor who plays the maligned Toby) Paul Lieberstein.
I and many other avid viewers of the cult NBC show Community are mourning the firing of showrunner Dan Harmon and the possible cancellation of a show that has given us some of the most successfully conceptual humor to hit network television. While we still may have the characters and staff-written jokes we love, the loss of Harmon is akin to Andy Warhol being kicked out of The Hit Factory. While a good television show needs hundreds — sometimes thousands of devoted cast and crew members to guarantee its quality, a solid and visionary captain at the helm is of the most importance. And it is sad to expect Community to befall the same fate as The Office: a Van Hagar-esque ghost relying on the work of a previous producer to give it value. With Greg Daniels’ return, it is reasonable to expect a rush of blood back into The Office and I certainly hope that’s the case. But what will be sticking in my mind is he needs to correct the mistake of not wrapping up when he largely washed his hands of it and allowing us, the viewers, to often be embarrassed for a show that was once the comedy high-end for the ongoing Golden Age of television.