FEATURE: The End of The Office; or, Why Not To Expect Too Much of Network Sitcoms

The Office final season 9

So, I guess NBC’s The Office is finito after this next season. Thank fuck for that.

Not words I’d’ve expected to write, or think, or even be able to form into a sentence I understood with relation to the show I spent last summer marathoning and consequently falling in love with, like a syrupy courtship montage from a rom-com.

I laughed at The Office more times than I’d care to mention (and more times than I did at the English original, SUCK IT GERVAIS). I also cried an embarrassing amount, too. I cried at most milestones of the Jim and Pam relationship; I cried when Michael left. Embarrassing? Yeah, embarrassing. I mean, this is a prime time American sitcom for Gawd’s sakes.

Is there a problem with getting emotionally invested with something as “lowly”, in cultural terms, as a sitcom though? There’s certainly a lot to get involved with inThe Office, with a large cast of well drawn characters that do two things, that kind of lead into each other, that other sitcoms rarely – if ever – do:

  1. They seem like real people you know (well, apart from Dwight)
  2. They change (well, apart from Dwight)

Jim and Pam, obviously, were the character/relationship arc that was front and centre, along with Michael’s slow and clumsy attempts to become a proper grown-up human being. The smaller characters had their own arcs too, though: Toby fell in love with Pam, left for a while, came back; Stanley started off as the cranky old black guy, then it turned out he was having an affair with a younger woman and his marriage broke down; Oscar came out; Angela went from Dwight to Andy to The Senator; Ryan went from temp to head honcho at Dunder-Mifflin to bowling alley clerk to founder of WUPHF.com (all whilst managing to receive top billing in the credits…); Meredith and Creed…uh…

Anyway, you get my point. More so than (nearly) any other sitcom that’s been similarly lauded, the writing team of The Office always ensured there was more depth to the characters than simply joke receptacles. There are a lot of moments that served more dramatic purposes, or emotional arcs, that were totally (intentionally) devoid of laughs, from Michael being the only person to attend Pam’s art show to the moment Ms Beesley finds out she’s pregnant with Jim’s baby. For all intents and purposes, there was much more to this show than any other of it’s ilk; and why shouldn’t there be? Why shouldn’t something more be done with the sitcom, a form which has been around since the early days of television, the template of which has rarely been deviated from?

And then Michael, the core of the show both comedically and – increasingly, with his on-and-off relationship with Holly – emotionally, left. And the writers didn’t know what to do.

So what they did was this: they allowed Kevin, the dunce (who has been the token idiot throughout the show because, well, every sitcom needs one) became a gross caricature, to the degree that he can’t even write. Now that Jim and Pam are married and have two kids, there isn’t much to do with them. Dwight manages to get more and more OTT in his attempts to become manager of the Scranton branch. New characters whose broad characterisation belies the semi-grounded setting and tone of the series were introduced in the forms of Robert California and whatever Catherine Tate’s character was called (ugh, Catherine Tate).

The biggest problem with season eight of The Office, and what will no doubt be the biggest problem with the final ninth season, is Andy Bernard. The character of Andy has proven to be malleable (ie poorly written) for a good few seasons, starting as an enjoyably passive-aggressive semi-loser, obsessed with his college alma mater, inventor of crap nicknames. Then he got sent to anger management, and all the interesting parts of his personality got shaved off (this might be an accurate portrayal of anger management for all I know) and, increasingly, he became the bumbling idiot with the heart of gold, presumably so he could be the Replacement Michael.

Which he isn’t. He’s a poor substitute, as is the romantic tension between him and Erin for that between Michael and Holly. Erin’s a great character, of course, and she’s had moments to shine; but the chemistry between them is nothing on the Jim-Pam combo that kept people tuning in for the previous seven seasons.

What can we expect from the final season of The Office? In terms of ongoing plots, there’s no a whole lot to look forward to. Dunder-Mifflin is back to how it was a few seasons ago, with David Wallace back in charge following James Spader’s blessed exit from the show. The only remaining “Will they, won’t they?” is between Daryl and some lass from the warehouse he fancies. Dwight’s off to star in a spin-off show which is going to be terrible. Kelly and Toby have left. Creed and Meredith appear less and less. Kevin keeps getting stupider. Jim and Pam keep ambling around in the background, looking for something to do. The final season is going to end with a resigned whimper, as opposed to the emotional fireworks that signalled Michael’s exit towards the end of season seven, the final scene of which would have been a perfect end to the show: Michael taking off his microhpone, asking the “documentary crew” that “film” the series (with decreasing believability), and then sharing a last, unheard conversation with Pam.

What more did you expect from a sitcom, though?

Inevitably it happens with every TV show on a major station: the business is more important than the artistry. Saying “artistry” in relation to a network sitcom is probably pretty naive, since it’s a business-lead form. M*A*S*H,  a show of equal parts humour and pathos, long outstayed its welcome (lasting longer than the war it depicted), losing even more principal cast members than The Office ever managed, because it got good ratings. It remains to be seen if Community, a show which never hid its intentions to be more than “just” a sitcom, will still be that way without showrunner and creator Dan Harmon.

The executives at NBC have realised that The Office has run its course. Not because there are no more stories to tell, no more characters arcs to follow or emotional milestones to reach; but because the ratings are down.

I guess maybe we’ll find out who the Scranton strangler is.


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