October 12, 2009

The Office Series Finale, or: Goodbye, Old "Friend"

I just got around to watching the tearful Series Finale of long-running, beloved sitcom The Office this past weekend. Hold on, it’s not the Series Finale? The show continues, still alive and (putatively) kicking? Well, guess what, friends and fellow ‘philes, it was the Finale for me! That’s a wrap! Adios! And let me tell you, it’s like a weight has been lifted off my (prime time) shoulders. I am finally giving myself over to the camp of Office-haters after years of tentatively defending a show that I tentatively liked, sort of, sometimes. Well, it’s all over for me now – last one out please turn off the lights. Sorry, Office, I gave you all I could.

Some backstory: I’m one of the legion of people who worship at the comedy altar of the original, British version of The Office. I can’t think of a more perfect TV comedy, ever. You heard me, Cheers and Seinfeld and Arrested Development. The Office, in its original, British form, was transformative not just in its utter realness, but also in its genuinely openhearted emotions, real characters, and wonderfully awful laughs. Seinfeld may have mined the idea that awfulness can be funny, The Cosby Show characters may have felt real and very human, Arrested Development may have innovated away the laughtrack, but The (British) Office tops them all. It’s small and funny and so sad and damn near perfect.

So while I didn’t expect such compressed, diamond-like perfection from the American remake, I do like Steve Carell in spite of the writing of his character, and grew to like the low-key duo of John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer (and have wished for a long time that Mindy Kaling was used more/better, and more recently have started liking the hilarious Ed Helms). So I gave The (American) Office a shot, and the first season was both painful and plodding, but not unexpectedly so. Calling the kind of transition the show was trying to pull off “tricky” would be an understatement the size of GE, so I stuck with it and continued giving it a shot. Season Two, the heart of which was the frustrated romance between Jim and the otherwise-engaged (literally) Pam, was pretty ok. Still not great, but OK. I had the feeling it might be coming together -- certainly going somewhere different from the original, but worthwhile in its own right. Then the downward spiral began. From Season 3 on, the show has utterly fallen apart. Not that it had ever really come together into much of anything. A friend of The Culturephiles (who is not alone in this) takes every opportunity to make fun of the show for getting stuck with the Law of Diminishing Returns with their overplayed “look-directly-into-camera” joke. Yet even that bit of hackery I was/am willing to overlook, episode after episode.

What I was, and am, NOT willing to overlook is how patently totally absurd and unfunny this show has become. Talk about the Law of Diminishing Returns! The creative gas gauge on this show hit E a long time ago. Partly the show hasn’t been able to successfully navigate the classic showkiller: when your two romantic leads finally overcome all the sexual tension and get together. Theoretical kudos to The Office for simply “going there” and refusing to bow to the conventional wisdom that answering the “will they or won’t they” question necessarily kills your show. However, conventional wisdom really hit the nail on the head in this case, because Jim and Pam getting together has, in fact, killed the show. When dowdy-receptionist Pam was stuck at Dunder Mifflin with her zero of a fiancee and Jim was stuck there to pine for her in close proximity, there was a (modest) justification for their continuing employment in the hellhouse of (insane) horrors. Once sad-soulful-Jim grew a spine and got together with emergent-butterfly-Pam, though, the heart of the show stopped beating in any sensible way. However, I can’t and won’t put the Terminal Blame on Jim and Pam, even though their wedding gives me the perfect sense of completion such that I will never have even a momentary twinge of guilt for never watching the show for another second ever again in my whole life. The problems with the show run too deep to put such tedious conventional wisdom on the hook for the whole mess.

The reality is that The (American) Office tries, in some respects, to emulate The (British) Office by playing things real. In most other respects, though, the show is a total joke of a cartoon of a parody of a soap opera. Dwight Schrute is a great example. In a cartoon, Dwight Schrute might be decently funny. In real life – or in a show trying to make fun of real life (I guess?) – Dwight Schrute is a broken cyanide capsule. You can’t have Dwight Schrute and Creed and Meredith (all totally preposterous, nonsensical joke-characters) in the same show with Jim and Pam and Toby and Phyllis (generally “real”-seeming characters). Your show can either be real or a cartoon, not both, or it doesn't cohere. Characters can be weird, and can push the envelope, because there are, in fact, really weird people out there in the real offices of the world. Andy Bernard is a great example of a character that pushes the boundary of how a real person acts, but doesn’t push it so far that he’s no longer recognizable as human being. Same goes for Kelly Kapoor. "Characters welcome," I say, but zany, outsize, commedia dell'arte-style buffoons, not so much. But The (American) Office is terminally stuck between sitcom, sentimental drama, soap opera, satire, and cartoon. Not only is it not funny enough to be a sitcom, but it’s also not real enough to be a drama; its incessant plot machinations are ludicrous enough to be a soap opera but it’s not sexy or pouty enough; it seemed to stop trying to offer a satirical view of the American workplace somewhere around its first 45 seconds on the air, and it is much too real and painful and slow to be a cartoon. Also, it is not animated.

What is The Office then? Over. Done. Kaput. It is nothing anymore. I don't have to think about it or care. It went off the air and out of my Hulu account and away from my life forever this past weekend. Congratulations to Jim and Pam on their wedding. They used to be fun characters that I liked and sort of related to, and sometimes thought were funny. Now that’s over. Further congratulations go out to YOU if you are able to put up with this turd of a show for one more minute.

Thank God the new season of the brilliant, hilarious 30 Rock starts this week. Just in the nick of time.


Joe Janes said...

Totally agree with you. I stopped watching regularly a season or two ago, when they started doing those gawdawful hour long episodes. Michael Scott just does too many stupid, stupid, stupid things to justify his position for such a long period of time. He needs to succeed once in awhile and show some aptitude.

tara d. said...

i understand and believe in this rant. nice work, wilson. i refused to watch the american office, because i too was completely smitten with the british version. to date, i don't know that any tv show has made me feel that way it did, watching characters so flawed yet real and beautiful and strange. (the only exceptions may be six feet under, now dexter (which also seems on the decline), and only the series finale of extras.)

that all being said, i gave in and did enjoy - and do, actually, enjoy - the ride of the american office. however, it's the same sensation as eating a pixy stik rather than chomping down a mound of protein - filling and fun now, no fuel later. summary: i have a good time, but it doesn't make me "think", and in the long run, that's what i like about good stories.

i think you saw what you needed to see.

Anonymous said...

i think you are a complete idiot. even if jim and pam were the only characters on the show, it wouldn't be dead yet. their relationship is still evolving. but every character has their own story goin on. its not just michael tellin jokes and jim lookin in the camera to express his feelings. you have andy and erin. you have michael and holly. you have dwight and ryan taking jim down. and all the characters in between. so im glad that because jim and pam got married that the shows over. im sure it wont win any emmys now. oh wait it didnt win best will they or wont they did it. it won because the entire show. face it the charactersare perfect and tops the british version in chemistry. im sorry but the fact that the thing that wrapped up the show for you was jim and pam getting married then you have no right to criticize the show in the first place.

LeahLegacy said...

I have to say, I think you're completely wrong. I love The American Office! Just yesterday, thinking that it would be interesting, I tried watching the first episode of The British Office. But interesting it was not... I'm not really sure what you think The American Office lacks, but if it lacks realism to you, I think that The British Office is nothing but realism! Pure, awkward, and most often boring, realism. The greatest travesty (since I am a HUGE fan of the American version) was the Dwight character on the British version. I think the American version is great simply because it IS just ridiculous and random. I guess I didn't give the British version much of a chance, but if it was difficult for me to stay awake for the first episode, I don't have much hope for the show as a whole.

MW said...

Ah, Leah, you definitely need to give The British Office more than one episode! It's a show that builds slowly but surely and really picks up over time. Anyway, to each their own -- at this point the two shows aren't really even worth comparing anymore; the British version is all of 12 episodes total, with one 90-minute final episode, while the American version is six seasons and counting (100+ episodes)!

But to me, the British Office is genuinely funny and awkward without ever becoming a Crazy Sitcom, full of Crazy Characters (a la Dwight Schrute). But if you like Crazy Sitcom Silliness with Crazy Mixed-Up Hijinks and Coo-Coo-Crazy Characters, more power to you. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just not my cup of tea.

Lastly, I have to say that I haven't missed The Office one bit since I stopped watching. :)