Monday, June 10, 2013

The Office (U.S.) (Season 9) (2012-2013)

The ninth and final season of the U.S. version of The Office was a marginal improvement over the previous couple seasons. I felt the show had lost its charm some years back, even before Steve Carell had left. I think the last time I felt truly invested in the show was around Season 5, when Michael, Pam, and Ryan set up their own paper company to challenge Dunder Mifflin. I can't believe that was four seasons ago. From there, it was a long, labored decline, including such unfortunate developments as Jim's turn as ineffectual and unlikable co-manager, the entire James Spader run, and, most regrettably, the preposterous push for Andy Bernard to become some sort of Michael Scott stand-in. Season 9 made some ballsy moves, then, chief among them the near annihilation of the Andy character. This may have been less a gutsy move than the show having to operate around Ed Helms's movie career, but it was nevertheless dealt with in a way that was far more real than I had come to expect from the mockumentary sitcom.

As originally introduced, conniving yet oblivious, the Andy character was, I thought, a hilarious addition to the cast. Once he actually was promoted to being a series regular, however, and they decided that they needed to make him more of a pitiful nice guy, he became far less entertaining. It probably would not have worked to have him continue on as that quasi-antagonistic presence in the office—that's not a recipe for longevity for a sitcom character—but to have him flip around to playing the underdog also didn't ring true. And if I wasn't quite protesting the Andy-Erin romance angle, I certainly wasn't buying it either. So, to see the story completely turn on Andy in Season 9, and in a way that unambiguously painted him as the bad guy, just one season after he had seemingly beaten the odds to get his happy ending, was delightfully refreshing (even if, more than ever, I actually hated watching the character himself). Shame, though, that Erin and Pete both largely dropped out of the story almost as soon as Pete emerged as clearly the better man for her, as if that subplot had existed primarily to put Andy in his place, rather than to develop Erin and Pete.

Andy wasn't the only problem with previous seasons, however, and there were many more that Season 9 didn't fix. Toby, had he simply never come back after running off near the end of "Night Out" (Season 4, Episode 15), would have had one of the classic exits in TV history. He had a few more good moments after that, but, for the better part of the last several seasons, he was simply dead weight. By Season 9, especially with Michael no longer there to abuse him, this character had nothing left to offer.

Speaking of which, Nellie was, like Andy, another character that I found hilarious in her initial appearance, and still enjoyed when she continued on as a recurring guest, but who never should have become a regular. There was nothing more to say with that character that the show hadn't already said during her guest appearances, and every bit involving her in Season 9 was, for me, a miss.

Of course, by the end, most of the supporting characters were dead weight. Not only did they become less and less funny, but the more time I spent with them, the more I began to actively dislike them as people. Far from being a close-knit office family, these people were purely negative, both toward one another and in general, the exceptions being Erin, who was always cute, and Kevin, who could still consistently elicit a cheap laugh from me.

The series finale was appropriately big and emotional. I'm glad that The Simpsons is still running (not saying it's still the best show on television or anything), but otherwise I can't think of any show that has ever lasted as many as nine seasons that shouldn't probably have ended a lot earlier. The benefit of going on so long, however, is that, even if the show hasn't been great all along, the story collects a unique weight over the years simply by being in viewers' lives that long. It sounds silly as I write this, but, in a case like this, the viewer and the show kind of grow old together. If you watched The Office as it aired, that was nine years of your life, after all—a significant stretch of time for anyone. And perhaps, as you look back on past seasons and episodes, you'll be reminded of what major things were going on in your own life at the time. There's a particular sweetness to this finale, as the characters are able to look back and equally reflect on the weight of nine years.

Still, I couldn't help feeling that the Michael Scott farewell episode was better and would have made for the better end to the story. Certainly, it would have made for a good stopping point for the documentary, to end it with the guy you started it with. And, as much as perhaps they didn't want Michael, no longer a regular part of the show, to come back and overshadow what the remaining regulars had come to over these last few seasons without him, my feeling, as I watched each character's story wrap up in the finale, was that none of them had actually moved very far from where they had been at the time of Michael's departure, so I didn't really get the sense that there was more left to say for the other characters than there was for Michael. It also didn't make any sense to me that Michael would have been absent from the reunion panel, but oh well.

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