BY ALEX RUSSELL
I know we recently featured a piece predicting a quality ending for The Office. I hope that’s right. I hope they can stick the dismount and we end up with something as brilliant as a dishwasher you can see through.
Nothing in the past half a decade makes me hopeful, though, and let’s talk about why.
I used to love this show. It’s been on my DVR for years and was appointment television in the years before I joined the ranks of the future. To review, I picked three episodes to chart the path of The Office. One from their teenage years of season two, one from the mid-life crisis period in season five, and one that aired this year during their death march. If you take issue with my selection I invite you to go watch the flaming wreck that is “Scott’s Tots” and realize I could have been far more sadistic.
Two biases to get out of the way, as well:
- I’m lukewarm on Michael Scott. He was amazing at the start of the show but they essentially destroyed him by the end.
- Yes, the British one is great. It’s not better or worse, it’s an entirely different beast.
THE GOOD: Season 2, Episode 18: “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”
This episode chronicles everyone in the office with a daughter or reasonable facsimile bringing that character to work. Netflix’s info for this tells us this has “a series of classic gaffes” which might be a little too proud, but is fairly accurate. If you’ve stuck with the show it can be really arresting to go this far back and see some of the older relationships and dynamics (Roy/Pam, Ryan as a human being, etc) but everyone feels like they’re behaving with expressed motivations. Everyone who does anything does it for a reason you can immediately discern.
Keep that in mind for later.
The biggest example of this is the oft-mocked Kevin Malone. He’s essentially either a stock dumb or fat joke for the first five years of the show, but in season 2 he’s still clearly just meant to be the easy joke. He says a few dumb things, but he’s driven by a basic desire of self-preservation when he wants to rush a child off his computer. In later seasons, this might be played as a fear of the character that the child might want to “get in his spaceship” or “eat his toy computer that doesn’t taste so good.” After seeing an extended plot where he is mistaken for a person with mental disability, I’m not really surprised by anything they put poor Kevin through. Here, his stupidity is on the higher end of its spectrum. He still feels like a damn person, not Food Rainman.
Dwight’s also portrayed as just a weird guy who believes in the way he was raised. He doesn’t try to read terrifying stories to the children for no reason. He does it because that’s what he actually believes is the proper way to be raised. Everyone’s actions have explanations, but they still find a way to push the absurdity.
It ends in a terrifyingly awkward television show clip from Michael Scott’s past which is heartbreaking and well-executed. But even if this had been one of the old episodes where it doesn’t go anywhere and ends with Michael walking out dejected, having learned the wrong lesson or no lesson at all, the entire episode could have been about the half-minute clip of Stanley yelling at Ryan and it would still be one of the best things on television.
THE UGLY: Season 5, Episode 13: “Prince Family Paper”
This episode’s A-story is about Michael and Dwight trying to steal company info from a naive family-run paper company. The B-story is about ten people trying to decide if Hilary Swank is hot.
Let that sink in.
I almost couldn’t believe it, for the second time. In going through Netflix to find a good example episode for when the wheels came off, Netflix told me this is the one where: “Meanwhile, the rest of the office debates a burning question: Is Hilary Swank hot?”
It says that! And they do!
It’s like an Archer sixth-tier joke that would come up from time to time in an episode. In season five of this show, though, it’s the B-plot. It’s been three years since the first example and it’s been four years since then now. This is the middle of the show. The stride.
Somewhere along the way in listening to DVD commentary for this show many years ago I found out that the computers and phones on set really work. You can see this sometimes that people are looking at Google and IMDB searches related to the plot. In the early years the directors wanted the cast to come in early and pretend to work as though they were really coming in to an office job. This was how they got a lot of the background footage and it helped people get in character – but this storyline feels entirely like one of the jokes they’d come up with and intended it to either be a cold open or a background plot. It feels insanely long, just so damn long, and I found myself looking it up to confirm that they were eighty-five episodes into production.
It’s still funny, but Michael and Dwight have been through this storyline before in different outfits and it feels like we’ve been to this party before. Both plots might have been tossed out in season two, and they are the only two storylines in an episode by season five.
THE BAD: Season 9, Episode 3: “Andy’s Ancestry”
After almost 100 more episodes and three and a half years, here we are. The show lost over four million viewers in the process. It’s easy to blame the absence of Michael Scott for this. It’s harder to watch for the rest.
There are about sixteen plots going on in this episode. The most odious features Dwight teaching Erin Dothraki, a language from Game of Thrones. There’s a passing explanation for why this would happen, but it feels more like the result of a bad improv suggestion. It goes nowhere except to kill time and further make the viewer question if Erin is supposed to have a learning disability. The fact that they didn’t see how out of voice for their own show this joke is speaks volumes.
What’s even worse about it is how much time they waste on it in an already extremely busy episode. They need this time to be spent to set up the scene where Catherine Tate’s non-character Nellie has to explain to Pam why she has lied to Andy and told him that he’s related to Michelle Obama. Pam has no reason to follow Nellie except that without her doing so they would have no way to set up the episode. Pam literally stands up and follows Nellie out of the office to help her learn to drive for no reason at all.
Andy is a flawed character in every sense of the word, but this episode features him rubberbanding between frustrated and cruel with no explanation, which would have been a struggle to make sense of if you ever got the impression that there was sense to make. Nellie’s even worse in that she’s almost entirely devoid of consistent character traits. Whatever they need her to be, she is. As a result, she is absolutely nothing.
The plots are all abandoned with no resolution because there isn’t enough time to resolve them. Andy never finds out he’s not related to Michelle Obama. Erin never really gets to explain why she wanted to learn a fake language. Pam and Nellie’s friendship doesn’t blossom or die. Jim and Darryl’s business conversation doesn’t complete itself, but at least that one leads into the cliffhanger to the next episode.
The jokes still work at relatively the same clip as they ever did. There are great laughs – the cold open in this episode is among their best in the decade – but the framework is totally insane, now. A third of the characters are ciphers who could be anyone and are no one at the same time. The plots are cast aside when they get boring and picked up with rarely satisfying results. Characters we do understand sometimes behave completely outside of the “rules” of their personality just because the show gets written into a corner. Dwight being a madman isn’t funny if we start to suspect the instruction was “act like a madman.” He needs to accidentally ruin something, not just be this evil force trying to destroy his tiny universe.
Possibly worst of all, this episode leads into Pam’s mural and Jim’s company Athlead, which is where we find ourselves now: little promise, lots of uninteresting plots.
So what did we learn?
They want to keep making jokes, and they’ve never lost the ability to do that. But as the cast gets more ambiguous as people leave for other projects and we’re stuck with new faces that don’t have established personas, The Office is now free to have people remain undeveloped and without consistency. Since there’s funnier TV and other networks and careers got our favorite characters in the divorce, it’s amazing they’re even limping towards a conclusion as well as they are. Maybe they’ll fix this, but has there been a show in the last ten years that suffered in the concluding seasons as much as this one?