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Bittersweet Ramblings on The Office

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Bittersweet Ramblings on <em>The Office</em>

As I was surfing YouTube a few days ago, I stumbled across the Verve’s performance of their classic “Bittersweet Symphony” at Glastonbury in 2008. In the clip, referring to the rumors that festival founder Michael Eavis was supposedly uneasy about the band headlining, lead singer Richard Ashcroft jokes, “I think he was a bit worried we weren’t gonna be as good as Keane or something like that.” He quickly changes his tack: “God bless to Keane though…Love and peace to all bands. It’s a struggle. Life’s a struggle. And Monday morning may be a struggle for a lot of you in a job that you despise, working for a boss that you despise. A slave to money and then you die.”

Slaves to money and then we die, indeed. And all the while, you step on the same piece of carpeting, answer the same calls, deal with the same assholes as the other random people with whom you share the office. The office, in this case, is a metaphor (always trust the writer who points out the analogies for you; James Joyce said that, or Lady Gaga—one of the two). It doesn’t matter whether it’s a real office in Istanbul, or a shop floor in Kunming, or a studio in Los Angeles. Work is work: You might like it, you might hate it, but, to carry on with life, you have to do it. This has always been the central ethos of The Office, both the BBC and the NBC versions: the meaning in the pursuit of meaning. So, life. To carry on with life, in fact, you have to live. It’s a fucker, but it is what it is.

Now that the seventh season of The Office has come to an end, I feel it’s safe to reflect on the show, the previous season, and its future. And the elephant in the room is, obviously, Michael Scott’s (Steve Carell) departure and his eventual replacement. As my good friend, the eminent critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in March: “It’s damned hard to see anybody replacing Carell. He is The Office, for better or worse, and anything after his departure will necessarily feel like a postscript.”

So, Michael is gone. Could the show ever live this loss down? I’m not interested in the business of it all: They’ll find a way to headline the show with a star (Catherine Tate is, seemingly, the frontrunner, and though I’m not a fan of her work, a female boss would be a nice change—and I’d actually suggest someone like Portia De Rossi). I’m not even going to get into the “Who could take over from within?” debate, because it’s not even a debate. There will be a new boss. Maybe, four years ago, Rainn Wilson could have been a fine substitute, but Dwight Schrute has become such a caricature that any sort of emotional resonance is impossible: Compare a concussed Dwight’s gorgeous heart-to-heart with Pam (Jenna Fischer) in season two’s “The Injury” with Jim’s (John Krasinski) “The orders went out on time” speech with Dwight in the penultimate episode of this season; the former brought you to tears, the latter brought me to RedTube because I just wanted to masturbate to remind myself I was alive, because the moment was so cynical.

The point of the office will be to keep making money, keep going, living. That, I understand. But, what will be the point of The Office now? In “Michael’s Goodbye,” it hit all the emotional cues it was supposed to have, and with style. As my friend Daniel MacEachern said, maybe it’s time now to pretend the show finished, and move on. A meandering fizzle into mediocrity is worse than a crash and burn after you’ve touched heaven (“P.S. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard,” etc.)

Example: I was most scared of the way Michael would say goodbye to Toby (Paul Lieberstein). I thought the show would sell out. I just never expected for Michael to bite his lip and go along with Toby’s nonchalant and clueless spiel about his brother. But, Michael did. He sat down, and he listened, and he grimaced, and he grinned, and then he looked at the camera, as if to say, “Aren’t I a big boy?” Love had made him a better person already. It was the best scene in the history of the show.

So, are we supposed to have a new arc? Can the show sustain it? Does anyone really believe that truly outstanding people like Krasinski (who was this close to getting Captain America), Jenna Fischer, or Mindy Kaling will stay with the show for another five years? So, this is like the last few mercy months of a relationship. You know it will end, but you’re too accustomed to it running. So, you go on. Regardless. Though, in this case, there are a few hundred thousand dollars per week to incite you (I wish all my relationships ended like that).

And what about the secondary dynamics? With the characters themselves, there has been a winding down: Oscar (Oscar Martinez) is gay, great. Meredith (Kate Flannery) is a drunk (and a slut), fine. Stanley (Leslie David Baker) is lethargic, cool. But have we really gone anywhere with them? “Did I Stutter,” a pseudo Stanley-centric episode is in my top five (I fucking love Stanley), but are these guys really going anywhere (as characters)? Or is that the point?

This ambiguity was, and maybe still is, the genius of The Office. Sure, it was terribly cynical to watch Thursday night’s “Guess who I’ll pull out of my asshole” episode, as stars like Jim Carrey and James Spader auditioned for the top job. Of course, it was horrible to let Carell go four episodes before the finale just to keep up the momentum, ratings-wise, of his presence (while double-downing him with Will Ferrell, generally impeccable, yet terrible for this show). Yes, it’s hard to recalibrate leads and functions and dynamics. I understand all that. But this is The Office we’re talking about. Not a random adaptation of a second-rate British invasion show that somehow made it to its third season. This is an American adaptation of the greatest show of the aughts that once dared to soar the heights that would have scared even the original.

And all of that is because of Michael Scott. Carell created in Michael one of the greatest characters of fiction: the modern man defined by inconsistency. Was he a dickhead? Yes. From time to time. Was he a sweetheart? Yes. That, too. From time to time. He was flawed, but he had hope. This was such an enormous achievement that everything and everyone gelled, characters and actors merged, the line between real life and fiction disappeared (the format of the show, and the never-quite-defined nature of the show-within-the-show were highly instrumental in this).

But Michael’s gone now. You deal with it. Everything else is but a memory. He has his new life. He’s gone, happy, miles away. Maybe we should all be happy about that. Maybe, the fans, the real fans, should keep watching (or recording), but never take it in. Because, the lovelorn fool eventually found the woman of his dreams. That’s what I’m going for, at least. I’ll probably keep watching, whoever becomes the new boss. I might not be as passionate (at Ebertfest, I opted out of seeing Tiny Furniture to watch Michael’s last episode, but I had other reasons, too, so there we go), but yeah, I’ll probably watch. But, for me in my completist, nerdy mind, I will think that the show ended when Michael took off his microphone. And Pam rushed to hug him. And he got on the plane. And flew off into the sunset.