Yeah, I got a little misty/teary/bleary at Steve Carell’s last episode of The Office as a regular. I have a respect for Greg Daniels that borders on the superstitious, but it usually pays off; I expected this episode to be good and, except for some of Will Ferrell’s scenes (we may know more about this once he’s written off the show, but it’s hard to know exactly what Ferrell’s been going for, and the tag was really not the kind of thing to convince us that the show can go on without Carell), my expectations were fulfilled. The tricky balance between Michael as he would be in real life vs. Michael the beloved sitcom character was well handled, leaning more to the escapist side of things – which is fine, since the show long ago became the story of people who find a certain refuge in the office, not people who are tormented by having to be there.
This episode also featured the best nods to the documentary conceit since the throwaway line in the third season opener (also written by Daniels) where Rashida Jones’s character made fun of Jim for his goofy looks at the camera. In addition to raising a question we ourselves had been asking since the first episode, Michael’s bit with the documentary crew and the microphone was a classic piece of misdirection. By focusing our attention on the question of when the documentary might be released, and on Michael taking off the microphone that he’s been wearing all this time, it distracted us (well, me) from the burning question of where Pam was.
The distraction was just enough to make the ending more surprising than it might have been, and of course by taking away the microphone they were able to play the scene silently and from a distance, using the documentary format to create an emotional scene that didn’t play quite the way we might have expected going in. And even before Pam came into the shot, it was a lovely piece of work by Carell and director Paul Feig – as written, directed and played, there was something very Charlie Chaplin about Michael walking away from the camera.
The Office has had the ups and downs that most shows do: growing pains, some weak episodes after it hit the 100 episode mark. (Though season 6 was not bad. It was uneven, couldn’t decide whether it wanted to get darker or lighter, and may have suffered from going on while some of the key people were turning Parks & Recreation around. But it was not a collapse, just disappointing by comparison with the mostly spectacular fifth season.) But the U.S. version has been probably the best U.S. sitcom of its era, and tonight was mostly a reminder of why that is. Not only did it build a great ensemble – and it’s one of the few shows of its type that can seamlessly integrate new characters into the ensemble, like Andy and Erin – not only was it about something more than “men are like this and women are like that,” but it was a show that actually had heart instead of just telling us it had Heart.
Let me explain that last one. For at least a decade, sitcoms have been reacting against the heartlessness of Seinfeld by trying to have heart and emotion. This has been particularly important for shows that aspire to be edgy in content or form. (A show like Two and a Half Men doesn’t have heart and doesn’t care who knows how nasty and cruel it is.) The common criticism of these shows is that the viewers don’t identify with them, or that they’re cold and uninviting, so the producers always tell us – and the network executives – that the show has heart, that it has emotion. They make sure to always include a little emotional epiphany or connection or moral; even Arrested Development had that in almost every episode. Sometimes this works; a lot of time it just feels grafted on and inorganic, like the emotional moment comes at the moment when the handbook calls for it.
The element of heart rarely felt contrived with The Office. Many of its emotional moments weren’t textbook heartfelt moments. Sometimes the moral of the episode would not be spoken or even fully realized by the characters. Michael, who speaks mostly in mangled movie and TV clichés, was a master of trying to deliver what he thinks is the moral, getting it totally wrong, and conveying the actual meaning of the story by what he doesn’t say. Sometimes the most powerful emotional moment of an episode was not a happy moment, or a moment of connection, but a sad one, like Pam crying in “Boys and Girls” when she faces the fact that she won’t be able to fulfil her dreams. Sometimes it’s a moment of clarity that doesn’t actually fix anything, like Jan in “The Dinner Party” trying, in a halting and completely ineffective way, to make a start toward repairing the damage she caused that evening. There’s emotion in most episodes, but the emotion may be anger, and it may be love, and it may be a fleeting bit of self-knowledge on a character’s part, but it’s not usually a designated heartfelt moment.
And because the emotion of the show feels real and not grafted on, it earns the right to make us care about a main character leaving. I can’t think of a current comedy where I would feel as sad to see a main character leave as I felt to see Michael leave. Because it’s that old but useful axiom, “show, don’t tell.” Many shows, even good ones, just sort of tell us that they have emotional depth and that the characters need each other. The Office showed us, over and over again and in different ways and from different angles. That’s why it means so much when Michael and Pam – the woman he’s helped and tormented more than anyone else – have their huggy learn-y moments together. They feel like real moments, not script-mandated moments.