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I don’t know why, but I have been compelled as of late to re-watch the final few seasons of The Office. It might be because I recently caught a clip of Steve Carrell and was instantly reminded of the downturn the show took almost immediately after he departed it late in 2011 to start making more movies. Maybe I had been giving the final few seasons a bad rap as well, and I wanted to go back and check them out to see if there were any gems I indeed missed. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I became committed to checking them out.
So I did. I immediately began with the Will Ferrell arc, which were Carrell’s last few eps, and just tore through the show from there. I remembered Will Ferrell’s time on the show, where he portrayed incompetent manager D’Angelo Vickers, as being completely horrible. I was not wrong. Ferrell is a gifted comic actor and has made some of the strongest comedies of the last 15 years (Step Brothers and The Other Guys are two of my favorite movies of their respective years). Ferrell just did not fit in with the rest of the cast of the show, and honestly his character was just there as a high-profile placeholder until the writers could figure out what to do with the direction of the program.
After Ferrell’s stint on The Office came to an end, the show toyed with the idea of doing interviews with multiple celebrities to see who might end up as a good fit to replace Carrell. The actors in the race included Jim Carrey, Ray Romano, Catherine Tate, Will Arnett, and James Spader. Obviously someone like Carrey, a bonafide movie star, probably wasn’t going to be a long-term replacement and was really more of a stunt-casting/cameo, but it wouldn’t have been out of place for Arnett or Romano to realistically join the cast of the show. In retrospect, Romano may have been a good replacement, but who knows how that would’ve turned out.
At the time, I remember being completely soured on Catherine Tate, and I had heard rumors she was the front-runner. I enjoyed, however, James Spader’s odd-ball appearance as the intense Robert California, and I hoped he would win the role of Carrell’s replacement. When it was announced that Spader would be joining the cast, I remember being somewhat elated at the news. I had no idea, but that would quickly change. Eventually, Tate did show up on The Office, and was even briefly manager of the Dunder-Mifflin/Sabre branch in Scranton, PA. She would never not be annoying.
When The Office returned to the Fall schedule for the 2011-12 television season without Carrell, it was revealed that Spader’s California character had been hired on, except that he would be replacing Kathy Bates’ character, Jo Bennett, as CEO of Sabre, and that Ed Helms’ character Andy Bernard would become the branch manager in Scranton. This served two purposes: it allowed Bates to gracefully exit the show so she could continue work on her CBS series Harry’s Law, and it also served to placate fans by putting Andy in charge and keeping Spader as a recurring guest star. Again, none of these decisions would really work out in the long term.
Many people would blindly point to the final season of The Office, which aired in the 2012-13 television season, as the worst in the show’s history. I would contend, however, that the penultimate season is actually far worse. It is in this year that Andy Bernard becomes truly repulsive as a character, Pam and Jim’s smug behavior grows completely out of control, and side-characters like Erin the receptionist and Kevin Malone, the “Falstaffian” accountant, become total caricatures and parodies of themselves. Minor characters like BJ Novak’s Ryan and Mindy Kaling’s Kelly also totally grow out of the roles and have very little to say or do, and basically no importance in any of the long-term arcs of the season.
The worst of that penultimate season, however, has to be the show’s ill-considered Florida arc, where a handful of the office staff is sent to Florida under orders of Robert California to help open a Sabre-themed retail space similar to the popular Apple stores. This Florida arc does little but make the characters even more insufferable, as it places long-loved characters like John Krasinski’s Jim into totally implausible scenarios. We know that Jim will never cheat on his wife, and to force Jim into a scenario would that would even be a possibility was almost offensive to me as a viewer. The Florida arc also serves to make Andy and Ryan even less likable, Erin even dumber (which I thought was basically impossible), and it completely turned Dwight Schrute into a monster.
When that arc ended, Andy eventually loses his job to Catherine Tate’s character for reasons too inexplicable and dumb to even list here. Robert California seems to go out of his way to revel in the destruction of the company he was hired to run, to the point where he closes down branches of Dunder Mifflin/Sabre after drunken binges. Nellie becomes somehow even more insufferable and annoying, and Andy is made out to be a completely moron, so much so that when he does find redemption, he isn’t even really given his redemptive moment, and he never really gets the chance to find his comeuppance against Nellie and California. Eventually, a deus ex machina allows former Dunder Mifflin CEO David Wallace to buy the company after a liquidation by Jo Bennett, for pennies on the dollar.
It is at this point, the final season, that The Office is allowed to somewhat return to a status quo. Andy Bernard is still in charge, but it seems characters like Dwight, Jim, and Pam basically return to who they were before the disastrous eighth season. We finally see the sales team actually going on sales calls and making real sales. Andy leaves the office for a good chunk of episodes as Ed Helms was filming The Hangover Part 3. This allows the show to air a pretty solid number of actually funny and interesting episodes (though there were still a number of stinkers – “Work Bus” anyone?). Unfortunately, two things hinder the final season from being pretty good, if not a complete return-to-form to at least season six or seven (it was never going to be as good as it was in Carrell’s heyday).
The first thing holding that final season back is the intrusion of the documentary crew into the lives of the office workers. Chris Diamantopolous (who has the worst luck of any actor ever apparently, having appeared in the lesser seasons of Community and Arrested Development as well) appears in several episodes of the show as boom mic operator Brian, who grows close enough to Pam that it feels creepy and wrong. Brian is never really developed as a character, and his sudden appearance into the show is intrusive, not particularly well explained, and totally unnecessary. It seems for a time that the show might use him as a romantic foil to get in the way of Jim and Pam, much as the temp, Cathy, from the previous season was used. But like Cathy, Brian is never used appropriately and kind of fades from the show quickly, almost as if the writers ended up feeling much like the viewers – that the character was just downright creepy.
The other thing holding back the final season of The Office is Jim’s ill-fated plan to leave Dunder Mifflin to start his own business, the “sports marketing” company Athlead. Jim’s decision to invest with the Athlead start-up is one he never made with Pam, and this leads to some dark and unwanted places on the show. The Office had spent the bulk of its existence building up Jim and Pam as the ultimate power couple. The two just belonged together. So for the writers to basically spend the final two seasons of the show finding contrived reasons to cause drama between them seemed silly and unnecessary. It is true that Pam and Jim became somewhat smug and unlikable in the later seasons, but there was never any reason to spend this much time trying to make the audience think they would ever split up.
The final few episodes of The Office’s last season, however, are pretty strong. Andy is eventually fired as manager and replaced by Dwight, who, though he became a caricature throughout the series’ run, is the best part of the last season. Dwight really shines throughout, and his oddball family and friends are likewise great when they show up in episodes like “Junior Salesman,” particularly Matt L. Jones as his cousin Zeke and Mark Proksch as the continually put-upon warehouse worker Nate (I wish both these guys would get more work). The less said about Andy the better, as his obnoxiousness and pompous idiocy continues. Andy’s goal revolves around becoming an actor/singer, but because he is totally incompetent, I was never able to buy into this storyline, let alone believe that Andy would ever succeed.
The series finale of The Office works incredibly well, returning the show to a high point. The whole office gathers for a retrospective on the long-running documentary surrounding their time as office workers in Scranton, PA. The finale has just enough nostalgia to work, and it’s great to see everyone together again. Even Carrell came back for a brief cameo as Michael Scott, showing up to Dwight’s wedding to Angela to be the best man. A lot of effort was clearly put into the finale to please long-time fans, and unlike other recent finales, The Office’s does not disappoint. Though the final season isn’t nearly as good as the glory days of the show, it is much better than anything in the Florida-arc and light years better than any of the Nellie or Robert California nonsense of season eight. Despite the late lulls, this show is rightfully considered one of the best sitcoms of all time at this point, and I’m glad the final season, particularly the finale, redeemed it a bit.