‘The Office’ ends on a solid, if unexceptional note

The Office had an interesting 9-season run on NBC, acting as the network’s jewel in its tarnished crown. During the seventh season, lead Steve Carell decided to leave the series, and fans were worried that the show wouldn’t recover from the loss; the concern was understandable, as few shows can survive from losing their biggest stars (The X-Files, That 70s Show, 227). The Office managed to go on for two more seasons before closing shop in its ninth season.

There is a definite feeling of melancholy in this set – there are clues that point to the eventual end of the show. For the first time the camera crew purportedly filming the staff of Dunder-Mifflin are now being referenced to more often – in fact, a brief story arc even involves a cameraman and his interaction with the characters. Aside from the faint sadness, there’s also an ominous tone when the imminent broadcasting of the documentary is referenced in the later half of the season.

With all this in mind, it’s a little difficult to review the last season. Some of the episodes are very good – none approach the show at its peak, but some are close, but the show also repeats some mistakes of the sloppy eighth season.

The biggest mistake is continuing with Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) as regional manager of Dunder-Mifflin. For those who don’t remember, Andy was reinstated to regional manager at the end of the seventh season once he convinced former CEO David Wallace to buy the company back from Sabre CEO Jo Bennett.

While Andy’s a good character, he’s also really annoying – and he’s not very appealing. None of this is Helms’ fault, and he’s good in the role, but the character is all over the place – at times, he’s a good-natured bumbling idiot, and at other times, he’s borderline psychotic. When he’s shipped off to the Caribbean in the middle of the season, viewers will heave a huge sigh of relief.

Another issue is Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate), Andy’s archenemy. The show’s writers did not know what to do with Nellie, and it’s clear in this season that they’re tried toning down the crazy from the seventh season, and instead made her blandly quirky. Tate is a brilliant comedienne, and deserves much more than what she was saddled with  – a criminal waste of a comic genius.

But alongside these problems, the ninth season does have some strengths, the biggest being Ellie Kemper as Erin, the bubbly receptionist who joined the show in season 7 to temporarily replace Pam (Jenna Fischer). Though Pam returned, Erin stayed on, and became love interest to Sabre HR rep Gabe (Zach Woods) before settling down with Andy. In the ninth season, Andy goes through some major life changes and a midlife crisis that sends him on that boat cruise to the Bahamas, leaving Erin to lick her wounds with the new office hunk Pete (Jake Lacey). Kemper injects the humor with much-needed heart and offers an antidote-like cheeriness to the snarky irony of the show; the comedienne throws herself into the show, and consistently steals her scenes and just passes the show’s breakout star, Rainn Wilson – Dwight Schrute – as the show’s MVP.

And speaking of Dwight – he’s put through some serious drama in the ninth season, mainly wondering about the paternity of Angela’s (Angela Kinsey) baby with the closeted senator, who is having an affair with office mate Oscar (Oscar Nunez). This adds some intrigue to the show, but it also turns one of the show’s few virtuous characters into a scheming jerk and it’s rather unappealing.

And speaking of turning the good guys into bad, in this season the lovable, perfect everyman, Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) starts to feel restless about his life and career and takes action which puts his marriage into jeopardy. This added bonus of marital strife is interesting because for the bulk of the show’s run, the relationship between Pam and Jim has always been idealized – she’s the adorable, hilarious babe, and he’s the awesome husband that every wife would kill for; yet, in the last season of The Office the writers have given the Halperts a lot of issues to deal with and their previously-impenetrable bond gets severely tested. And while this adds some depth to the show, I checked out of the Pam-Jim soap opera about three seasons back when they finally started dating again after their third season love triangle with Karen (Rashida Jones, who sadly, is absent in this season). In fact, despite their status as the show’s leads, both Jim and Pam are pretty stale as characters at this point – Fischer does inject her character with her patented cute-shy charm that’s always watchable, and Krasinski’s mugging and camera takes are priceless, but they fail to liven up their storyline that has pretty much been resolved a few seasons back; the addition of the marital issues feels a bit desperate.

Despite some of the problems of the show, the plot arcs move nimbly and there’s enough interest drummed up in the episodes to keep its audience watching all the progress. A fascinating peripheral episode, “The Farm” is a backdoor pilot for a spinoff for Wilson’s character. While the show ultimately didn’t sell, it’s a neat peek into what the writers were plotting for Dwight – the episode isn’t great, and the writing is rather stiff and clunky – too intent on introducing a new cast of supporting characters – but as Wilson proved once Carell left, he’s a strong comedic presence who is more than able to carry a show on his own. Hopefully, he will return to television soon with an appropriate vehicle for his gifts.

The show rallies for a very good finale – it’s not the best episode of the show’s history, but it’s the strongest in the Michael Scott-free era. It’s suitably affectionate and sentimental (though it veers precariously close to saccharine and overly sweet), and the writers sum up all of the characters lives – and some old favorites drop by. Because of the hype and the overwhelming media attention to the finale and the show’s ending, it’s easy to get an inflate sense of this season’s quality – this isn’t a case of a show leaving on top, like Seinfeld; instead like most long-running shows, the ninth season is an overdue cap to a once-brilliant show that has since dimmed and frayed with age.

Click here to buy the ninth season of The Office on DVD from amazon.com.

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Filed under Comedy, DVD, Sitcom, Television

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