I guess it has not been cool to like The Office for some time, but I still liked it up until the end — its finale is tonight — even given all the ways that it became rote and aimless. That’s TV. That’s what happens in a long-running show. But to focus overmuch on the fact that The Office doesn’t end its run as strongly as it began it is to miss the things that are enjoyable about a long-running TV show, like watching the characters physically change because the actors are getting older, and watching the show reconfigure itself every time a cast member leaves.
I found the British version of The Office profoundly brilliant when I first watched it, back when Netflix were sent in red envelopes and knowing about a British TV show actually constituted a sort of cultural currency. It was great because it was so cringey. You had seen cringey but it was just, to borrow a phrase from drunk Reese Witherspoon, beyond.
I’m actually not sure the British Office holds up particularly well, but it remains historic and gemlike and “perfect” in the way a short BBC run allows and a big, sprawling, multiseason American network show definitely doesn’t.
But the British Office had no room to breathe. You watch it today and you can’t believe how emotionally remote it is.
The American Office always had a sense of empathy for its characters. Partly that was because Steve Carrell was so much more likable than Ricky Gervais (of whom, by the way, I sometimes think the circa-2013 persona is so grating and insufferable that I want to go back and retroactively question whether his David Brent was really so great). But part of it was, again, because the show ran for so many more episodes. The Phyllis we ended up with, or the Angela or Toby or whoever, was just a lot different from the background-characters they began as. That only really happens if the show stays on the air for a long time and the writers pay attention and find ways to allow those characters to grow and show different things about themselves.
All that is well and good but I doubt it is the real reason I never quite quit on The Office. Here is the real reason, I think: At the center of the show was something there are not so many of on TV: an actual grown-up relationship. A good couple. Not the narcissists and sociopaths of Friends or Seinfeld, not the constant forced will-they-or-won’t-they of every show ever — and also not, by the way, the depressing claustrophobic middle-class domestic sitcom couple who seem to completely hate each other a la Everybody Loves Raymond. Jim and Pam cracked each other up and enjoyed each other’s company and were basically pretty considerate of each other’s feelings. That is nice. That is rare on TV. I liked watching that.
I am very aware of the show’s flaws, and the creaky plot devices of this last season have been cringeworthy in the other way, the unintentional way. (Pam wants to stay in Scranton and deny her husband his dream job why exactly?) And oh, man, those last lines of last week’s episode were so corny as to be treacly. Show don’t tell, guys.
But I don’t know. I guess I don’t think all TV always needs to be these perfectly shaped, flawlessly executed seasons. There is only one Arrested Development, if you know what I mean. There’s something to be said for a show that you grow up with a bit.
My fondness for The Office is much more the province of my heart than my mind. I am okay with that.