Up until a few weeks ago I thought I was prepared for the end of The Office. The show had run its course and like most people I would have preferred to see it end a couple of years ago before it started to truly decline. But in preparation for the event I've been going back through and watching the entire series, from episode one to episode 187, and now I find that I'm not nearly as ready to let it go as I thought I would be. I'm afraid I'm going to cry quite a lot tonight. It started inconspicuously in late March of 2005. I was still at Harding nearing the end of my first senior year and I made time for exactly two TV shows: Arrested Development (I may have been the show’s only regular viewer in the state of Arkansas) and Lost (I also watched Late Night with Conan O’Brien but at the time the NBC affiliate in the area replayed the show at 1 am and I usually watched it then). Beyond these entries, I watched nothing but sports and re-runs of 90s sitcoms and The X-Files. Certainly there was nothing that stood as appointment viewing for a 22 year-old who had so many better things to do than watch TV like go to social events shoot baskets alone in the gym and study play video games. But something about the promos for The Office caught my attention. The show seemed, to put it simply, weird and having had my eyes opened up to the world of quirky/weird/offbeat/different television by Arrested Development, I was intrigued. For six weeks I made sure I was home on Tuesday nights (I think the pilot was on Thursday and then the show jumped to Tuesdays) and delved into the lives of the employees of Dunder Mifflin.
Anyone who has watched The Office since the beginning knows that that first season, six short episodes that replaced (I think) a show called Committed well after midseason, is not very good. Or at least, it’s not very funny. Looking back, I’m honestly surprised that the show got a second season. The first season serves as a solid foundation for the show that The Office would become but all six episodes are fairly bland and there is a sense of hesitance that runs through it all. Those episodes are sort of an experiment, testing the boundary between the accessible sitcoms of the day (Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men) and the extreme wit of Arrested Development and the result only above average (at best). But there was something about that season that held my interest and brought me back for season two. It was here, in those first two episodes of season two, that my intrigue turned to love and I felt like I was being rewarded for sticking around. The first episode brought the importance of The Dundies into my life and the second episode marks the beginning of the phenomenon that is, “That’s what she said.” I was hooked.
Over the next three seasons, The Office hit a stride that very, VERY few sitcoms have ever been fortunate enough to find. From the beginning of season two through the end of season four, I don’t think it ever had a misfire. Maybe the occasional “down” episode but never one that truly stuck out as a miss. The stroke of genius came in the writer’s ability to make normal, relatively realistic people seem tremendously funny. Sure, some of the characters were outlandish but everyone who has ever worked in an office environment has been around a Dwight-type or had a boss similar to Michael. I’m on record as saying Arrested Development is the greatest sitcom of all-time but I will readily admit that much of the humor is drawn from the characters’ abject insanity and ridiculousness. Not so with The Office. By making the characters seem real, the viewer became more and more invested in their lives and came to truly care about what happened to them, similar to the way people cared about Ross and Rachel. In essence, you came to The Office for the jokes (and seriously, the level of comedy in seasons two through four is off the charts) but you stayed for the relationships.
Jim and Pam became the new Ross and Rachel but with a much greater level of intimacy between the characters and the audience (thanks in large part to the documentarian aspect of the show). It wasn’t so much, “will they or won’t they” as it was, “please Lord, let this happen soon ahhhhhh!!!” Dwight, perhaps more than any of the other characters, was a caricature of an annoying coworker but even still, you found yourself pulling for him, while also relishing in the sense of living vicariously through Jim as the latter tormented the former. It was kind of a form of therapy for anyone who had a Dwight in their own office. And then of course there was Michael, one of the (in my opinion) five or ten greatest characters in the history of the sitcom. If you were like me, you jumped back and forth in the early years between loving and hating him, sometimes in the same episode, and finally coming to accept him for the person he was, herpes and all. (That’s one of my favorite underrated storylines, by the way.) Michael gave new meaning to the word “uncomfortable” and yet you couldn’t help but love him and his evolution as a character brought with it some of the show’s most poignant moments. And that’s not even taking into account the literal thousands of incredible sequences involving the glorious side characters.
The Office lost its way a bit at the end of season five and I think from there on it transitioned more and more into the mode of the common sitcom that floated from week to week but was still capable of throwing out a great episode from time to time. That is to say, there were no more long plateaus of total brilliance like we got from season two to four but four or five times a year you could bet on a serious spike that reminded you of what the show meant to you. It got old at times and The Office definitely struggled without Michael Scott around to guide but while some viewers fell off, I remained steadily invested. The disastrous eighth season that was particularly painful and a complete waste of time but I couldn’t tune out because of how much the characters had meant to me over the years. I’m glad I stayed because even if season nine hasn’t been up to par with the show’s prime, it has contained some joyous moments that have inhabited the spirit of those earlier episodes if nothing else.
As we approach the final episode of The Office and I reflect on all 187 episodes, my mind has been flooded with literally thousands of great memories. All of the cold opens. (All of them.) A couple dozen pranks. “That’s what she said.” Schrute Farms. Michael’s dance on the booze cruise. The Pam and Jim flirtations. “Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica.” Andy’s wall punch. Michael’s hatred of Toby. Gaydar. The majesty of Creed. But perhaps my favorite thing about The Office is the community that it created. In the video I posted yesterday, Rainn Wilson mentioned that he could sit down and watch the show with his mom and his son and everyone could enjoy it. And that is probably the show’s most redeeming quality. To put a smart, witty show on the air and have it succeed for nine years is a feat in and of itself; but to make that show accessible enough for just about anyone to find something to grab on to is another thing entirely. In our early days, my wife and I bonded over our mutual love for The Office and being able to join in her weekly watching parties was a huge boon. When season five debuted, one of my coworkers left mini office supplies encased in Jell-O on the desk of every Office fan. In awkward social situations I could always bring up the previous week’s episode and bet on that breaking the ice. It’s a show that everyone could watch and while maybe not everyone did watch (the ratings were never as good as people think they were), there was always someone from every walk of life who did watch and that sense of wide-ranging community is something that I’m not sure we’ll ever get again given the trend toward television segmentation.
So as we say farewell to The Office, a show that brought about more of an emotional connection than any program I’ve ever had the fortune of watching, I’ve cobbled together a list of my ten favorite episodes, a task that proved almost impossible when I got down to it. Feel free to share your own favorite episodes or moments and pay no attention to the man over in the corner bawling his eyes out for the entirety of this finale.
10. The Client (Season 2, Episode 7) While Michael and Jan Levinston are out making a pitch to a client, the rest of the office stays late for a table reading of Michael’s screenplay, Threat Level Midnight. This was an episode that allowed the brilliant side characters that fill up the show to come to the forefront and it’s also the episode that got a lot of viewers (or at least myself) invested in the Jim and Pam relationship.
9. Livin’ the Dream (Season 9, Episode 21) Andy leaves the office to pursue a career in showbiz and Dwight finally claims the manager’s chair. This was a throwback episode that reminded me of how incredible this show really was when it was at its best. It also supplied a fitting end for Andy and a perfect exit plan for Dwight.
8. The Deposition (Season 4, Episode 8) Michael and Toby travel to New York for a deposition relating to Jan’s lawsuit against Dunder Mifflin. Few episodes of The Office have brought me more laughs than this one and it doesn’t really matter how many times I see it. We also get a glimpse into the heart of Michael Scott and I’m not sure this isn’t the moment that you begin to see him as a real human.
7. The Job (Season 3, Episode 23) Michael, Jim, and Karen all interview for a corporate position and in the end (SPOILER ALERT) Jim realizes he loves Pam. The “will they or won’t they” aspect of The Office came to a dramatic end in literally the final seconds of the season three finale and it was GLORIOUS.
6. Stress Relief (Season 5, Episode 13) Dwight performs an overly realistic fire alarm and Michael forces the office employees to roast him. This may seem like a somewhat random episode but to this day when I think of Michael slamming his employees and finishing every sentence with, “BOOM. Roasted.” I crack up.
5. Initiation (Season 3, Episode 5) Dwight takes Ryan on a “sales call”, Jim swaps chairs with Karen, and it’s Pretzel Day in Scranton. When I set out to make this list, I probably had eight or nine of the episodes picked out and this wasn’t one of them. I had forgotten how great it is until I watched it again a couple of weeks ago and realized just how much goodness was jam packed in here.
4. The Injury (Season 2, Episode 12) Michael accidentally cooks his foot on a George Foreman grill and Dwight has a concussion. This is the episode that caused me to fall in love with the show. I really, really liked it at this point but the idea that Michael could cook his own foot and not understand why people thought that was weird pushed me over the top.
3. Goodbye, Michael (Season 7, Episode 21) Michael leaves Dunder Mifflin for his new life in Colorado. In all honesty, this might not be all that great of an episode but it is so wrought with emotion that I cannot help but fawn over it. Saying goodbye to a beloved character, especially while the show continues on without him/her, is tricky business and I think The Office completely nailed it here. *Tears*
2. Niagara (Season 6, Episode 4) Jim and Pam finally get married in spite of a whole host of problems. This one pretty much speaks for itself so let me say that still to this day if I happen to catch the end of this episode I will tear up. It is a perfect, poignant celebration of not just Jim and Pam but the show itself. Love, love, love it.
1. The Christmas Episodes (Seasons 2, 3, 5, 6, 9) Yeah, I cheated, but come on, how do you choose between all of The Office Christmas episodes? “Benihana Christmas” (Angela and Pam host separate parties, Michael brings two waitresses to the party) is probably the best of the bunch but “Christmas Party” (Michael turns the gift exchange upside down) is also quite formidable and how do you top the awkwardness of “Moroccan Christmas” (Meredith drinks too much and Phyllis drops a big secret)? The episodes from seven and eight are only okay but this year’s entry, “Dwight Christmas” (Jim convinces the office to let Dwight deliver his form of Christmas) was a glorious return to form. All of them are brilliant episodes and I think stand as hallmarks of The Office universe. My wife and I watch all of them every year while putting up the Christmas decorations and it’s a tradition that never gets old. Of all of the things I’m going to miss about The Office, I think what I’ll lament the most is that there will be no new Christmas episode to look forward to every year.
Honorable Mention: The Target (Season 9, Episode 8) – Angela hires a friend of Dwight’s to kneecap Oscar The Return (Season 3, Episode 13) – Andy freaks out, Dwight returns to Dunder Mifflin Scott’s Tots (Season 6, Episode 12) – Possibly the second most awkward episode ever behind… Dinner Party (Season 4, Episode 9) - …This one Sexual Harassment (Season 2, Episode 2) – That’s what she said