Oscar Nominees 2017: Slightly Less White Edition

The Oscars are almost upon us. Once again, my friend Daisy and I have striven to watch all of the best picture nominees so that you don’t have to. And once again, it’s taken way longer than we’d like to manage it. So without further ado, let’s rank some nominees. And say whether I’d have bothered watching them without a nomination. Or if it even would have been made if it weren’t fishing for awards (by way of a for instance, The King’s Speech, Theory of Everything, and Imitation Game seem to have no purpose outside of Oscar season). And what actors from superhero or equivalent projects are in them.

I guess there was a little ado left after all.

9. Denzel Washington Won’t Shut Up

I’m-a spoil this movie because it’s bad and you shouldn’t watch it.

You don’t need to be told that this movie is based on a play. Denzel Washington’s direction is only a step or two removed from just filming a stage performance. Anyway, apparently Denzel enjoyed doing this play on Broadway so much that he got all the cast back together and made it a movie.

Which baffles me. Because this movie is bad. And I assume the play was bad as well.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in the 1950s, who is consumed with bitterness over the fact that his professional baseball career came and went before the league was desegregated. As a result, he’s shitty to everyone in his orbit. He’s a bad husband, to the point where he fathers a child with another woman and doesn’t even bother to apologize for it when he comes clean. He’s an awful, awful father, with one son who grew up while Troy wasin prison, and a second he actually raised, but since that second son lived in a house (paid for with the money Troy’s brother got for being brain-damaged by the war) and didn’t starve to death, Troy keeps waiting for his Father-of-the-Year trophy. Putting aside refusing to show even the slightest affection for his own child, he acts like a job in a grocery store is the best his son could ask for, blocks a college recruiter from signing him because sports are involved (after all, why would he want to play football and get a full college scholarship when he has already has a menial job that can sustain a minimal quality of life?), nearly chokes his son to death with a baseball bat for standing up to him, then kicks him out of the house. And you know what, let’s not put “refusing to show even the slightest affection” aside, let’s bring that right back, because that pushes the equation from “disillusioned by life thanks to racist America” and fully into “is just a complete asshole” territory. Whites-only water fountains did not force him to hate his own child. And yet any time he’s confronted over this, he pulls out the fact that he’s provided food and shelter, you know, the absolute minimum amount of parenting you can do and not end up in court, like that’s some huge unimpeachable favour. As Chris Rock put it… You’re supposed to do that! What do you want, a cookie?

He’s awful. He’s painful to watch, and not in a good, cathartic way, just in the “why are you letting this man have two hours of my life” way. And 90% of the movie is him delivering long-winded monologues that take a lot of words to say practically nothing. Seriously, Troy Maxson has more dialogue than the protagonists of three other best-picture nominees combined*, and yet not one word of it is relatable, interesting, or able to generate sympathy, or indeed anything but contempt, for this utter waste of a person.

And if that weren’t bad enough, when he finally manages to die, there is an epilogue that feels about 45 minutes long (probably closer to 10, but feels longer) in which everyone stands around pretending that Troy wasn’t as demonstrably, irredeemably terrible as we just saw him being. His widow claims Troy somehow did a good job raising his son, as though his son’s every accomplishment were because of Troy rather than in spite of him, and says she’s going to raise Troy’s illegitimate daughter the same way. And if that isn’t all Child Protective Services needs to hear to step in, what could be?

Viola Davis does her best, but Troy is so remorselessly long-winded that Denzel Washington sucks the air out of every scene not focused on his brain-injured brother. If you want to see Viola Davis in something, you’d be better off watching Suicide Squad yes I said it Suicide Squad is better than Fences COME AT ME.

It’s bad. It’s just bad. It is very nearly Tree of Life bad and I hate that it exists.

*Lion, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight, for those keeping score.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Good lord no. The trailer was terrible and the movie is worse.
Glad you did? No, no, a thousand times no.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
Probably. I mean, it looks like an “actor showcase,” a movie designed to get actors awards, but it was a passion project for Denzel and that’s all it took.
Featuring: Amanda Waller.

8. Turns Out Death is Sad, Who Knew

Years ago, Lee Chandler suffered a horrific, unspeakable tragedy that has come to define his entire life. He’s a hollowed out shell who’d rather pick a drunken fight with a stranger than get picked up by a pretty woman. But when his chronically ill brother passes away, he has to return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea (where he’s become a person of infamy) to take care of his teenaged nephew.

The point, the central thesis of this movie, is that no matter the tragedy, no matter your pain, it cannot stop life’s inconveniences. This is encapsulated in a moment where a woman, on the worst day of her life, is being loaded into an ambulance… but the gurney won’t fold up, and the paramedics spend long enough futzing with it it becomes a moment of comedy… which is surrounded by unspeakable tragedy.

That’s not the worst central theme. And there are certainly some very strong performances* in it. But… now that you’ve got all of that, I don’t know, maybe tell a story. There is very little narrative, just a lot of shots of Casey Affleck looking sad or emotionally blank, and then eventually it just trails off and rolls credits.

Critics seem to adore it. Great reviews everywhere. I just… I don’t get it. I was just kinda bored.

*Casey Affleck’s performance is somewhat overshadowed by revelations that he is allegedly pretty shitty to women. If that costs him the Oscar, well, maybe don’t be shitty to women, Hollywood stars. I just wish that didn’t mean it would go to Denzel Washington, because Fences doesn’t deserve awards, it deserves to be spat on.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? No. No human being could hear the description and think “That sounds like a fun night out.”
Glad you did? Meh.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
 Kind of unlikely but I can’t rule it out.
Featuring: Green Lantern’s dad.

7. Jesus and Explosions

In our first (of four) “based on a true story” movies, Desmond Doss wants to go to war to serve his country, but his Christianity and deep personal convictions against violence forbid him from even holding a gun. Naturally, the army doesn’t care for this, and makes boot camp as unpleasant as they can to drive him out. But when he is ultimately allowed to serve as an unarmed combat medic, he ends up at the battle of Hacksaw Ridge in the South Pacific, where he stays behind after a US retreat, spending days getting wounded soldiers off the ridge to safety in an improvised harness. Which, as far as the movie is concerned, inspires the US troops into a more successful attack. Finding out that the Japanese troops had tunnels didn’t hurt either.

This one was better than I expected based on the trailer, which kind of sums up the whole story. The second act, where the army hates Desmond’s commitment to pacifism, dragged exactly as much as I thought it would. It is the primary weakness of the movie. But the first act, where we get to know Desmond, is far more charming than I expected, and the third act is pretty spectacular. Braveheart with explosions and flamethrowers.

Which brings me to the other flaw*. Through Desmond, the movie tries to portray the nobility of pacifism, how it’s possible to serve without violence, celebrating his refusal to throw a punch or take a life. But through every other US soldier, wow but the movie is celebrating violence. You’re not going to find a movie this in love with gore outside of, or frankly even including, the Saw franchise. So it’s kind of a mixed message. Is Desmond noble because of his pacifism, or is he noble because his pacifism inspires the other soldiers to be better at war-murder? Pick a lane, Hacksaw Ridge.

*Yes, Mel Gibson said terrible things about Jewish people that time, and no, I don’t have any concrete reason to think he’s stopped thinking them, but he keeps it out of the movie, at least. Well, if you’re Japanese, you might not have the best time, but it’s about US troops in the Pacific theatre, there’s not a great way to depict the Nazi-allied Japanese troops favourably.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Probably not. That second act looked excruciatingly tiresome.
Glad you did? A little. Slightly indifferent.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
Probably. Hollywood loves them some World War II movies.
Featuring: Spider-man, Elrond, the Avatar guy… VInce Vaughn has zero comic book movies? Or Star Warses? Bonds? Just a lesser Jurassic Park movie? Huh. Weird.

6. Google Earth To The Rescue

“Based on a true story” number two, and also the second the show the real people involved under the credits (Hacksaw did it too). As a small child, Saroo… okay, let’s just get this out of the way, he only thinks his name is Saroo because that’s how young he was, his properly pronounced name means “Lion,” that’s why it’s called that. As I was saying. Young Saroo idolizes his older brother Guddu so much that he insists on following him to his night job lifting bales, despite being a) too small to be doing heavy lifting, and b) too young to be up that late. Predictably, this goes very, very wrong, and he wakes up alone on a moving train, and ends up stranded in Calcutta, on the far side of India from home.

(I don’t mind spoiling the general plot here, because it is all very, very obvious. There are not two ways this movie can go.)

Unable to even correctly name his village, he ends up (after some ordeals) in a Calcutta orphanage, where he is adopted by an Australian couple in Tasmania. Years later, having grown into Dev Patel, an encounter with an Indian dessert he’d coveted as a child reminds him of his life pre-Calcutta, and of the brother and mother he left behind. A classmate suggests that this new program called “Google Earth” might help him take his decades-old memories and reverse engineer the location of his village. Haunted by the thought of Guddu and his mother desperately searching for him (he also had a sister, but doesn’t seem to care much), he becomes consumed with trying to find home.

That’s the premise. And like I said, there aren’t a lot of ways it can go. If Saroo just went a little crazy and then eventually saw a therapist and moved on, there’s no movie. So here’s the first issue… every stage of the story lasts just a little too long. When you know exactly where the story is going, the movie needs to work extra hard to keep you from getting impatient for the next beat. Allied managed this quite well, considering there’s an hour of movie before the part that’s in all the trailers. Lion occasionally struggles. Second, while the director is mostly effective at evoking emotional response, it can be a little nakedly emotionally manipulative. People want to emotionally respond to a movie, and the director is supposed to make you do that, but nobody likes to see the strings.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? There’s every chance. I do like Dev Patel.
Glad you did? I think so. It’s kind of touching.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
There is every chance. It’s not too showy about being uplifting, doesn’t scream “actor showcase.”
Featuring: Aquaman’s Mom, Faramir, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the manager of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (not a blockbuster but check it out, it’s so charming)

5. It’s Hard to be Gay in the Ghetto

The story of Chiron, a young gay child in a terrible neighbourhood, being raised by a drug addict single mother. That his life is not easy goes without saying.

We see three stages of Chiron’s life: as a young child, who ends up under the wing of a caring drug dealer and his girlfriend; as a bullied teen, whose drug dealer surrogate father is apparently dead, I think they mentioned that and I just missed it; and as an adult, after being poor, black, and ostracized have left him with precious few options in life, reuniting with the only man he’s ever loved.

(This is based on a play that was based on the life of the playwright, so he gets better, not that you’d know from this movie.)

At first I had trouble with this movie, as I can have difficulty connecting to protagonists who are largely defined by silence, as young Chiron is. But after the non-stop blather coming out of Fences’ Troy Maxson I have a new appreciation for it.

It’s very well done, with some very strong supporting performances from Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris. It does, however, have even less of an ending than Manchester by the Sea. It just kind of… stops. I mean, some stories don’t really have a nice “tie it with a ribbon” ending but seriously, this practically goes to credits mid-scene.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? It got enough buzz that I might have had to check it out.
Glad you did? Pretty much.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
Maybe yes, maybe no, but it should. A far more valuable story to tell than “Stephen Hawking loved a Christian.”
Featuring: Cottonmouth, Moneypenny

4. Love in the Time of Space Squids

Louise Banks is a mother whose child succumbs to a rare form of cancer. She is also a genius linguist who gets tapped by the US military when 12 alien spaceships arrive on Earth and we need to figure out how to talk to them. Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly lead the US attempt to talk to our new visitors, while the Chinese get ornery and society straight-up panics.

But why are the aliens here? What do they want? What’s the thing I’m not telling you? Well, I’m not telling.

It’s quite well done. The music, which resembles the odd horn-like speech of the space squid aliens, is highly effective. The visuals work. I would watch Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in anything short of a Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat movie (fun fact, I hate that show more than almost anything). The actual science behind “How do we communicate with a race whose mere manner of speech and writing is absolutely alien to us” is pretty fascinating. And they pull off a twist I didn’t see coming, and that ain’t easy, because like most modern audiences I’ve seen enough twists that I can sense them coming from the narrative hints. But they pulled this one off.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Lord knows I meant to.
Glad you did? Yep yep.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
Given that sci-fi movies and the Oscars go together like Mel Gibson and a “friends of Israel” dinner, I’d have to say yes.
Featuring: Lois Lane, Hawkeye, Saw Gerrera

3. In Which Banks Suck Worse Than Bank Robbers

And sometimes the Oscars choose to nominate a really well done crime movie.

Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Cross) hatch a plan to save their family ranch, swimming in debt after their late mother’s long illness. They begin robbing branches of the bank that holds their mortgage, laundering the money at an out-of-state Indian casino so they can pay off the mortgage with it. Paying off the bank with its own stolen money.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges is a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who catches the case, and tries to stop the robberies before they get bloody.

I can’t promise they don’t get bloody. Tanner is not overburdened with self-control.

This one is just good. Really good. The cast is excellent, the direction is solid, there’s suspense and humour… and a subtle view into the economic blight that has hit rural America as globalization and mechanization reduce the need for a blue-collar workforce*. It’s just really quite good.

*The movie does not spend time pontificating as to why times are tough in rural America, that was me, it just casually points out that this is so. After all, if it weren’t for for-profit health care and predatory lending, maybe nobody needed to rob any banks**.

**The movie doesn’t spell that out either but it’s not exactly a tough conclusion to reach if you’re paying attention.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I’m surprised it took me this long, I heard nothing but good things back in the fall.
Glad you did? Hoo-rah.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
Damn skippy.
Featuring: Captain Kirk, Angel from the worst X-Men movie, Obidiah Stane

2. Obligatory “Ain’t Hollywood Great” Movie

If there is one thing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves, it’s movies about World War II. If there are two, it’s movies about how great the movies are.

(Actually for the full list of things the Academy loves, watch The King’s Speech)

La La Land was greeted with wave after wave of accolades when it was released. And for good reason. It’s fun, moving in places, the songs are fun, and I really enjoyed what they did with colour schemes. Seriously, for something defined by music, it’s hella impressive visually. The leads might not be musical prodigies but they’re plenty charming.

Post-accolades, there was wave after wave of backlash, mostly having to do with how white the characters are. And you know what, I’m leaving that topic alone. It just gets me in trouble. I mean, I could say “The black character isn’t trying to sell out jazz, he is arguing against being a strict traditionalist in a musical style that is, by its very nature, experimental.” I could say “Sebatstian is not ‘mansplaining’ jazz to Mia because she doesn’t know anything about jazz and you can’t just throw the word ‘mansplaining’ around willy-nilly and not have it lose meaning and power.”

But we’ll move past that. This is my personal ranking list, so I’m-a just say it’s fun, charming, sweetly melancholy, and I enjoyed it a lot. So it stays at number two, and everyone shouting that it winning Best Picture is some sort of Hollywood apocalypse can consider chilling out.

Gladiator won Best Picture and the world didn’t end. Relax.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Most definitely.
Glad you did? Yeppers.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
I don’t know, would the film industry need to jack itself off without getting trophies for it?
Featuring: Gwen Stacy, J. Jonah Jameson

1. Black Women Do Math and Be Awesome

Now Hidden Figures is the whole package.

Set in a time when “Computer” meant a person who does a shit-ton of calculations by hand, Hidden Figures is based on the little-known true story of the black women who proved instrumental in getting America into space. Hidden Figures centres on three women: mathematical genius Katherine Johnson, who goes from checking white men’s numbers (right before it becomes obsolete) to inventing the math needed to get John Glenn back from orbit; Mary Jackson, who fights to become a full NASA engineer, despite needing to go to court to win the right to attend night school in segregation-era Virginia; and Dorothy Vaughan, who sees that all the women she supervises (in all but title and pay scale) will soon be put out of work by the new IBM machine, so teaches herself how to work it better than anyone else, then passes it on to her staff. These three women each play a key role in NASA’s mission, while struggling against the realities of life in racist Virginia.

This is an important story about a part of history that’s been largely ignored: the vital contribution of women of colour, marginalised then, marginalised now. And if that weren’t enough, it’s also got an amazing cast and is legitimately fun to watch. Sure, there are a couple of white saviour characters, the most notable being the saint-like John Glenn, who as far as these things go ranks just below Brad Pitt’s Canadian Abolitionist Jesus from 12 Years a Slave, but, well… desegregating NASA needed someone at the top to be on board. And if that means seeing Kevin Coster take a crowbar to the “coloured bathroom” sign, I’m down with that.

And just in case anyone wanted to breathe a sigh of “Things are better now,” the movie opens with the women afraid for their lives after being approached by a white police officer (and how’s that going, America?) and has the best piece of shade thrown at the “I’m not racist, but…” crowd. When a white superior tries to make nice with Dorothy by saying “I actually don’t have anything against y’all,” Dorothy sighs, and replies “I know. I know you probably believe that.” Perfect.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I think so. The buzz was so strong I was considering it before the nominations were announced.
Glad you did? Sure am.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
I’d really like to think so. I don’t, but I’d like to.
Featuring: Pa Kent, Mary Jane, Cottonmouth again

So that’s the lot. Sure there’s more to say, from “What the hell accent does Andrew Garfield think he’s doing in Hacksaw Ridge, it is just aggressive” to “Where is Amy Adams’ Oscar already” to “Seriously, what is it about Fences anyone liked,” but this is all we have time for.

See y’all at the show. And next time.

Overthinking The Office Part 9.5: Goodbye, Farewell, That’s What She Said

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are the last of mine.

For now.

Preparing for the End

The final episode of The Office takes place one year after the release of the documentary (which happened in the previous episode), as the crew returns to Scranton (just in time for Angela and Dwight’s wedding) to film some bonus material for the DVD. I could spend this last Office blog just walking you through all the ups and downs, twists and turns that lead to that point, but instead I want to talk about endgames. When you know you’re into your final season, you get to decide how you want to go out. Where the final leg of the journey is going, and where your characters will be at the end of it. Clark becomes Superman, Buffy destroys the Hellmouth (and Sunnydale), JD leaves Sacred Heart, the humans and Cylons make peace and settle on a new… no, screw it, God doesn’t know what was happening in that finale. Then, you figure out the best way to get there.

No one in The Office’s ensemble gets neglected in season nine, even the new guys, but the big finale of The Office was always going to revolve around the leads, or at least the firsts among equals in the cast. With Michael gone (and Ryan, who despite being in the opening credits, was never really a “lead”), that’s Dwight, Jim, Pam, and Andy. Now, as melancholy as the early seasons were, and as ongoing a theme as self-deception was, they weren’t going to go out on a sad note like the entire branch being shut down or something. The melancholy days were well past by now. Greg Daniels himself moved past them before stepped back from showrunner after season four. Jim and Pam were together, Michael had met Holly, and the threat of downsizing was massively reduced, if not yet gone completely.

Not everyone gets a happy ending, no. Andy, as we discussed, is at most bittersweet, and his ending best fits the theme of self-deception. Sorry to jump back on Andy, but my latest rewatch has been opening my eyes to the fact that, despite his actual vocal talent, Andy’s not actually that good at a capella. Witness his “guitar solo” in season five’s “Heavy Competition,” his reliance on “Root doo da doo” and awkward falsetto, or just how much worse his attempted father/son duet in “Garden Party” is compared to Walters Sr. and Jr. And in the name of Buddha and all his wacky nephews, for his make-or-break reality show singing audition, he picked the Cornell fight song? Oh, Nard-dog. Success was never yours to claim.

Where was I. Right. Some characters don’t even get an “ending,” per se, because Dunder Mifflin lives on and some people (Phyllis, for instance) just keep on as they were. But they were still aiming for a big, heartwarming ending, and that required two ingredients: Jim and Pam happy ever after, and Dwight K. Shrute as regional manager.

At least, I’m 90% sure that was the plan. After all, Dwight’s British equivalent, Gareth, ended up manager.

So… let’s see how they got there.

Jim and Pam: Marriage in Crisis

As I’ve said in the past, nothing they threw at Jim and Pam’s relationship ever felt like a legitimate threat. Distance only made their hearts grow fonder. No outsider could ever lure them away from each other, be it Mad Men’s Rich Sommer or… Cathy? That was her name, right? Man. She’s like the Silence from Doctor Who, once she’s out of your eyeline you forget she was there…

So in order to create a real conflict for the Halperts to drive their final story, they had to get a little more creative. They had to create a situation in which neither of them is 100% right, neither is 100% wrong… but one of them has to lose. That situation? Athlead.

An old college buddy of Jim’s decides to push forward with a sports marketing company he and Jim had discussed back in the day, and Jim, staring down the barrel of spending the rest of his days selling paper, decides to reverse what he and Pam had decided and jump in. The catch? In addition to soaking up $10,000 of their savings (instead of $5000, which Pam had eventually agreed to), the new company is in Philadelphia. Which would mean uprooting the family and leaving both Dunder Mifflin and Scranton.

And Pam did not spend nine years with Roy because she’s great at change.

In the premiere, while Jim is seeing Pete’s lack of life plan and wondering what happened to all of his own career dreams, Pam is telling Dwight “I happen to like my boring life, and will do what I have to to keep it.” Admittedly she was saying this to explain why she wasn’t going to help with an extremely dangerous and ill-thought-out high wire routine, but still, here we have the seed of their conflict.

And before you leap onto Jim’s side, and I know how easy to do that is, he did not really consult Pam. He joined the company without asking Pam (or more accurately, after Pam and he had agreed against it), doubled their investment without asking Pam, then started living in Philadelphia for half the week, leaving Pam alone with their two young children. Pam was kind of an afterthought in Jim’s new big career/lifestyle, and wow, I have been staunchly pro-Jim in this plot for years but I’m starting to talk myself out of it.

Also Brian the boom mic guy clearly had a thing for her but that didn’t really go anywhere.

The Athlead situation comes as close to splitting up Jim and Pam as anything had since her wedding to Roy drove him to Stamford. At what seemed like the 11th hour, Jim, who had been torn between his dream career and his dream wife, had a moment of clarity as to which of those he could live without, and stepped away from the company he helped found to rededicate himself to his wife and kids. And to subtly pranking the newly promoted Dwight.

Which led to a revelation for Pam. Between disbelief from Darryl (who Jim took with him to Athlead) that Jim could really be happy selling paper, hearing that the company was finally becoming a big success but Jim was passing on being part of it, and seeing him regress from having pride an ambition in his work to slacking off and devoting his energies to pranking Dwight, she had a revelation of her own. Jim saw what Athlead might cost him, Pam saw what asking him to stay at Dunder Mifflin meant giving up. But Jim, being confident in his choice, enlists the Documentarians in pulling off a reassuring gesture you just need to see.

That said. Having seen that Jim was willing to sacrifice his dream career for her, Pam decided that maybe she could sacrifice her safe, stable, boring Scranton life to take a risk with him (even before the fans at the reunion panel PBS organized were firmly Team Jim). Pam sells their house (with the help of Michael’s ex, Carol), and the Halperts leave not for Philadelphia but Athlead’s (now Athleap) new home in Austin, Texas. All is well for the Halpert family.

So they kind of pulled a Gift of the Magi. In order to sail into a new, better life (for Jim because of the dream career and for Pam because after a few months of not having to live with Angela’s snipes and Meredith’s calls of “Little Miss Thing wants attention” she is not even going to miss these people), they each first had to prove that what mattered most was each other. Jim by sacrificing Athlead, and Pam by giving it back.

But the problem with hanging a happy ending on Jim and Pam is that Athlead and Austin don’t change the fact that they got their happy ending way back in season six. New city and better career (for Jim) is a nice bow on an ending that basically just re-affirmed the status quo. So Athlead became the finale’s B-plot, and the Big Happy went to Dwight.

The Face Turn of Dwight K. Schrute

Now there are a couple of issues with hanging a happy ending on Dwight and Angela. The first is that some of the producers (and actor Rainn Wilson) wanted to keep the Dwight train rolling, and were pitching a spinoff called The Farm, which would have involved Dwight and his previously unseen non-Mose family running a new, larger Schrute Farm (Michael Schur was far too busy running Parks and Recreation to play Mose on the regular). So while they waited for word from NBC on whether or not that would go forward, a large part of Dwight’s endgame was put on hold… that part being whether or not Dwight and Angela would ever find their way back together, as all appearances were that Angela was not heading to The Farm.

The other issue is that these are not characters who, by and large, had thus far earned a happy ending. Dwight may have become more beloved by viewers than we would have expected at the beginning, but every time he’d been handed authority he abused it instantly. And Angela has been straight up awful. So some steps would need to be taken to pave a path to happily ever after.

The main one, and that fact that it starts happening early is the reason I think Dwight was always meant to end up regional manager, was getting Dwight to a point where he could be in power and not be a train wreck. This happens in episode four, “Work Bus.” It begins with yet another Dwight-as-authoritarian overstep, but as he and Jim butt heads in a more intense fashion than anything since the snowball fight, Jim actually breaks Dwight, and triggers a rare moment of camaraderie between the old nemeses. Dwight believes himself to be infertile, having been deceived about the parentage of Angela’s baby (while The Farm was still in play, we were all led to believe Dwight wasn’t the father), and Jim convinces him to view his coworkers as his family. Something Dwight even had a German word for to encourage him. And so begins a change in Dwight, from the would-be dictator out to crush or eliminate the staff, to a benevolent dictator who only trims off the truly deserving.

Shortly after taking command (at an occasion where I’m not 100% sure who’s filming it, as the Documentarians should have wrapped), Dwight does fire a couple of people… Kevin (for gross incompetence) and Toby (who in fairness checked out years ago), but he also hires on new people, and treats the remaining staff surprisingly well. And he does eventually live out his old dream of firing Jim, but when it happens, it’s out of love… he fires Jim and Pam before they can quit to leave for Austin, sending them on their way with a year’s salary each as severance.

Now, Angela.

Angela has long been the most insufferable member of the ensemble. Judgmental, bullying, demanding that the staff live up to a repressive puritan lifestyle that she herself consistently fails at living. And she’d been extra smug ever since she got together with (State) Senator Robert Lipton. You remember this… the (State) Senator is secretly gay, and everyone on staff seems to know that except her? We talked about it in season seven, and the fact that this story had a long fuse. Well, the fuse reaches the gunpowder pretty quickly this year, as Oscar starts seeing the Senator behind her back. Which causes, shall we say, tension in the workplace when she catches on. With the documentary’s release imminent, an advance review makes it clear that everything is about to, excuse the expression, come out, and Robert makes a choice: he comes out live on television, and announces his relationship with… his press secretary.

It’s a little heartbreaking for Oscar, to be sure, but Angela loses nearly everything. First she’s forced to stand next to her husband on live TV while he says that marrying her helped him come to terms with his homosexuality, as she showed him how “charmless” he finds the female body. Then in rapid succession, she loses her husband, her home, whatever nanny or team of nannies was tending to Phillip so that she her to rub her perfectly poised supermom routine in Pam’s face, and after being forced into a studio apartment, she even loses her cats. And then the apartment. Plus she’s about to lose her moral Christian reputation, as her years-long affair with Dwight is about to be broadcast to the world. She’s left with nothing but her job and her son (who clearly means slightly less than her cats), and ends up living in Oscar’s walk-in closet.

That would have been an appropriate place to leave her. Lord knows she earned it. But having lost everything humbles her enough that when The Farm fell through, we could be on board with Angela and Dwight getting back together. She is a wreck of a human being when she tries to convince Andy not to quit his job in a futile chase for stardom, and by that point, even I think that maybe she’s suffered enough. And come on… those two dysfunctional weirdos belong with each other. And no one else deserves them.

Plus, the wedding of Dwight and Angela is just weird enough that it’s an appropriately “The Office” way to sign off.

The Finale

At the time, I wasn’t certain how I felt about the finale. It gets most of its joy and sentimentality from characters who spent much of the series playing the villain, and so while it is a delight to watch, I wasn’t sure how earned it all was.

Following the wedding, there’s a farewell party back at the office thrown by PBS. While the network executives whoop it up in the warehouse, the Dunder Mifflin staff and the Documentarians head upstairs for a sweet little goodbye party. Sure, it’s not goodbye for everyone… six of them are back to work on Monday. But this farewell again for at least as many, even before we count the film people who’ve been around filming everyone for the last decade, and a new goodbye for two more, as Jim and Pam won’t be back.

It’s not as beautiful as the final moments of Scrubs’ eighth season finale (stupid ninth season keeping that from any “best series finale” list). But it’s sweet, and it’s funny, the return appearances are pretty perfect, there is the occasional moment to lure out tears. I couldn’t say it was perfect, but I also couldn’t think of a thing I’d change about it. Still can’t.

Key Episodes

“New Guys” for the introduction of Pete and Clark, who are, as I said, delightful. “Andy’s Ancestry” brings Darryl into Athlead. “The Boat” writes Andy out for a while, and “Couple’s Discount” reveals that his return is nothing to be celebrated. “The Whale,” “Suit Warehouse,” and “Stairmaggedon” are the best team-ups of Dwight and Dwight Jr (Clark). “Customer Loyalty” is when Brian makes his entry and the Documentarians take their first full step beyond the fourth wall. “Promos” is when the existence of the documentary fully enters the story.

And “AARM” and “Finale” take us home.


Let’s talk “backdoor pilots.” A backdoor pilot is an episode of a TV show that exists to set up a spinoff, rather than give said spinoff a standard pilot episode. Take, for example, the episode of CSI where Catherine follows a suspect to Miami, where she meets up with David Caruso and his CSI team. Then years later, David Caruso followed a perp to New York, where he met the CSI New York team. That sort of thing.

Backdoor pilots can be weird for binge-watchers. On the one hand, Jess on Gilmore Girls travelling to Venice Beach to see his father makes perfect sense. On the other, if you’re watching Bones on Netflix and suddenly a whole episode gets handed over to someone called The Finder, that’s a little jarring. And it’s especially jarring when it’s a backdoor pilot for a spinoff that didn’t get picked up, introducing us to a bunch of characters we’ll never see again.

Which brings us to The Farm.

The Farm was set up through a backdoor pilot in the back half of the season. Dwight’s Aunt Shirley passes away, and her video will gives a challenge: she’ll leave her enormous farm to Dwight and his siblings if they run it together. This is our first time meeting Dwight’s farmer brother (“After I left the army, I bought a 9-acre worm farm from a Californian. Turns out “worm” means something else out there. And, I am now in the business of… pain management. Or, the smoking of pain management.”) and his single mom sister, and our second time meeting his non-Mose cousin Zeke. Some might see this sudden introduction of siblings as being out of left field, like when Frasier invented a father and brother for Frasier Crane that didn’t match and even actively contradicted what we knew about his family from Cheers, but the fact is that they’d always been clear about the Schrutes being a large family. Dwight obviously had siblings, this was just our first time meeting any of them.

First and only.

Between filming the episode and writing the finale, The Farm was rejected by NBC. And in the wake of it all, they began walking back everything that happened. Dwight’s new farm became a sidenote, as his rise to Regional Manager became his one, true endgame. Dwight’s new love interest became just an obstacle for Angela.

And Dwight’s siblings don’t even show up at his wedding.

Kind of makes that episode feel pointless. Although if you skip it, you will miss the final appearance of Todd Packer.

Notable Guest Stars?

So, so many. In terms of returning players, Pam and Jim have to attend Roy’s wedding at the beginning of the season (also appearing, his dolt brother); Jan makes two last appearances (one over the phone) as the new head of the White Pages, the county’s biggest paper client; Josh Groban returns as Andy’s younger, more loved brother; Nancy Carell makes one last appearance as realtor Carol Stills; Todd Packer turns up one last time with drugged “apology” cupcakes; the stripper from Ben Franklin and Fun Run works Dwight’s bachelor party while Merdith’s son (first seen in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”); and of all people, Devin (unseen since season two’s Halloween, save for a deleted scene) gets hired back to replace Creed.

Also Kelly, Ryan, and even Michael are all back for the wedding. Michael only has two lines, one of which is a final “That’s what she said.”

Lucifer’s Rachel Harris turns up for the wedding as Angela’s sister.

Mr. Show/Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk turns up as a real estate office manager Pam interviews with, who turns out to be a carbon copy of early Michael Scott.

One last Daily Show veteran as Stephen Colbert plays Andy’s old friend/nemesis, Broccoli Rob.

Michael Imperioli turns up as Dwight’s new sensei.

A bunch of athletes someone other than me might recognise pass through Athlead.

Dakota Johnson and Better Off Ted’s Malcolm Barrett are new hires in the finale, replacing Kevin and Stanley.

And Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr. are perfectly cast as Erin’s long-lost birth parents.

Final Thoughts

Is The Office perfect? No, it drags in places and the cringe comedy can misfire. The cast is solid, but not quite the sitcom supercasts of Newsradio, Arrested Development, or Brooklyn 99. Speaking of that last one, The Office has left an impressive legacy, serving as the prototype for the knockout follow-up Parks and Recreation and its successor, Brooklyn 99, both from Michael Schur, who has now brought us the hilarious, if entirely different, The Good Place. That dude moves from success to success.

The Office may not be the most clever, nor the most touching, but succeeds at both often enough that it’s endlessly endearing and, to me and others, endlessly rewatchable.

Even if you may never, ever be on board with Angela and Andy as a couple. Jesus, Andy. Way to over-commit to a bad idea.

Thanks for joining me on this journey, those who did. Next time, let’s talk Oscar nominees. Or nerd stuff. A little of both to come.

Overthinking the Office Part 9: Beginning of the End

And we’re back.

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Final Season

There’s something about a final season that knows it’s the final season. When the creators have a chance to build a satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t always work out, no denying that… Lost had three years to prepare, and Battlestar Galactica had a year-long break mid “season” (if you’re off the air for 12 months, how is it still season four, BSG? HOW?), but they infamously fell short. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s final season is very much a “leave everything on the field” story, but nobody considers it one of their best. Losing the creator/showrunner and her writer/producer husband hamstrung the final season of Gilmore Girls. I would, however, argue that each of those is better than the poor shows that were cancelled unexpectedly after ending the season on a cliffhanger, like Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles, Carnivale (had it ended just two minutes earlier…), My Name Is Earl, or the most unnecessarily dark finale for a family-friendly show of all time, Alf.

“And then the main character is taken to a secret government torture lab. The end.”

But the really good or great series finales all have one thing in common… they all knew it was coming.

So after giving up on The Office after Tallahassee, when I heard that the upcoming ninth season of the show would officially be its last, they regained my attention. Especially when I heard it would feature an important return.

(Not Steve Carell. Let’s just rip that band-aid off now.)

Return of the King

A few things necessitated The Office bringing itself to a close. In addition to being just long in the tooth (something that doesn’t seem to be stopping The Simpsons or Supernatural, but there are plenty willing to argue “maybe it should”), they were beginning to haemorrhage key personnel. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, of course, had been gone since late season seven. The fall of Sabre at the end of season eight meant the departure of James Spader’s Robert California and, more unfortunately, Zach Woods as Gabe Lewis. But far more significant? Writer/producer Mindy “Kelly Kapoor” Kaling left to do The Mindy Project on Fox, and took writer/producer BJ “Ryan Howard” Novak with her, meaning season nine’s “How we spent our summer” montage included the departures of Kelly and Ryan. And Ed Helms was only willing to come back part time. So with all of these departures, it took one return to revitalise the show… series creator Greg Daniels.

See, for all the departures we’ve covered, from the Roys and Jans all the way to Michael Scott, we haven’t discussed all the comings and goings behind the scenes. Greg Daniels brought the show to America and refined the Gervais/Merchant clone of season one to the golden years of seasons two and three. But after four seasons at the helm, Daniels and writer/producer/Cousin Mose Michael Schur left to create Parks and Recreation (and who could begrudge them that?), leaving Jennifer Celotta and Paul “Toby” Lieberstein in charge. Celotta left two years later, leaving only Lieberstein in charge (which probably explains Toby’s diminished role during the Sabre years).

I don’t know if he was just burnt out, being the last showrunner standing, but season eight proved that he just wasn’t able to maintain the show’s quality. So you can understand how I was excited to have the original creator– fine, original adaptor back.

Having Daniels back in charge meant a few things. More natural, earned romance arcs for one. The best Jim prank in years, for another. But most significantly, the Documentarians re-entered the story in a big way. No, they’d never really gone… the talking head sections never stopped, and there was the odd reaction to the cameras’ presence (particularly when Michael left for Colorado or when Dwight tried to get Angela to admit little Phillip was his baby), but they’d dialed back considerably. There were multiple moments where the presence of the cameras would/should have been a bigger deal.

Not so in season nine. In the premiere, they take their first step from behind the scenes and into the story, as we hear one of their voices for the first time. Jim and Pam ask why the crew is still coming back year after year, and they admit that at this point they’re just curious what happens to Jim and Pam (which sparks one of the year’s big arcs but we’ll get back to that). Later, we get our first glimpse at the crew, as Brian the boom mic guy breaks the cone of silence to comfort Pam after a hard day. Oscar asks the crew for discretion after his new relationship is revealed, only to hilariously realise he’s just let Kevin in on the secret.

And as the season comes to a close, promos for the documentary begin popping up on the internet, and the Dunder Mifflin staff realise just how much of their lives has been filmed.

The unseen, unsung, hidden leads of the show finally get their day in the sun, and the documentary becomes the lynchpin of the final episodes.

But first, there were some gaps in the cast to be filled.

The New Guys

If there’s one thing that revitalized the show in its final year and kept it from being a slow crawl to the finale, it’s the additions made to replace the departing Kelly, Ryan, etc.

Following a contentious battle for the manager position with Andy, Catherine Tate’s Nellie Bertram is still around, and she’s even funnier in season nine. She’s freed of the manipulative, ambitious streak that defined her earlier appearances, and is able to just be quirky and part of the team. They even come up with a cute explanation for the softening of her character, after the documentary promos come out and everyone begins realising what they were filmed doing. “I sneezed into the candy bowl!” Nellie exclaims. “I thought I’d get more screen time as a villain!”

Now, many shows add people as they go along. Sometimes it’s a Poochie scenario, and the addition doesn’t really work. Think Conner on Angel, Riley on Buffy, or Nikki and Paolo on Lost. Added, swiftly dropped, never missed. Other times, they fit right in, as if they should have been there since the beginning. We saw this back in season six with Erin. And sometimes they manage to find that perfect fit character just as the show is ending. Scrubs managed it with Denise the surly intern (the always delightful Eliza Coupe), and The Office pulled it off with Pete and Clark, aka Plop and Dwight Jr.

Played by Jake Lacy and Darryl’s Hot Tub Time Machine co-star Clark Duke, Pete (swiftly, randomly, and to his unending chagrin nicknamed “Plop” by Andy) and Clark (nicknamed Dwight Jr. for his resemblance to Dwight), the new customer relations staff become indispensable pretty quickly.

Clark brings a blend of low-key yet determined ambition and ethical flexibility that makes him a perfect partner in crime for Dwight… yet he’s still grounded enough to be baffled at how said shenanigans end up going. A particular highlight is when Dwight, having lost hope at promotion, tranquillises Stanley to force him to attend a customer meeting. Clark goes from unwilling bystander (“Hey, c-c-can you just let me out of here before whatever comes next?”) to sidekick in the struggle to get an unconscious Stanley down the stairs and into the car, where he becomes weirdly impressed at how intuitive Dwight finds the process. (“If only there was any other use or situation for that kind of knowledge.”)

Pete falls easily into the role Ryan was supposed to have back in the early years: the new guy who isn’t desensitised to the DM shenanigans (eg. cutting off a list of insulting names Meredith claims to have been called with “Meredith! That is enough. That is more than enough. Why does no one stop her?”). But he also fits easily in with the others: in an early episode, he unites much of the staff in a quest to build a ceiling-height house of cards out of customer complaints.

Pete also comes the closest of any pairing save Michael and Holly to recapturing the old, easy chemistry of young Jim and Pam. Of course, for that to happen, someone else had to be pushed aside.

The Heel Turn of Andy Bernard

Y’all know the words, sing along… Andy Bernard is a cypher, Andy is whatever the show needs him to be. And when season nine starts, they don’t need him to be sympathetic anymore. Which is kind of awkward.

The end of season eight revolves around two things: Andy trying to win back Erin, and then trying to reclaim the manager position he lost to Nellie by driving to Florida to win back Erin. And as season nine starts, he immediately takes both of those things for granted. Okay he only takes Erin for granted immediately, it takes a few episodes for him to stop caring about the job, but it still happens. And the fact that it happens makes his and Erin’s entire eighth season arc feel hollow. Not only do Erin and Andy not end up together, we don’t even feel slightly bad about that fact. So thanks for spending three seasons trying to invest us in them as a couple, jerks.

So why does this happen? Why did they spend season eight selling us on Andy as manager and finally get him and Erin back together only to chuck all of it in season nine? Well, I think there are two reasons, and neither of them are Greg Daniels taking the reins back.

Number one, as I said, Ed Helms only came back for part of the season. He disappears for eight episodes right in the middle, as Andy decides to sail his family yacht to the Caribbean before it’s sold (Andy’s family goes broke after his father blows the family fortune, it’s a whole thing). So maybe they felt that if Andy was going to go AWOL for a third of the season, maybe it was okay for the staff/audience to resent him a little for it. But I lean towards a second theory.

When the teasers for the documentary begin to be released, Andy becomes convinced that his star is about to rise in a big way. And so he begins pursuing stardom, first through a dicey local talent agent (played by Roseanne Barr, yes that Roseanne Barr), and later by quitting Dunder Mifflin and putting all of his hope in an a cappella knockoff of American Idol (featuring American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken, Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, and some people I in no way recognise).

And when all of this happened, I couldn’t help but think that aside from the a cappella angle, which is pure Andy, this is exactly the sort of final arc Greg Daniels might have had in mind for Michael Scott seven years earlier. The belief that a few positive comments on YouTube would translate to superstardom? Doubling down on that belief despite all advice to the contrary? That is textbook Michael Scott. So it really feels like Daniels had been sitting on this endgame plot since they got picked up for a second season, and since Michael had left two years earlier, decided to hand it to Andy.

Whether or not that’s true, the fact remains that Andy was being set up for an end-of-series fall. Andy fails at his reality TV audition, has a breakdown in front of the cameras (and weren’t the producers of The Next Great A Cappella Sensation peaches for letting the Documentarians use that footage), and ends up finding fame in the worst way: his breakdown goes viral, and Andy becomes infamous worldwide as Baby Wa-wa (including an unflattering impression by Bill Hader on Saturday Night Live). He ultimately ends up working for the admissions department of Cornell, which is a decent enough turn, but still a fall.

Of all the leads, which is to say “people in the primary opening credits,” it’s the least happy ending handed out. Robert California makes out better than Andy. So maybe they felt that they had to manoeuvre Andy into a place where the audience would be on board with him getting an ending that is bittersweet at best. And if that meant turning their backs on Andy being a good manager or good boyfriend to Erin, so be it.

Next time we’ll put this series to bed by looking at the other endgames the final season presented. And then I’ll go back to ranting about Oscar nominees and geek stuff for a bit.