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.

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