Critic’s notebook: ‘The Office’ turns out the lights


Steve Carell, and therefore Michael Scott, did show up after all for “The Office” finale, as no one should ever have doubted, and was probably never in serious question, as often as that question had been raised over the last many months. Who spends seven years as the star of a show, leaves on perfectly good terms and doesn’t come back for the goodbye party? If, as had been reported, Carell had been worried about overshadowing his erstwhile castmates, his absence from the finale, for being noticeable, could easily have had the same effect, or a worse one.

And yet, I was as thick as Rainn Wilson’s Dwight Schrute: It was not until the camera turned to him that I realized Michael would be revealed as Dwight’s last-minute best man, a substitution engineered by now former best man Jim (John Krasinski).

“Best prank ever,” said Jim.

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Michael, whose hair had literally been let down from the slicked-back way he wore it all those years -- Michael Scott was nothing if not well put together -- had two lines. The first, not surprisingly, was “That’s what she said.” The second, to the camera, looking over Dwight’s wedding reception, was, “I feel like all my kids grew up and then they married each other. It’s every parent’s dream.”

Set a year after the end of the previous episode, the finale took up 75 minutes of NBC prime time real estate and followed an hourlong retrospective from which it was emotionally and even structurally indistinguishable: Both programs had a documentary form; both looked back, with clips. The finale contained a sequence in which the staff of Dunder Mifflin, having become TV stars, gathered for the sort of panel that the actors have many times participated in, undoubtedly answering some of the same questions about the characters’ motivations. There was much speaking from the heart.

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If it was obvious at times, and a little random at others, I am inclined to be kind. Endings are hard, especially in a series whose very subject is that things go on much the same year after year. For ages, television got along without closure. (Cancellation ensures that many shows still do.) And it’s an honest enough way to close -- one day the cameras stop rolling, but life goes on. That’s how it’ll happen for us all, after all. But we also crave official, canonical assurance that everything will be OK for the characters after we part. We can’t just leave it to the fan fiction.

Happy endings are the nature of comedy, and they were passed out Thursday night like Christmas crackers. As his going-away present two years back, Michael got Holly (the scenes that Carell played with Amy Ryan were among his best); and we were told Thursday night that he’d become a father who had taken so many cellphone pictures of his kids that he bought a second one. Dwight and Angela got each other. Andy got his beloved alma mater, Cornell, where he wound up working in the admissions department as the unintended positive consequence of a humiliating viral video. Even Dwight and Kevin shared a tender moment.

There was no work done in the finale -- not unusual, for an episode of “The Office.” Rather, it was arranged as a series of public and private celebrations that gave the characters, inextricable from the people playing them, a chance to declare their feelings, share secrets, look back, and -- what has been a small, joyful motif through the series -- to dance. For all that it had been a show that made hay from antagonism, the love that informed these scenes did not feel like a contradiction.

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When a long-running series leaves the air, there’s a need to be true not merely to the reality of the characters and their situation -- some commentators, to be sure, thought “The Office” betrayed that long ago -- but also to the viewers, and to the people whose life it was to make the show. It is possible that they may wish to indulge themselves a little. (There were cameos from creator Greg Daniels and casting director Allison Jones; Phyllis Smith had been working as her casting assistant, when the role of Phyllis -- her first acting job -- was created for her.) This may not necessarily make for the best art, but life sometimes has to take precedence.

The final word was left to Pam -- and to the remarkable Jenna Fischer, who played her and whose soulful normality kept the series heartfelt and true whatever nonsense went on around her -- to declare just what we had been watching these nine seasons. That it was so explicit, and that we knew it already, made it no less moving, because it’s something that’s easy to forget, and important to remember.

“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things,” she said. “Isn’t that the point?”