“Oh, how the mediocre have fallen.”
Finale time or not, I kind of feel like a mean big sister recapping The Office right now when the future of 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and Community have been signed on for shortened seasons next year. There were a lot of cries on the internet yesterday about why these excellent shows are getting abbreviated seasons next year while The Office, which has been arguably stale and scattered since the end of last season, seems to get a free pass to go on forever. We won’t know all the details until NBC’s upfronts come Monday, but it’s safe to say that, whether you like it or not, The Office is returning next season, and it’s not going to be a reboot. But maybe the other shows are the lucky ones, gaining “aww we’re gonna miss you” notice and getting the opportunity to conclude their arcs and end on a high note. Last night’s finale “Free Family Portrait Studio” was only another confirmation that The Office will never get that opportunity again.
It’s not that I thought “Free Family Portrait Studio” was a bad episode, just contrived. Between Dwight’s quest to find out the paternity of Angela’s baby, Darryl’s quest to win Val’s affection, and Andy’s quest to reclaim the Regional Manager throne, everything was tied together so “nicely” for this big finale that it felt like a fumbled attempt to clean the slate in preparation for whatever comes next year. And with a few exceptions (Oscar trying to make an “It Gets Better” video with Phyllis shyly waving in the background, Ryan holding up his Missed Connections sign for his family portrait, Toby sympathetically asking Andy “Do you see David Wallace in the room right now?”, SEEING CREED’S PARENTS!!, and a very welcome cameo from Michael Schur as Mose), this episode just wasn’t very laugh-out-loud funny – in fact, most of the humor was replaced with an overuse of meta one-liners, like when Robert tells Oscar “It gets better, but it also gets vastly more complicated,” or when he tells Andy “Andy, it’s time for you to go home. You’re better than this. Everyone is better than this because this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” The self-referentiality was a nice touch earlier this season (see “Fundraiser”) but the finale drilled it in over and over and squashed every opportunity for me to sincerely connect with the characters. Even Nellie is reduced to static in the background – her only memorable moment was her mercy-themed Shakespeare recitation after Wallace hires Andy as the new manager. It’s a good moment because she nails the recitation and Nard Dog weakens from it (“How dare you play the bard card,” he says, getting misty) but all it did was restore the old order.
I was surprised how logically unconvincing this episode was considering it was written and directed by B.J. Novak, who wrote the first truly “American” Office episode (and one of my all-time favorites) “Diversity Day” back in the first season. Dwight giving out free family portraits in order to try and get a DNA sample of Angela’s baby (AKA Operation Phoenix) was believable and I was expecting a return to the paternity storyline this week, but not much followed through beyond that, except that it became pretty clear that Dwight is the father, and things are as Oscar and Dwight theorized in Angela’s marriage - i.e. Angela doth protest too much and the thread ends with her and Dwight making out in the waiting room, where they’ll apparently be the entire 72 hours it takes for the DNA test and Oscar gets confirmation that the come-on from the Senator was no empty political gesture. Then it’s (sadly) believable that Jim thinks the portrait thing is just Dwight creating a way to physically hurt Jim’s kids (in retaliation for an overly complicated velcro Dwight suit double prank Jim pulls), which seemed a bit much, like Jim is so desperate to remain relevant that he has to whip up worry out of thin air like a Fox News pundit.
And then then there was Andy putting a drab janitor suit over a tuxedo then coming into the office with the understanding that Wallace will come in, announce that he’s buying Dunder Mifflin, then make Andy manager – what? Despite that Wallace hasn’t worked for Dunder Mifflin in years (as several of Andy’s former coworkers point out), Andy still thinks it makes sense that two non-employees can walk into the office and take over the company. Andy is expecting some “delicious moment” of taking back his job and rising from the bottom to the top of the interoffice ladder in one unzip of coveralls, but it’s such a dumb idea to begin with that it challenges any perception from last week that getting fired might have matured him even a little. But of course it all works out, and while they’re at it, Robert decides to liquidate Sabre and take off to “mentor” groups of “some African, some Asian, but mainly Eastern European women” gymnasts thanks to the now-CEO Wallace’s $1,000,000 donation. Real-world accuracy be damned, all the goals are met, but without any of the excitement or raw sentimentality that last week’s “Turf War” seemed to promise. Just like Andy, I was eagerly awaiting a “delicious moment” that never came.
That’s what proved to be the episode’s only real moment – well, non-moment. While everyone else eventually finds their piece of closure (the Senator is definitely maybe gay, Val’s definitely maybe into Darryl, her boyfriend is definitely maybe insecure about it, and Angela and Dwight definitely end the episode making out, so the baby is probably his), Andy doesn’t get to eat his cake too via a vengeful speech or one-liner of glory even though he’s now back to being manager, with Nellie now back to her old position as Special Projects Manager. When writing this episode, Novak obviously knew that most people watching the finale would be those who kept watching after last season – the fans who have long endured the highs and lows and drawn-out Andy plots and Sabre Pyramids of the past several months. The thing is, why did he assume we don’t want to see the show ever go anywhere?
For awhile there with crazy Nellie running rampant or Andy racing to steal a Dunder client, it was almost like a character might actually grow, or a sense of real ‘anything might happen’ anarchy could take hold, but frankly there were more interesting developments in last night’s 30 Rock than in this entire season of The Office. The trick to someone like Michael Scott was that he pushed buttons until people finally showed their true ugly, crazy, funny selves. His need to be loved was so out of control that he threatened at times to topple the pillars of sanity and glum inside the box loafing that surrounded him. In restoring Andy to the throne and making everything just as it was at the start, practically, The Office is just a bunch of pillars and occasionally one wobbles, almost falls, and then is replaced. It’s the kind of safety that Robert California hates and Michael Scott would invariably jeopardize. But that sense of spontaneity and wildness of past episodes has become a whole new kind of institution thanks to the show’s lengthy run – any big finale moment has already come and gone with Pam and Jim’s wedding and the departure of Michael with Holly to Colorado. After this season, all of Scranton could disappear in a sinkhole and somehow we can be sure not a damn thing will change at this dinosaur in amber that is The Office.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.