A Not Exactly Fond Farewell to 'The Office'

The Office Series Finale - H 2013
Chris Haston/NBC

Few industries eat their young and kill their elderly as frequently and voraciously as the TV business does.

It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. About the only good that can come from A) trying to be popular enough to stay on for a long time and B) trying to be great while being on for a long time, is that the effort proves the harsh reality of the TV industry: Only a select number of series will go down in history as brilliant classics.

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Of course, not everybody watches TV for that reason. Sometimes, as a viewer -- and even as a critic -- you just want to be entertained. And it’s hard to fault a television series that is often more entertaining than great. It’s even harder to fault a show that has no desire to be great -- only a desire to be reliably entertaining.

But whenever a television series reaches a certain landmark -- number of years on the air, nearing possible entry in the theoretical Hall of Fame, etc. -- critics take stock. And I’ve been pondering all of the intangibles while thinking about The Office, which has its series finale Thursday night after nine seasons.

But no matter how hard I tried -- keeping nostalgia and sentimentality at bay and just trying to be clear-eyed and fair -- I couldn’t muster up much sadness for its passing. The cruel truth is that The Office has already overstayed its welcome by three seasons, was erratic from start to finish and can’t now, when maudlin is the sentiment of the day, erase any of that by focusing on all the great episodes. It's a judgment business, ether by ratings or critics.

Oh, sure, there were many great episodes of The Office. The series, when it was truly on, was a deliciously funny comedy about both office politics and interpersonal relationships. But during its run, The Office demanded so much from its viewers -- that we suffer through the character evolutions as it tried to find its way; that we wait out the average streaks; that we juggle inconsistency with excellence -- that the truly glorious, hilarious batches that sometimes popped up were simply not enough.

I wanted The Office to be better than it was. For me, that's its legacy. That's how I'll remember it.

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The ultimate achievement for The Office may be that it overcame quite possibly the biggest hurdle in modern television: remaking not only a British classic, but -- without question -- one of the greatest comedies of the small screen.

As a lover of the original version of The Office, I never thought the American version would be funny or a hit. It just wasn’t conceivable to me -- until I was both proven wrong and ultimately won over by it.

The very first episode of the American version was terrible, mostly because it was verbatim from the original. Watching it only hammered home all of my doubts and worries. We Americans had let woeful NBC put its hands all over a classic and they ruined it! Sacrilege!

That entire first season was pretty bad. When it came back, I ignored it until plaintive pleas said it was much improved. So I re-watched. I started liking it. Then I started really liking it.

Steve Carell was certainly an adjustment from Ricky Gervais. To this day, I’ve never thought he was as good. But what he was – and this was the early secret of The Office once the writers figured it out – was different. Once fans of the original could convince themselves that, hey, this was the same concept but a vastly different show, it was easier to take. And then the American version of The Office made things that much easier by being good. That was nice.

Sometimes it was even brilliant. Hell, many times it was brilliant. But invariably it would stumble, sometimes even badly in the same episode where it had been brilliant.

Inconsistency was a hallmark of the American version of The Office. That trait never went away, in part because the show never went away. American television, unlike most British television, is made to milk the cow for as long as possible, not be brilliant for as long as possible. Those goals are fundamentally at odds. At some point, you're just making a TV show.

And I think that was a big factor in the downfall of The Office.

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So this is something decidedly short of an appreciation, I guess. Toss out that first season and definitely toss out the last three seasons – what you’re left with is a series that could be very good, was many times entertaining even when it wasn’t very good and one that was among the very best comedies on television when everything came together.

But it was never truly great. It was never and will never be a classic.

And yes, some people might say that now is not the time -- it’s leaving forever, don’t be cruel! -- to evaluate the legacy of a series. But this is a cruel business -- see the first paragraph of this column -- and The Office served a lot of people well. It made them lots of money. It fueled writing and acting careers. It was, for many years, a bright light in the bleak NBC landscape. You don't have to feel sorry for The Office. Even if nobody -- wink-wink -- wanted to call Parks and Recreation a spinoff, that series lives because of The Office. (Parks and Recreation is also a vastly superior show, which is also maybe not the kind of thing to bring up now.)

In the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately business of television, The Office has suffered staying past its sell-by date. The last few seasons were almost painful to watch -- and so I skipped a lot of those episodes. Every time I went back, I was disappointed. And when I came back again the next week to see if the patented inconsistency would deliver something great, it didn’t. That’s the main reason why tonight is not a sad night for me.

I don’t think The Office will go down as a top 10 comedy on American television. It never maintained greatness for very long. But it was at once a great surprise (lasting past that first episode and that first season), a nice lesson on how to remake a foreign series (make it your own, keep the copying to a minimum) and as far as a commodity goes, pretty damned successful for all involved. I have many fond memories of certain episodes and will keep those at the forefront of my mind tonight.

That’s not much of a farewell toast, I know. And this does in some ways feel as awkward as a Michael Scott moment. But maybe that’s just fitting.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine