'The Office' Hits a High Mark - Now What?

Steve Carell's impending exit boosts show's appeal, but will it last?

It's hard to tell if Thursday night's episode of The Office put a serious kink into my upcoming story about "when good shows go bad" or if the remaining episodes (and a new Steve Carell-less season) will only put an exclamation mark on it.

The Office has been on a downward spiral the last couple of seasons, with a few real gems popping up periodically but mostly careening toward irrelevance, as if the writers ran out of gas but got out and pushed because, well, you can't just call it quits. 

That's not going to be a favorable opinion among die hard fans of the show. But critically, The Office has been on the downward side of hilarious for a while now and, like a lot of shows people once loved, has a vast amount of its audience tuning in out of habit or loyalty, not because they're pumped up for the comedic possibilities of a new episode.

But "Garage Sale" was one of those episodes that can only happen to a series when it is clearly at its end. People watch television for characters and through the years those characters become like friends you know well. With Carell departing The Office this season, something needed to be done about his character, Michael Scott. Farewells are difficult for any series, but there's enormous opportunity for writers. Because there's a connection to Michael - love him or loathe him - his fate would be a ratings winner. The only question was whether the writers could pull off the departure of the leading character and make it work - to be funny or touching or genuine in some way that was at the same time true to the character's personality.

"Garage Sale" did this extremely well, as Michael planned how to propose to Holly (the superb Amy Ryan) and how Pam (Jenna Fischer) had to counter those plans so Michael didn't ruin it, hurt himself or those around him. There was a B-story as well - the actual garage sale - but mostly the emphasis was on how Michael was going to pop the question. What transpired was the full display of the Michael it has taken a good long time to love - the dweeb with a heart, less annoyingly needy and more secure in who he's become (and who he's involved with). If it took Holly and some increasingly heart-felt (a dangerous emotion in comedy) episodes to make Michael happy, so be it. He got the candle-lit proposal down perfectly (although it did set off the fire alarm, cutting into some of the weepy bits) and then stunned his staff by announcing that he was leaving the company.

Pretty much note perfect throughout - and more than was expected.

Michael is following Holly to care for her ailing father - an almost impossible to imagine bout of selflessness from the lout he's been much of the series. Although getting sappy in a sitcom is usually a no-no (and a sign that the writers are tapped out of ideas), the American version of The Office has always had this side, since getting Jim and Pam together so quickly. So Michael's engagement (which allowed the entire work force to show some love for him) and his decision to leave, were both big elements handled perfectly. It was an episode that redeemed many of the "lost episodes" - those that were lost to poor concept, writing and even execution.

It was, precisely, an episode that breathed life into the series. 

But was it too perfect? I would have been fine with it ending right there. Get Michael out of the picture, perhaps with something more funny in part of the next episode, then tend to the plans of those who are left. But no. Now we've got more episodes to come (with a bevy of guest stars like Will Ferrell and Ricky Gervais) and a chance that The Office trips through the exit, much as it has stumbled creatively the last few seasons.

Or, if you prefer optimism, maybe the series continues to nail it until the official departure of Carell. It could happen. Before going on this erratic streak, The Office was essential viewing and you don't achieve that by accident. There has to be talent on the team. But even then, there's the issue of next season. There really shouldn't be a next season - let's make that clear. The Office is ready to go. Keeping it alive this long has already harvested some of its essential organs. Going on, sans Carell, is just another example of  how American television can't kill the golden goose in deference to the creative process. But on Thursday, at least, it was easy to see how hard it is to let go.

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