On Binge-Watching, Likable Characters, & ‘The Office’ Finale

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January 28, 2015 by Jason Seligson

After nine seasons, ‘The Office’ finale gave us one last loving look at its characters.

Confession: Until a couple of months ago, I had only seen maybe five episodes of the American version of The Office. I understand that I’m a little late to the party on this one: The Office has always been a gap in my pop culture viewing. The show premiered when I was in middle school, and over the next nine years, became something I always wanted to start but somehow never got around to (I chalk it up to having too much homework and no DVR). In any case, I was finally able to make up for it this winter, by watching the entire series on Netflix.

When a show is as popular as The Office is, information about it has a way of reaching everyone, even those who haven’t watched it. So long before starting the series, I had certain expectations going in. For example, I had a mental flagpole planted at the end of Season 7, since I knew that would when Steve Carell would exit. I also had heard, from a number of fans, that after his exit, the show would take a nosedive in quality. On the one hand, I had a long time before I reached that point, but on the other, that information sat there in the back of my head as I watched.

Fast forward to Seasons 8 & 9. The “worst” seasons of the show, the ones I’d been bracing myself for, weren’t that good, but I found that they also weren’t so terrible. I guess the pre-existing knowledge that the Carell-less years would be sub-par played a part in how I ultimately perceived them. But I think the biggest reason why I wasn’t all that fazed after Michael’s departure was because of the way I was watching it. I’m talking, of course, about what the kids call “binge-watching” (there really needs to be a better term for that). Going from one season to the next wasn’t a big ordeal; it was as simple as clicking “play next episode.”

I had an awareness that the show had changed—even if I hadn’t been told in advance, I would have noticed based on what I saw on screen. I definitely believe Seasons 8 & 9 are the series’ weakest, and with good reason. The show clearly had a void where Michael Scott was concerned and chose to have a revolving door of famous actors to fill his place. My favorite of these was Will Ferrell, who I had hoped would stick around as head boss for more than a few episodes; alas, we got stuck with James Spader for an entire season.

Thankfully, unlike a fans who were watching in “real time,” I was able to expedite the Spader era and the rest of these lesser episodes in no time at all. Even though I didn’t have the same experience, I totally sympathize with viewers who stuck it out as The Office during this time. I’ve been there before, with other shows, and trust me: watching a once beloved show become incrementally worse on a weekly basis is rough (I’m looking at you, Dexter). Comparatively, my job was much easier.

What struck me most while making my way through all nine seasons of The Office was how it—and all shows, really—are now viewed this way. Sure, I’d binge-watched a few shows before (Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, among others), but that was largely to avoid spoilers. I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule, but normally, I try to limit myself to 2-3 episodes of something in a sitting; it allows me to process what happened and to give my brain a rest.

So while I had experienced binge-watching for myself and understood the appeal, it wasn’t until watching The Office where I realized how this kind of viewing affects the overall way we perceive the stories we’re consuming. House of Cards—an otherwise methodical drama, becomes faster and potentially better with back-to-back-to-back sittings. This happens even more so with shows that have breakneck speeds—like Scandal or The Vampire Diaries.  I also think people are more willing to forgive flaws with shows that they binge-watch. When a show is mostly excellent, a single bad season becomes blurred as a piece of the whole image, and trudging through bad story can become the difference between ripping off a band-aid, or enduring a slow, torturous removal.

When watching television week to week, it’s easy to fall into the “What have you done for me lately?” mentality. We quickly forget that good shows go through bad patches. Sometimes those last for episodes, others for a whole season, and then sometimes, shows really do overstay their welcome. In general, I’m someone who doesn’t give up easily; television shows typically have to do a lot of damage over many seasons to have me check out completely. It’s rare, but it has happened. Thankfully, The Office was nowhere near that point, and even though I saw the rough patch coming like a flashing neon sign, I ignored it.

So yes, objectively, I see that The Office went on too long, but I also didn’t fully experience the period of waiting that is intricately tied to becoming frustrated with a TV show. Honestly, it felt like The Office did what most sitcoms do as they age: it became a little bigger in scope, the jokes were a little broader, and the characters started behaving out of character in order to serve certain storylines they were involved in (like Ed Helms’ Andy).

When it came down to its series finale, I think The Office went out with an hour that paid tribute to the series as a whole. To be fair, this show could have ended so many different times during its run: with the promise of Jim and Pam getting together, the wonderful two-part episode featuring their wedding, or certainly with Michael’s departure. Would The Office have been better if had ended earlier? Probably, but having two additional seasons did give them the opportunity to develop certain characters that had always remained on the periphery—as well as deliver a somewhat unexpected finale.

Setting the episode one year after the airing of the documentary allowed us to catch up with everyone one last time before saying goodbye. There were so many meta-jokes about what the documentary—i.e. The Office as a show itself—has meant to everyone who was a part of it, and everyone who watched it. People who sat in on the panel stood in for fans of the show. In an episode in which nothing “major” happened, the finale felt like a giant thank-you to its fans who had watched loyally for nearly a decade—or to the people like me, who came along for the ride too, even if that ride only lasted a few months.

My favorite moment at the documentary panel has to be when Erin (Ellie Kemper) finally gets to meet her parents; but I also enjoyed Pam’s summary of her and Jim’s relationship. “It’s like a long book that you never want to end,” she said. “And you’re fine with that, because you just never ever want to leave it.” Like Harry Potter, as the question-asker replies, The Office could have gone on forever, but all good things—even life at Dunder Mifflin—must come to an end.

“Finale” might not be the funniest episode in the show’s run, but it doesn’t need to be. It cuts right to the heart of the show: ordinary people who work together and become a family. I think what that’s what I’ll remember most about The Office: (that and the Season 7 episode “Scott’s Tots”) how it showed people that cared about each other in spite of their vast differences and craziness. They were a community (much like that other former-NBC show I love).

I really appreciated that The Office found that fine line between having characters who could be awful to each other, but could just as easily show compassion and support. I have a huge amount of respect for 30 Rock, a brilliant show in its own right, but that mostly comes from the level of sophistication that the writing had. Time after time, characters would spew words I only wish I could come up with, and while I greatly admired the absurd style, I never really connected to any of the characters. I always felt that one of the shortcomings of the show was that it often had little to no grounding aside from Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. I’m not saying 30 Rock could have worked without its hyper-reality (nor would I have wanted it to), and again, the writing is brilliant, but what the show often lacks is heart.

Truthfully, likable characters aren’t necessary all the time; it’s more about making them human. Michael Scott, for all he is, is not always empathetic, but we still connect to him: to his desperation to be liked, to have a family. I’m still totally and pleasantly shocked that both Michael and Dwight, who could have easily become caricatures, all felt like real (albeit slightly insane) people. In the end, it’s that kind of grounding and genuine emotion that made me an even bigger fan of the show than any of its jokes ever could.

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