On Thursday night, The Office will punch its final time card after nine seasons on NBC. If it seems TV fans are throwing more of a staid conference-room-fruit-punch-and-brownies goodbye party than a full-on farewell blowout, that’s because the NBC sitcom has taken a sharp nosedive in ratings and certainly in quality since the departure of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott two seasons ago.
But ignoring the end of The Office completely just because it’s not as great as it used to be would be a shame for that very reason: it used to be great. Like, really great. It managed to walk the tightrope of edginess and heart without wobbling too nerve-rackingly in either direction. It popularized that single-camera, mockumentary film style that’s now become ubiquitous. The Office was cynical but not sarcastic, and broad while still human, somehow populating a drab office park with characters that were kooky enough to laugh at but real enough to relate to and, more important, care about.
Plus, it was really funny.
So as Jim (John Krasinski), Pam (Jenna Fischer), Dwight (Rainn Wilson), Andy (Ed Helms), and the gang pack up their cardboard boxes, here’s a reminder that though the sitcom may be a little tarnished now, it once more than deserved its status as NBC’s crown jewel.
“Diversity Day” remains one of the strongest the series has produced. Carell delivers a cringe-comedy tour de force, commandeering a diversity-tolerance training workshop with a politically incorrect game that required each employee to assume a mystery ethnic identity that they must guess using stereotype clues given to them by co-workers. Pam begrudgingly trying to help Dwight understand that he’s been assigned “Asian”—“If I have to do this based on stereotypes that are totally untrue and do not agree with, you would maybe not be a very good driver”—is the viewers’ level-headed window into the madness. Dwight’s response—“Oh man, am I a woman!?”—is just the right amount of funny to remind us that comedy of discomfort is still comedy … and it’s OK to laugh.
Jim and Pam Kiss
For all the cartoonish antics of The Office, the brilliance of it was that none of its characters were cartoons. They were real people with real relationships that we really rooted for. The response to Jim and Pam’s angsty romance in the early seasons proves just how smart it was to occasionally replace sitcom-y fart jokes and guaranteed punchlines with quieter character-developing moments. If you asked a regular Office viewer what their favorite moment from Season 2 of The Office was after that season aired, they’d without fail cite the scene that didn’t make them laugh but cry: when Jim finally manned up, confessed his love for Pam, and kissed her. It was a Grey’s Anatomy moment that still, somehow, fit perfectly in this zany workplace sitcom.
The ‘Forever’ Wedding Dance
The Office went so against the grain with the way it developed the relationship of Jim and Pam that most people forget how bold the show really was. Getting a will-they/won’t-they couple together too soon was always thought to be a creative death sentence for a TV show, so much so that even when writers cave to fans’ demands and unite the characters, smooth sailing is forbidden. Yet The Office not only made Jim and Pam a couple early on in the series, it made them so happy that when it was time for their wedding, you didn’t wonder, as you do on every other TV show, whether the characters would go through with it. Instead the question was, how would Michael ruin it? Shockingly, he didn’t. In a gloriously cheesy, spot-on-for-the-character move, he orchestrated a rip-off of the viral Chris Brown “Forever” wedding-dance video, proving that, even in today’s sarcasm-obsessed comedy world, sweetness still has a place.
The Jell-O Prank
It wasn’t just the hot-and-cold romantic relationships that provided the emotional through line to The Office’s nine years. The unlikely friendships—or frenemyships—were just as vital, and none more than Jim’s lovingly antagonistic relationship with Dwight. In the show’s pilot episode, Jim sets Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O, in turn setting off nine seasons of inspired pranks—convincing him that gaydar is real, convincing him that he’s a vampire, convincing him that the FBI is recruiting him—that really just betray the brotherly-like love Jim has for his co-worker. Do we hope there’s one last prank in the finale? “Absolutely, we do.”
Michael Takes Off His Microphone
The Office deserves credit if not for pioneering the idea of a scripted sitcom breaking the fourth wall by having its characters directly address the camera, then certainly for popularizing it. With the Dunder Mifflin employees routinely confessing their feelings in one-on-one interviews with cameramen, we expected Carell’s final episode to be emotional—watch Jim and Michael say goodbye to each other and try not to cry. What was unexpected was the bomb-drop of Carell’s final scene, in which he takes off his microphone and asks the cameraman to let him know if the footage ever airs. We’d gotten used to the idea that this was some sort of documentary being filmed, but this was the first clue that it was a documentary in progress. As Pam chased after an un-mic’d Michael in the airport for a soundless goodbye conversation, the whole thing was a jarring—and necessary and smartly timed—reminder that the Dunder Mifflin employees were real people. Does The Office end when Michael Scott leaves? No, because there are still people at Dunder Mifflin who have lives to lead, even after he’s gone.
The Fake Fire Drill
By the time The Office was given the coveted post–Super Bowl showcase in its fifth season, the show was already a solid performer. But thanks to perhaps the strongest episode opening it had ever put together, the super-size audience it was gifted after the Super Bowl translated into a huge new fan base for the show. In that opening sequence, Dwight purposefully sets a fire in the office to test his co-workers’ flight-or-fight impulses. Chairs are thrown through windows. Cats fly through the ceiling. A character has a heart attack. It was impeccably staged mayhem comedy at its best.
Michael Proposes to Holly
The beauty of Carell’s performance as Michael Scott was how it proved that you can make a lunatic the lead of a TV show so long as you make him earnest enough to be endearing. When it came time for Michael to propose to Holly (Amy Ryan), he ran through a laundry list of ideas that only a lunatic would come up with—“So I throw a corpse dressed like me off the roof …” But because Carell makes Scott’s misguided best intentions perennially evident, you don’t laugh at the lunacy but at the heart behind it. Striking that balance has huge payoffs, too. There were many poignant moments during Carell’s farewell season on the sitcom, but few as Kleenex-required as his heartfelt, perfectly Michaelesque proposal, complete with a fire-sprinkler shower.
Michael and Oscar Kiss
To call Michael’s attempts at boosting office unity and morale bumbling would be a gross understatement, and never were they more so than during the episode “Gay Witch Hunt.” The employees of Dunder Mifflin discover that Oscar (Oscar Nuñez) is gay, and Michael shoots for the moon with his struggle to prove that he’s OK with it. In this case, the moon is Oscar’s lips, resulting in one of the best of the series’ many squirm-its-way-to-a-laugh moments.
Holly Thinks Kevin Is ‘Special’
Dwight hazes new HR hire Holly (played brilliantly by Amy Ryan) by convincing her that dopey Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) from accounting is mentally challenged. The whole gag stinks of meanness—to Holly, to Kevin, to the mentally disabled community. Yet somehow, perhaps through the good-natured, sweet way Holly treats Kevin and the adorably flattered way Kevin reacts to the special attention, The Office once again skirts taste lines of political incorrectness and crassness.
Steve Carell as Michael Scott
It’s laughably easy to point to one reason The Office, as it winds down its final days, is saddled with critiques about how it’s a shell of the show it used to be. That reason is Michael Scott. Carell’s work was less a performance and more a cultural phenomenon, in the way of Mary Richards or Archie Bunker. Need a reminder of how great The Office was? Look no further than these Michael Scott highlights.