Thursday, May 5, 2011
Weekly Rant: Bye-Bye Boss Man (The Office)
Last Thursday, in a patriotic “Fuck you!” to terrorism that left millions of Americans in tears, Pam Beesly Halpert walked through airport security without a boarding pass. Three days later, Osama bin Laden was dead. Coincidence? I suppose. Still, the timing is interesting. Sunday night Americans were marveling at just how long it took the U.S. military to catch the godfather of the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil. A few nights earlier (or, heck, for the DVR users among us, maybe that very night), Americans watched the final moments of the Michael Scott farewell episode while wondering if the writers of The Office had been to an airport in the past 10 years. With that said, you might think the Weekly Rant has emerged from a long hiatus in order to take down The Office with Navy Seal precision, but you’d be wrong. Yes, Michael Scott’s final seconds on NBC’s hit show were a tad clumsy, what with Pam getting through security without a ticket and, apparently, without her microphone. But in spirit Michael’s departure was graceful. Or at least as graceful as this character-overloaded sitcom is capable of being.
The farewell tour for Michael Scott began in earnest with the previous episode, “Michael’s Last Dundies.” The final edition of the Michael’s-choice awards had a lot in common with our first exposure in the Season 2 premiere – same inappropriateness and insensitivity, same unpredictability and same self-centeredness. The big difference this time around is that Michael’s coworkers no longer protest the Dundies’ existence. Their willingness to roll with the punches is no doubt tied to Michael’s immanent departure. (When Toby wins the Dundie for Extreme Repulsiveness, Jim and Oscar tell the much-maligned HR director that he has to suck it up and play along.) But at least as significant is that over the years the crew at Dunder Mifflin has come to recognize the Dundies – and similar Michael antics – for what they really are: desperate pleas for acceptance. Those equally unsure of themselves (Erin, Andy, even Dwight) are the ones who emotionally connect with the Dundies, while the self-assured have learned to look the other way (Jim, Pam, Oscar, etc.) and the universally oblivious (Creed, Meredith, Kelly, etc.) remain so. Watching Michael host his final ceremony it’s clear that his show is as sophisticated as ever (complete with cue cards and a prerecorded video intro), and yet his level of effort has gone down considerably. At the final Dundies, there are no costumes or characters. Finally, it’s as if Michael realizes that he’s character enough on his own.
Michael’s almost eerie calm (relatively speaking, of course) is key to the beauty of what happens next. After the Dundies ceremony gets Michael kicked out of yet another restaurant, the crew heads back to Dunder Mifflin to let him finish the show. But it doesn’t last long. As Andy accepts his Dundie, he uses his time in the spotlight as an excuse to begin an all-staff tribute to Michael, singing “9,986,000 Minutes” to the tune of “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent in celebration of Michael’s tenure at Dunder Mifflin. It’s a sweet gesture, but what’s especially touching is Michael’s reaction. As his staff starts to sing, Michael peeks over to the camera and says, “Something’s happening!” It’s the unsuppressed, gleeful response of a guy who has spent his life repeatedly trying to inspire, even choreograph, such outpourings of affection, only to now, at last, find himself as the genuine recipient of it. It’s a beautiful moment – touching not because Michael has completely earned it but because we know that he hasn’t. A bit unrealistic? Yeah. But this all-staff chorus is more in character than the YouTube wedding march rip-off that asked us to believe that a staff that bickered all the way up to Jim and Pam’s nuptials would be able to pull off a choreographed dance routine almost flawlessly. The performance of “9,986,000 Minutes” isn’t so much about love as about forgiveness and acceptance, letting bygones be bygones and celebrating Michael’s best intentions. For one more week, for one last song, they could suck it up and give Michael the farewell he so desperately wanted.
It’s a gesture that Michael reciprocates in the final episode, “Goodbye, Michael,” which mostly consists of him going around to each staff member to offer a small gift of thanks or advice. His heart is in the right place, but of course Michael can’t help but be Michael, which is precisely what has made him such a tremendously enjoyable character over the years. His barometer for appropriateness is better calibrated than when we first met him, but he’s hardly overcome his tendency for inappropriateness. In one scene, Michael fails to realize that by attempting to encourage Kevin not to act like a caricature he actually reduces him to one. Later, his most Michael-esque moment of the finale might be when he brings together three staff members for a group pep talk, because even on his last day he can’t be bothered to make time for them individually. Or maybe it’s the moment when he calls everyone into the conference room for one last meeting, only to be at a loss for words and fall back on his offensive Asian character Ping (think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, minus the makup). For all the ways Michael has grown – suffering through one last meeting with Toby without insulting him, or showing a remarkable amount of self-awareness when he laughs at Oscar’s hilariously low opinion of him – he’s still mostly the same Michael we met seven years ago. We just understand him better.
The emotional highpoint of the Michael finale isn’t the silent, Lost in Translation goodbye hug with Pam at the airport. Rather, it’s the scene in which Michael quietly eats his lunch in the break room and tears up listening to his staff at the table next to him engaging in typical mundane banter. Over the years it’s been obvious how much Michael craves his staff’s approval. (No on-camera meditation got to the heart of his personality more than this one from Season 4: “Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked, like my need to be praised.”) But if these final episodes have chronicled an awakening of the Dunder Mifflin staff in regard to how much they secretly like their boss, they’ve also captured Michael realizing just how deeply he enjoys these people for who they are, rather than who they are to him. Michael’s tear-filled eyes in that break room scene say everything he can’t convey in words without embarrassing himself. The power of that simple scene far exceeds that of the episode’s boldest grasp for big emotion, the blubbering final conversation between Michael and Jim, which plays more like a meta moment between two actors while reminding us yet again of how inconsistent Jim has been in recent seasons, to the point that when he tells Michael that he’s the best boss he’s ever had we can’t tell if he’s being sincere or faking it on Michael’s behalf.
The question now is what The Office will be like without Michael Scott. Different, for sure, but I don’t think it’s doomed. Over the years, the series has become so overstuffed with characters and storylines that it hardly resembles what it was at the start in terms of structure, never mind quality. Cheers never lost Sam Malone, but it survived several other significant cast changes without a hitch because of the strength of its structure. There’s no reason The Office can’t do the same. The truth is that the Dunder Mifflin staff’s growing acceptance of Michael had become something of a hindrance. By his final episode, even Michael’s most faithful supporter, Dwight, admitted that he’d long ago given up expecting Michael to do the right or sensible thing. It’s precisely because the Dunder Mifflin staff had become so comfortable with Michael that the series had to result to extremes to make them uncomfortable: having Michael quit to start his own company, having Jim take a management position, introducing characters like Charles Minor (who worked) and Jo Bennett (who didn’t), etc. In theory, Michael’s departure could allow it to get back to basics.
Granted, the appearance of Will Ferrell’s Deangelo Vickers is a reminder that replacing Michael won’t be as simple as plucking another ignoramus from central casting. But as “Goodbye, Michael” came to a close with Deangelo having a meltdown over party cake, there was also a glimmer of hope. When Dwight looks at Jim with an expression that says, “Oh, no, not again!” it’s a reminder that the core of The Office’s humor is less about the hilarious stupidity of an inept boss’s antics than about the hilarious discomfort that those antics inspire. With the right discomforting boss, there’s still room for high comedy at Dunder Mifflin. But forgetting Michael Scott won’t be easy. As Michael says at the end of “Michael’s Last Dundies,” in what will go down as one of my favorite line readings in the show’s history, “This is going to hurt like a motherfucker.”