I cannot argue with Salon’s Willa Paskin that the argument at the core of The Office finale was kind-of depressing: “In the end, it argued that settling for a mediocre job for way too long can bring you happiness beyond measure.” That’s the absolute antithesis of my own belief structure—I am always rooting for the small-town girl to make good, to have the expansive life she’s capable of. And I cannot argue with Paskin’s assertion that in many ways, the finale negated the very idea the series seemed to be lampooning: the soul-sucking nature of cubicle-driven America.
But in the end, I fell for those closing arguments: They were glad they had been filmed for the documentary-within-the-show. They had insights about themselves while watching their edited-for-TV foibles. They could show it to their kids someday. Partly this rang true to me because I’ve interviewed a fair number of reality-show participants in my time, and they all say this stuff. It makes sense. You already did the show, for better or worse. You’re bound to make the best of the memory, shrug, and go on with your life. And while I don’t believe they ever are 100-percent glad they’ve been filmed, I do think they must have insights, and they probably show (selected) clips to their kids someday. It would be both cringeworthy and cool, for instance, to have footage of yourself falling in love with your soul mate. My partner and I once dug up the first emails we ever sent to each other — we cringed, we laughed, we swooned.
In the end, I cried — a lot — watching the final moments of The Office finale. I felt vindicated for my time spent with the show, during its highlights and its uneven last two seasons. Finales are notoriously hard to pull off, for obvious reasons. The Mary Tyler Moore Show nailed it, with a poignant mix of sadness (everyone got fired), humor (that group hug), and moving on like all real-life people do. Friends, in my opinion, signed off a little too neatly, but then again, I never liked Ross and Rachel together. Will and Grace overshot and did way too much. Seinfeld upset the nation by giving its viewers a huge middle finger; people hated that finale, I think, because it laughed at them for having watched and cared about these despicable characters for so long. (But I also posit that the show had limited choices for a finale; what, were Elaine and Jerry supposed to suddenly realize they were in love and get married?)
But, you know, The Office finale was fine for what it needed to do. Did we need Jim and Dwight to have become besties in the past year? No, but to be honest, I don’t totally doubt that development. I think it was meant as a sign of Jim having accepted his life in Scranton and having matured to a point where he could see Dwight as the benign goofball he was. Weren’t we all a little uncomfortable at times with his frat-boy pranking of the less-cool kid in the office anyway? In a way, I thought the message of the finale was that Jim had earned that shot at a grander life in Austin by making peace with Scranton.
Or maybe I’m just rationalizing my own emotional release. Our reactions to such things as TV finales involve so much more than their artistic merits. We are almost always mourning for, pining for, or simply recognizing the time that has passed in our own lives between the show’s debut and its finale. I remember watching that show from the bitter beginning, when no one watched. I remember (and this was obviously unique to my job at Entertainment Weekly) forming a bond with then-NBC president Kevin Reilly because of my early love and support for the show. I remember its rise, I remember having the great privilege of reporting on the episode where Jim and Pam got married. I can look back on how my own life has changed in that time and appreciate the special moments it brought me. And even with all of those glamorous connections my job afforded me to the show, I still remember most clearly how I swooned, and even where I was, and what it meant for me and my then-unrequited crush, when Jim and Pam kissed for the first time. As long as a finale can connect us to all of that, it’s done its job.