Tuned In

The Office Will End Big. It Will End Too Late. But It Can Still End Well.

The Office hasn't been great in a while. But it can have a great finale if it remembers its core theme: the compromises and adjusted expectations that come with adult life, at work and in relationships.

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NBC / Colleen Hayes/NBC

The Office lasted longer than you might have thought it would. It had a well-executed, moving “ending” as Steve Carell left after seven seasons, and then the show stuck around for two years more. On May 16, The Office will finally air its last episode, and that too, fittingly, will last longer than you might have thought it would. The hourlong finale, NBC has announced, will run another 15 minutes, until 10:15 p.m. ET. Set your DVRs accordingly.

That The Office ran too long is hard to argue against by now, and also moot. It’s not as if there haven’t been good episodes and good arcs. Some of the Robert California era was truly excruciating, James Spader’s enigmatically creepy performance notwithstanding, and the decision to turn Andy Bernard into another Michael Scott did neither character a service. But some latter episodes have worked as series of set pieces, taking advantage of the ensemble cast (for instance, last season’s Tallahassee arc, which gave us the cherished memory of Florida Stanley).

But The Office at its best is not just a funny show. It’s a half-drama about the compromises and adjusted expectations that come with adult life, both at work and in relationships. It was about realizing a temporary gig had become a career, or that your onetime avocation was now just a hobby, or that to make one dream come true (or some version of it), you sometimes have to borrow from another dream.

The final season of The Office, though hardly its best, has proven that it can still be that show when it wants to be. Making the documentary an overt part of the series wasn’t just attention-getting, it’s been a catalyst. It’s made several characters face that time is passing and ask if they’re really where they want to be. It’s even, amazingly, redeemed the treatment of Andy’s character, who last week made the possibly foolish but nonetheless ballsy choice to leave Dunder-Mifflin and change his life.

This season’s Pam-and-Jim storyline, in particular, has focused on an aspect of marriage that TV dramas, much less sitcoms, don’t often deal with: that it’s hard work, that it can run into problems that are not unambiguously one person’s fault, that you can love someone and still be hurtful to them, and that realizing all that and being really sad about it does not, in itself, make anything better.

These arcs haven’t added up to a season that equals, say, the Michael Scott Paper Company arc. But a series, especially a sitcom, doesn’t have to have a great last couple of seasons to have a great ending. All it takes is one distillation of all that is funny and sad in its characters’ lives.

Which is why I don’t care if Steve Carell returns for the finale or not.  Michael Scott’s had his ending, and The Office needs to end with a story, not an extra-long curtain call. If The Office can focus on what’s really at stake for its paper-pushers, it could just have 75 great minutes in it yet.