'The Office' Finale Was a Big, Frustrating, Lovable Mess, Says PEOPLE's Critic

After an hour we could have done without, we did get a magical 15 minutes to say goodbye

Photo: Chris Haston/NBC

The series finale of The Office took up an hour and 15 minutes of NBC’s prime-time schedule Thursday night. The last quarter-hour had a special sentimental magic, as we got parting moments with each of the characters at the Dunder Mifflin paper company of Scranton, Pa.

The rest you could have fed into a shredder.

After a season that carefully worked out significant narrative strands – the ultimately inevitable ascension to manager of the insufferable Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), the unexpectedly tender travails in the marriage of Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer) – this episode was poorly conceived and clumsily structured.

It really wasn’t worthy of all the years of affectionate humor that had gone before it.

Steve Carell did, in the end, reprise his role as former branch manager Michael Scott, but he had very few lines – possibly because he didn’t want to upstage anyone. He was very sweet, but it was like a visit from Charlie Chaplin.

The episode started by leaping forward: A year has passed since the documentary about the Dunder Mifflin staff aired. Everyone is reunited in Scranton for two reasons: First, the local PBS affiliate is sponsoring a Q&A, at which the coworkers (and former coworkers) will discuss how their lives have changed. And second, Dwight is getting married to the equally unpleasant Angela (Angela Kinsey), the love of his life.

The Q&A didn’t serve much purpose, since no one seemed to have been deeply affected after nine years of being followed around by a camera crew. (It did allow Joan Cusack to turn up for a touching moment that I won’t spoil.)

PHOTOS: Angela Kinsey Says Goodbye to The Office

And then there was the wedding – another regrettable opportunity to indulge in broad, unfunny gags about Dwight, his beet farm, his family and their eccentric customs. This strain of humor has always felt like some weird, weedy upcropping from Green Acres, completely at odds with the rest of The Office‘s tone.

Roughly about the time Dwight told the guests at the reception to carry bales of hay to the reception, I concluded that I was watching a show that wasn’t just winding down. It was being taken off life support.

Then, with the wedding done and the show seemingly dead, something almost spiritual happened. Everyone returned to the old office, where they were all transfigured by a nostalgic, reflective glow. There was no plot left to churn through – nothing but goodbyes. Even Dwight and Angela, whom I’ve always experienced as garden gnomes come to life, were human. It was the leave-taking I had wanted, and I was grateful for it.

On the other hand, making viewers sit through the unnecessary, dilatory first hour was a sign of complacency, laziness or desperation. Maybe a Sloppy Joe of all three.

But, too, it was just the final episode of a memorable show, wasn’t it? Let it be hidden under a pile of memos.

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