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Ode to Dunder Mifflin: A Tribute to “The Office” in its Farewell Season

“The Office” is perhaps one of the most inventive shows of the past decade. It spearheaded the ‘mockumentary’ style, leaving very successful series within this genre's wake (specifically “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation”). It's impressive in its subtlety, portraying the real quirks of everyday people. And though the last couple of seasons have been less impressive than the show’s earlier heyday, this current season still demonstrates that “The Office” is still capable of utter brilliance.

Much about “The Office” has stagnated since the first three or four seasons. The show always placed a heavy reliance on characterization. However, “The Office”’s characterization has failed to evolve until this past season. Pam and Jim’s perfect marriage became fairly boring very quickly. Both Angela’s uptightness and Erin’s airheadedness became hackneyed. Dwight remains the single character who has demonstrated growth, specifically related to his desire to have a child.  In the past season of “The Office”, though, we’ve seen more of the characters evolve. Jim and Pam, finally realizing that their marriage is not perfect, begin fighting over his extra work in Philly. The Erin, Pete, Andy love triangle gives Erin’s character a little more depth, while  Angela and Oscar’s love triangle with the senator gives them more powerful characterization.

This improved characterization is not only beneficial for the overall quality of the show, but it also greatly influences the show’s humorous elements, as “The Office” often uses characterization as the main force behind its humor. However, when its characterization stagnated, the humor resulting from its characterization stagnated too. The jokes about Kevin’s stupidity and desire for food grew stale quickly. Yet evolving characterization results in evolving humor. In one of the most charming episodes of this current season, Dwight and Pam team up to figure out who defaced the mural she was painting in the warehouse. Dwight has played the part of the vengeance-seeking investigator before, but Pam’s adoption of that role was fairly new, and very humorous.

“The Office” has also improved in its current season by further exploring the mockumentary genre. In previous seasons “The Office” writers have already explored certain uses of its genre, especially using the camera crew as a way to heighten a scene’s drama. In the second season finale we see Pam and Jim finally kiss, but the way the camera ducks when they enter the empty office and then peers at them through blinds reminds us that this is a private moment. Later, when Michael abruptly decides to move to Denver with Holly, Pam races to the airport to say goodbye. But instead of a cheesy airport shot, we get something far different and far more dramatic. The camera and sound equipment is stopped at the TSA checkpoint, leaving us with a silent camera shot at a distance though a metal detector.

These scenes very effectively use features of the mockumentary genre to the show’s advantage.  In most genres, referring to the show’s creation would destroy the show’s ability to accurately represent reality, as it reminds us that the episode is fabricated. But here, because it is based off the documentary genre, alluding to the show’s creation doesn’t ruin the show’s mimetic effect, and often serves to heighten the drama of the scene by reminding us that what we’re seeing is real, more real than other television shows.  In this way, the show’s intense layering creates a complete reversal from the normal way mimetic art works. In using such raw shots in order to heighten the show’s realism, “The Office” reminds us that they are the premier mockumentary, the only mockumentary that really uses its genre well.

In this current season “The Office” makes even greater strides in exploring its own genre. Brian, the boom man, becomes involved in the plot when he comforts Pam after a marital fight and defending her from a rabid warehouse employee. He is fired after the latter incident, because crew members can’t involve themselves in the subjects’ lives for the sake of objectivity. Here, “The Office” explores the harsh realities of the documentary genre. The relationships that inevitably form between the crew and the subjects after nearly a decade of filming must be suppressed for the sake of the greater project. Yet this will prove to be impossible for long stretches of time.

Largely because of this last season’s vast improvement, I’m proud to call myself a fan of “The Office.” Though the show did experience some stagnation, this current season’s recovery has proved “The Office” to be a master of comedy, drama, characterization, and genre many times over. I’m happy that I stuck with the series while it was growing tedious, so I could see this brilliant finale. After nine seasons, I’m looking forward to seeing where the final episodes of the series will take us.