After a familiar face makes a brief visit to Scranton, Michael Scott (Carell) decides it’s time he leaves Dunder Mifflin for good. After he’s gone, the office scrambles to find his replacement…
Say what you want about the American version of The Office. Say that it started as a pale imitation of the British original (it did). Say that it’s gone downhill in recent years (it has). Say that you’ve never watched out of some misplaced loyalty to Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant (your loss – they endorse it). But yet, while undoubtedly not the show it once was, Greg Daniels’ Americanisation is the only comedy ever to be successfully remade in the US – and remains one of the wittiest on the box. That said, fans were recently hit with the Scranton-shattering news that Steve Carell would be leaving – and that the series would be continuing without Michael Scott…
Inevitably, this consumes and over-shadows the whole of season seven. Providing a focus that previous years have been lacking, Michael’s departure is gracefully handled and evolves naturally over the course of his last 22 episodes. Don’t worry, he’s the same loveably-inept man-child who unwittingly offends, harbours one-sided man-crushes and amusingly misunderstands basic of concepts (“I used to think that she was the one. Or at least a the one.”). But by allowing him to mature slightly through a series of long-overdue moments of self-awareness (realising that Todd Packer is a jerk, that Ryan isn’t a good friend) and personal triumphs (making Stanley laugh, becoming a father figure for Erin), we’re ready for him to go. Because now, he is too. His exit is poignant, sweet and surprisingly restrained, but never so sugary sentimental that it approaches inducing any diabetic danger.
Rather cunningly, the creative team begin subconsciously preparing us for his departure early on, by consistently separating Michael from the rest. Suffering through mandatory therapy with his despised HR rep Toby (after contemplating termination as an alternative), visiting each ex to inform them that he’s got herpes (after getting a cold sore), getting lost on the way back from a sale (before Amy Ryan’s returning Holly Flax finds him)… and so on.
Happily, the appropriately-titled instalment Goodbye Michael delivers the satisfying emotional pay-day that we deserved (and needed), full of fittingly-personal one-on-one farewells. Pam’s goodbye is a beautifully understated send-off, Jim’s parting words are as tear-jerking as anything in the series thus far, and Michael’s final variation of “that’s what she said”, while predictable, is nothing short of perfect.
Although the show has become more of an ensemble piece over the years, Carell’s exit is still a major, potentially-fatal shake-up. No doubt, at times his recurring character plotting started to grate (Michael feels excluded or inadequate and tries to ‘right’ the situation), but in many ways he was the very essence of the show. Inserting himself into events, providing his slant on happenings, those facial expressions, the subtle tics; it’s hard to imagine someone else in his position. That’s what she said.
Elsewhere, season seven is a mixture of still-great and starting-to-feel-tired. On the still-great side, we open with an infectiously-brilliant lip-sinc song-and-dance-number – which is much better than it sounds. There’s a handful of memorable episodes, most notably the fan-aimed Threat Level Midnight – which sees the long-awaited debut of Michael’s Michael Scarn home movie. And, although many of us worried that Ricky Gervais’ cameo would leave a memory-souring taste, you’ll be relieved to hear that it’s a brief dose of classic David Brent (“Comedy is where the mind goes to tickle itself… That’s what she said”).
While saddled with antics that occasionally cross the quirky-absurd borderline (the bandaged man masquerade comes to mind), Rainn Wilson’s comic talent also continue to shine as the humourless, mustard shirt-loving Dwight Schrute (“Dwight, what will be your first priority?”… “I will have seven first priorities”). Regarding newer staff, Zach Woods’ awkward corporate stooge Gabe is a welcome full-time addition, while Ellie Kemper is fast becoming a key player as nice-but-dim receptionist Erin (who believes that disposable cameras are literally disposable).
Again though, it’s the supporting office bods who get the biggest laughs, with the likes of Ryan, Kelly (see her reaction to Timothy Olyphant’s hiring for a two-ep arc) and Creed all consistently snatching whole scenes. The hilariously-eccentric latter in particular remains a gloriously random delight, whether reporting on a stage play, wailing on a guitar during the aforementioned dance number or filling in as a post-Michael boss.
As for the tired, while still sharper than most current comedies, the dialogue has lost a bit of its zing and the hit-rate isn’t as high as it once was. Though Jim and Pam are as charming as ever, the writers still don’t know what to do with them since they became ‘happy’, whilst replacement will-they-won’t-they couple, Andy and Erin aren’t nearly as emotionally involving. And, as nice a singing voice as Ed Helms has, do we really need it crammed in at every opportunity?
Of course, with Carell not waiting until the end of the season to leave, we get a glimpse of life after Michael Scott. In as brief replacement Deangelo Vickers, Will Ferrell’s four-episode arc will be a selling point to some (despite there never being any real possibility that he’d abandon his movie career), but there’s nothing new here to convince doubters. Still, the finale itself is a treat, and while they were all leaked early, the celebrity management candidate cameos all bring something to the table. Sometimes literally.
Easily the best of these is the mesmeric, Shatner-sounding James Spader, as the oddly-charismatic, unsettlingly-perceptive Robert California whose theories (“There is no such thing as a product. Only Sex”) woo and frighten the interview panel in equal measure. As it’s hard to see this dynamic working week-in, week-out, news that Spader has reportedly taken Cathy Bates’ less-prominent CEO role is good news in a less-is-more sort of way.
The Office is undoubtedly past its best, but Steve Carell’s brilliantly-handled departure gives the seventh season a clear focus. Still a fun ride, it remains worth coming back for more. And yes, that’s what she said.