Judge Patrick Bromley wonders why his office never has celebrity cameos.
Our reviews of The Office (UK) Special Edition (published December 1st, 2011), The Office: Season Two (published September 18th, 2006), The Office: Season Three (published September 4th, 2007), The Office: Season Four (published September 2nd, 2008), The Office: Season Five (published September 8th, 2009), The Office: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published September 8th, 2009), The Office: Season Six (published September 7th, 2010), The Office: Season Six (Blu-ray) (published September 13th, 2010), The Office: Season Seven (Blu-ray) (published September 14th, 2011), The Office: Season Eight (Blu-ray) (published September 2nd, 2012), and The Office: Season One (published October 5th, 2005) are also available.
"I'm glad Michael's getting help. He has a lot of issues, and he's stupid."
Steve Carell's final season on NBC's once-great, long-running hit The Office arrives on DVD. Is it a worthy swan song for Michael Scott? And should the entire series have called it a day along with him?
Facts of the Case
It can be a tough thing, watching something that you once loved and respected fall apart over time. Let me put that in some perspective so that I don't sound like a sociopath: I recognize that what I've described is what it's store for all of us thanks to the magic of aging (except for you, Benjamin Button), and there is nothing sadder than that. You know—the whole human condition. But since that's a slightly morbid and not-so-slightly depressing start to a review of a TV show, let me clarify that I'm referring specifically to pop art—series television, bands, film series, etc. Obviously, the sadness is a qualified one, but for those of us who are passionate about the pop culture we consume (and I think that refers to must of us who write for or read a DVD review site), that sadness matters. We take these things seriously.
So with that disaster of an opening out of the way, let me say that the seventh season of the NBC sitcom The Office makes me sad. It's not the show I once loved anymore (at one point—let's say Seasons Two and Three, this was my favorite show on TV), but rather some close approximation that's capable of inspired moments but, which, for the most part, offers more misses than hits these days. The slip in quality is made even more glaring by the fact that NBC continues to air it on Thursday nights alongside Community and Parks and Recreation, shows that are newer and (perhaps as a result) consistently fresher, funnier and more inspired. The Office feels creaky by comparison, and never has that been more true than in Season Seven thanks to the departure of the show's hub, Steve Carell.
Yes, after seven seasons, Carell has left The Office, presumably to pursue his big movie career (which can only mean we can look forward to several more hits such as Get Smart, Dinner for Schmucks, Date Night and Evan Almighty). The bulk of the season is devoted to sending him off; first in setting up a reason for his departure—which I'll accept, since it means the more-than-welcome return of Amy Ryan's Holly Flax—and then to finding his replacement and saying goodbye. Much of it is handled well enough, and it's certainly one of the better season-length arcs the show has had since the glory days of Jim and Pam (the Sabre takeover stuff never really worked for me), but with it comes a number of problems. One of the biggest issues with the season is the amount of time handed over to pure fan service: we get a tour of Michael's ex-girlfriends ("Sex Education"), we get to revisit the Dundies in a lesser capacity than when they were introduced in Season Two, and, worst of all, we get an entire 22 minutes (more if you watch the uncut version included on the DVD) of "Threat Level Midnight," the unproduced screenplay Jim found in Michael's desk so many seasons ago. It might just be the worst episode The Office has ever done, completely tone deaf about what made that script episode so funny in the first place. It's too well-made to be truly bad, but too bad to be enjoyable, and in a show that prides itself on subtle continuity, it makes absolutely no sense that every single person in at Dunder Mifflin has spent years working on a movie (complete with dozens of locations and special effects) and it's never been mentioned.
Therein lies another great problem with The Office: Season Seven. It's totally inconsistent. Just as the fact that Threat Level Midnight is inconsistent with what we know about life at the mid-level paper company, so is much of the character work throughout the season. From one episode to the next, Michael Scott changes from total fool to spoiled child to master manipulator to sweet, beloved boss, depending on the needs of a given show. Many of these qualities have always existed within the character, but they were believably synthesized into one person—it was part of what made Michael such a rich comic creation. This season, though, his ridiculous behavior is manufactured seemingly at random just to drive the needs of the plot, and it no longer works. The same goes for other characters as well—especially Ellie Kemper's Erin, my favorite addition to the show in years. She's almost always funny, but she's all over the map; there's no way that the same girl who can detect subtle sarcasm in one show is the same girl who throws away disposable cameras without ever getting the film developed.
The end of the season is where things really start to fall apart, which makes me very nervous leading into Season Eight. The panic and potential flop sweat that the characters begin feeling when they learn Michael is leaving is evident in the show, too, which has no idea what to do with itself with the knowledge that Carell is leaving. The answer, unfortunately, is to wheel in a parade of guest stars—most notably Will Ferrell as new boss Deangelo Vickers. Ferrell does his usual shtick, and it never gels with the humor of the show; what's worse, the writers never really figure out a way to make him into an actual character. He's just a collection of eccentricities waiting to implode; it's ok for a few scattered laughs, but utterly unsustainable over the course of several episodes—especially on a series as character-driven as The Office. The season finale, after Carell has already gone, is nothing but a parade of guest stars (including Ricky Gervais making his second appearance as David Brent, his character from the original UK series, in what might be the most anticlimactic bit of crossover fan service I can imagine) that feels exactly like what it is: a stunt. A Hail Mary pass. I'm happy to learn that the one guest appearance in the episode is the one person who will be returning to the show in the upcoming season, though. His are the only scenes that work.
I'm being hard on The Office, but only because I wish it could find a way to return to its former glory. Those days are past, I fear, so at best all I can hope for is that it doesn't continue to decline in quality before having the plug pulled altogether. There are plenty of laughs to be found this season, and a handful of strong episodes. I like Zach Woods as Gabe, who has figured out a way of portraying a douche and a sad sack in a way that's different from the other cast members. I like his storyline with Erin, because I like almost anything with Erin (almost). Nearly all of Michael's scenes with Holly are funny and dorky and sweet, as is Carell's last episode—his send-off is emotional without being too nauseatingly "important." Most of all, though, I still like spending time in the office of Dunder Mifflin, even when the show is not at its best. I've come to love and care about these characters in the last seven years, and I'm not going to throw all that way just because The Office had its weakest season to date. I've still got my fingers crossed for a rebound.
At least the DVD release of The Office: Season Seven is as strong as the past sets have been. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks terrific, even in standard definition, with good detail, natural colors and an overall bright, pleasant image. The 5.1 audio track is sufficient; most of the heavy lifting is done in the center channel, which delivers the dialogue clearly and audibly, leaving the remaining channels for some occasionally immersive (and very subtle) for surround effects. This isn't a show that's driven by sound design, so the largely unremarkable audio track is still well-suited for the series.
The bonus features have always been a standout of The Office DVDs, and Season Seven doesn't disappoint. Longer "producer's cuts" have been included for a handful of episodes: "Training Day" and "Search Committee," both of which run close to an hour in the extended cuts. They're overlong and the pacing is all messed up, but The Office has always been the kind of show that can add or subtract bits pretty easily; if you're a fan of the show, the longer versions just offer more of the stuff you like (yes, even in this disappointing season). Commentaries have been included for "Nepotism," "PDA," "Threat Level Midnight," "Goodbye Michael" and "Dwight K. Schrute, (Acting) Manager" with a rotating lineup of cast members and creative personnel. As has been the case for the last few seasons, Steve Carrell, John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer are nowhere to be found on the commentaries, which is disappointing—particularly in the case of Carrell, this being his last season and all. The tracks range from moderately informative and kind of amusing to pretty funny but totally lacking in substance, though fans of the series will likely get a kick out of just about all of them.
It's the nearly two hours of deleted scenes that really make the bonus features worth watching. Available to view by episode or all together (I suggest watching them after each episode, otherwise it can be tough to place them in the proper context), the deleted material contains a ton of funny bits and even additional storylines that were completely cut out (one episode has a running story in which Jim and Pam are in a fight, though we never find out what it's about; they make up in a quiet way by the end of the show). There's a reason most of the stuff was axed, whether just for time or because it's not as funny as what made the cut, but it makes for a great way of extending one's enjoyment of the series.
Disc Three contains the uncut version of Michael Scott's movie, Threat Level Midnight, which runs almost 30 minutes and feels even worse without the story bits interrupting it. On the fifth and final disc is a decent blooper reel and a collection of "webisodes," which feel a lot like the deleted scenes but featuring only the show's supporting cast.
The first Carell-less season of The Office is about to kick off, and I have no idea what to expect. In theory, the bench of supporting characters is enough to carry the show for a few more seasons, but if Season Seven demonstrates anything, it's that the series needs a strong, consistent anchor at its center for it to work. I don't want to see the show slowly devolve into something terrible because they didn't know when to call it a day. Hopefully that won't happen. The Office may not be what it once was, but that doesn't mean I'm not pulling for it.
Goodbye, Michael Scott.
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