Michael Scott’s departure from “The Office” two years ago felt like the series’ natural endpoint. It was sweet and sentimental, gently poking fun at one of show’s basic conceits: that an unseen film crew had spent nearly a decade chronicling daily life at a Scranton paper-supply company, and the resulting documentary is what we are watching. In the season seven finale, Steve Carell's Michael Scott, about to pass through airport security, unhooks a mic from his jacket and breaks the paper-thin fourth wall: “Hey, will you guys let me know if this ever airs?” It was a startling moment, letting Michael say goodbye to the cameramen, and, by proxy, to us.
"The Office"’s final season has offered an extended answer to the question of who is behind those cameras. Tonight, the show will end its nine-year run with that hoary staple of sitcom finales: a wedding. (Dwight, Rainn Wilson’s overbearing beet farmer, will marry Angela Kinsey’s peevish accountant.) But the finale’s main event is a reunion show, the kind that follows every season of “Survivor” and “Real Housewives” and “The Real World,” giving the reality stars a chance to contest their onscreen portrayal and to discuss what it was like to be surrounded by camera. It’s a fitting finale to this strange and self-referential season. Now that the mockumentary sitcom is commonplace—“Parks and Recreation,” “Modern Family”—“The Office” has shifted from a sly evocation of workplace culture to become a commentary on the mockumentary genre itself.
The show has spent the back half of this past season dismembering its fourth wall piece by piece. As we learned midway through the season, the in-show documentary is airing on public television over nine nights (the tagline: “The lives. The loves. The people. The Office: An American Workplace”). This isn’t raucous reality TV; the YouTube promo frames it as high-minded and heartwarming, something like PBS’s groundbreaking 1973 series, “An American Family,” the grandfather of modern reality television. It’s absurd, of course, and it raises more questions than it answers (Why have they been filming for nine years? Why has no one ever objected?), but as a deconstruction of the mockumentary as a form, it’s interesting—something “The Office” has rarely been in the past few years.
Since Carell’s departure, the show’s humor has gone broader and goofier, but the season’s best moments have been in a softer, and at times bleaker, key. Jim, the affable slacker played by John Krasinski, grew sick of Scranton and the paper industry and decided to join the start-up of his dreams—in Philadelphia, leaving his wife Pam (Jenna Fischer) alone with their two kids and a pile of resentments. The slow disintegration of their marriage emerged without any typical TV shortcuts: no cheating, no lies. Their fights were as brutal to watch as any endless, uncomfortable Michael Scott joke, but without laughter to alleviate the cringing. The tension came to a head halfway through the season, when, after a heated argument with Jim, Pam hangs up the phone and cries at her desk. Then suddenly, a handsome boom mic operator, Brian, materializes from outside the camera’s frame to comfort her and tell the cameramen to stop shooting. It was a mere few minutes at the end of an otherwise non-notable episode, but suddenly “The Office” felt self-aware in a totally new way. It was a compelling moment, but a deeply uncomfortable one, asking us to reexamine everything we had already seen. How had Brian formed a friendship with Pam without our knowledge? If this had taken place outside the camera’s frame, what else had we missed?
Though they share "The Office"'s DNA, it is hard to imagine “Modern Family” or “Parks and Recreation” attempting such an intrusion. “Parks and Rec” has enthusiastically abandoned any pretense that there is a documentary crew hanging around the offices of Pawnee’s city hall. (Imagine how excited Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford would be if he thought he had a chance to be the next Kardashian.) The characters still speak directly to the camera—though not nearly as often as they did at first—and the mock-doc’s presence is registered largely by Adam Scott’s raised eyebrow and Aziz Ansari’s gleeful mugging. On “Modern Family,” the framing device is even more divorced from its origins: The family is completely unaware of cameras, and the talking heads are just a tool to convey characters’ inner monologues and provide some fast irony.
But on the early “Office,” the mockumentary format was more than an aesthetic tool to reveal inner monologues and maintain ironic distance. Ricky Gervais brought the mockumentary to television at a time when the public was primed to embrace it; when the British “Office” premiered on BBC twelve years ago, the modern reality TV era was in its early years. “Survivor” was a few years old, and “Big Brother” had just started its second season. And the direct models for Ricky Gervais’s “Office” were docu-soaps the BBC aired in the late ’90s, small slice-of-life series in mundane settings: Airport, Driving School, Hotel. But when not excelling as a sharp look at the humiliations and consolations of the nine-to-five life, “The Office” showed how the presence of cameras and the lure of fame could distort people and feed their self-delusions. David Brent was an avatar of wannabe reality-star culture, always playing the camera and performing for a future audience. The mockumentary was the perfect format to take apart his noxious delusions, to show the gap between his public and imagined selves.
On the American “Office,” Michael Scott’s antics sometimes played the same way, but more often felt directed firmly at his coworkers, not the cameras; Carell’s character craved friendship more than fame. From the beginning the cast of the U.S. show acted like people who had mostly forgotten they were being filmed—and that was what made the show so painfully honest. Jim and Pam and Dwight weren’t different people when the cameras were off; we weren’t watching carefully calibrated personas or nervously guarded fronts. The final stretch of episodes confirmed this: When the Dunder-Mifflin employees first saw promos for the documentary they were shocked at all the private moments captured on tape. “So they were filming all the time, even when we didn't know it?" Phyllis, one of the salespeople asks. “So we’ve had no privacy for the past ten years?” Pam asks Brian when she realizes that the cameras have been peering through window shades and using “parabolic mics” to pick up furtive conversations. These naïve protests let the show have it both ways: pleasantly repackaging its history while reassuring us that what we’ve seen is real.
So if the documentary crew has revealed itself to be Big Brother, it’s ultimately a benevolent one. Even Pam, the show’s emotional center and our audience surrogate, ends up grateful for this comprehensive record of her most personal moments. Watching herself flirt with Jim and fall in love in a YouTube promo, she turns to the camera: "I hope you got sound on everything. I'd love a DVD of that." The final few episodes have proceeded in the same nostalgic spirit, prompting us to remember the show’s better days and ignore its clunkier, more mediocre present. They are an affectionate ode to the mockumentary format at its best, but also, perhaps, an acknowledgement that the genre has reached its expiration date.
Esther Breger is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow @estherbreger.