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'The Office' finale review: Steve Carell returns

Steve Carell as Michael Scott in a scene

Steve Carell as Michael Scott in a scene from "The Office." Credit: NBC

"The Office" finale? We must in the end take the good with the bad with only merely OK. And in the end, "The Office" finale was all of those things -- maybe that's the benefit, or drawback, of having an hour and 15 minutes to wrap.

It was, as expected, sweet and gentle. Pam's closing line was just about perfect: "There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn't that the point?" Steve Carell made a cameo -- after pointed denials by the showrunner that he would not come back because that would take the spotlight off the rest of the cast -- and it was a good one. Or "Gutenprank number 3," as Jim noted.

Michael had a good Michaelly kind of line too: "I feel like all my kids grew up and married each other. Every parent's dream..."

But the closer was, in the end, about closure -- and good feelings, and a sense of accomplishment and life's fundamental fairness, or at least "life" as defined by the confines of "The Office." It also wallowed in the closure, and good feelings and love, which very nearly smothered any impulse to actually be funny, which this finale only intermittently was.

Plus, I think -- may be wrong but still think -- there's a philosophical disconnect here. Wasn't "The Office" really about the fundamental absurdity of human affairs when humans are confined to a small space -- the petty knavery, stupidity, jealousy, avarice and everything else that, at the end of a brilliantly crafted 22-minute long show, makes for great comedy?

It was never about "closure" but "circularity:" it was about how people are defined by their character, and how their character rules their actions, even when those actions are counterproductive.

Ricky Gervais' "Office," which wrapped with a two-part "Christmas" episode, took a bitter view of the matter, finally resolving that humans, like rats, will always behave in familiar ways. But Greg Daniels' "Office" finally succumbed to the sentimentality of American television: That weddings will be had, people will smile, viewers will cry and -- fade out -- life will be affirmed. "The Office" was about love -- that's one of the things I loved about it -- but it was also about futility, which is another one of the things I loved about it. The characters were true to themselves: Growing only older, never wiser.

It's nice, I suppose, to know that Dwight turned into a decent and wise boss who gave Jim and Pam a generous severance. But it also rings profoundly false. It's nice to know that Pam finally agreed to let Jim join Darryl at Athlete in Austin, but it also feels like it was the obvious setup for a finale, which it was.

Daniels and the rest of this wonderful cast and crew almost certainly knew that no matter what they did, the finale is a fraught and perilous enterprise, where someone -- usually an ill-natured critic -- will find something to bitch about. But as the years roll by, I do often look back at the conclusion of "The Sopranos"for the genius that it was. Fade to black: Let viewers draw their own conclusions -- let them fill the void if they so choose. Great television isn't or shouldn't be about putting a nice bow on a package, so everyone can go to bed happy, satisfied, and have their expectations fulfilled. "The Sopranos" and David Chase, to his ultimate credit, refused to give them that, knowing that it would reorder all that had come before, and in some way establish what the entire show had been about all along. Should "The Office" have faded to black -- almost like you had turned off the show that these wonderful characters had starred in for nine years -- with inconclusive ends to Pam and Jim's story, and Dwight still being Dwight, and so on?

 It's already been done but it would have also been the better way to finish this journey, recognizing that it was never about "happy endings" in the first place, but, to paraphrase the Greatful Dead, the long strange trip we are all on.

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