Friday, April 29, 2011

Michael Scott Says Goodbye

Last night was Steve Carrell’s final episode of The Office and with it ushered Michael Scott out of the Dunder Mifflin world, presumably, for good. It was a touching goodbye, bringing back a number of little moments from previous seasons and wrapping up Michael’s story in more fairy tale fashion than really anyone would have predicted at the start of the series. Hell, Jim cried telling Michael how good a boss he’d been.  If you’d told me that in Season One, I would have thought the show had gone completely off the rails. But it didn’t, and while this wasn’t the series, or even season finale, I think last night’s episode was as close to culminating as any show can be.

The place of Michael Scott in the television lexicon sits right next to the other biggies, the folks whose characters almost transcended the greatness of their already transcendent shows.  The Sam Malones, Jerry Seinfelds, and Homer Simpsons of the world who occupy a place in our hearts beyond just the world within their respective half hours.  Much of it is a testament to Carrell’s adeptness at playing a character so incredibly and naively flawed, that even in Michael’s worst moments, we could still believe his sincerity.  
Last night’s episode, replete with individual (or group) goodbyes acted more as a character summation than it did walk off into the sunset (or airplane terminal).  It reminded us of the guy Michael had been and what he’d become.  Effectively apologizing to Phyllis for spurning her oven mitt Christmas gift, finally impressing Ryan with something (even if it needed to light up), grinning and bearing the thought of having to hang out with Toby’s brother in Boulder, understanding that Jim needed no goodbye, making one last petition to use the bailer, finding humor in how little Oscar thought of him (maybe the funniest moment in The Office’s history), making good on the paintball session with Dwight and recognizing the greatness Dwight embodies in his job as a salesman, and finally just watching as he hugged Pam leaving their conversation something just between friends. It was a fantastic way to encompass a rather layered character.
Michael Scott wasn’t always the best guy and the show made its early bones on his almost irredeemable obtuseness.(Here was a guy who fake fired his secretary because he thought it’d get a laugh out of the new intern.) But The Office really hit its stride in the subsequent seasons when Michael effectively played a character analogous to Dorothy’s three friends on the Yellow Brick Road. Sometimes he lacked a brain, sometimes he needed a little more courage and many times he just had to find a heart, but like the Tinman, Scarecrow, and Lion, we always rooted for him in spite of the flaws.

There was always a sense that Michael cared deeply for those around him, he just never understood how to effectively bring that out in his everyday interactions The transformation of his character over the last half of this season (and really culminating in his final episode) into a real life working human being was entirely believable because A) we knew enough about his history to know he always had it in him and B) it is easy to believe that when someone is happy, he makes others happy. Meeting and finding love was the cure for all the ailed Michael.

Michael’s world WAS work, and I think he always struggled with those who didn’t see it the same way. (Even mentioning as much in the last episode in his quote about work and funerals). But that overly optimistic view culminated when he found everything he was looking for in a mate, right there in the same office. That she happened to be the one living being who not only enjoyed Michael’s unique brand of humor, but also replicated it, is besides the point. Meeting Holly validated everything Michael thought work to be (a place of true family and best friends) and in doing so allowed him to ultimately leave the very place he’d tied his life to (even once promising to be buried in the office). He could leave, there was nothing left for him to accomplish.

I think that last idea is what made Michael’s secret goodbye so sincere and true and really so Michael Scott-ish. He did the very last thing anyone would have expected.
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Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Night Lights Final Season Thoughts

I plan on writing in earnest about the final season of Friday Night Lights (the second time around, it’s already aired on DirectTv) and over the next three months or so suspect you’ll be treated to at least 500 instances of me using the term “bittersweet.”Granted, I have no idea how the whole thing ends (avoided internet updates like the plague), and yet I sit here contemplating the significance of the final season, the show’s role in the greater television landscape and how exactly a series chooses to sign off the airwaves once and for all.

There is a sentimental side of me (and maybe everyone) that would like to think Friday Night Lights ends with the Lions (and maybe the Panthers too) carrying Coach Taylor off on their shoulders after a last second championship win. This would of course be after a stunning finale in which the major cast members from Smash to Street, Tyra to the Swede (kidding) came back to pay their last respects in some way to the Coach and family and town that shaped their lives. The writers have a chance to turn the final season into a long procession of memories and homages to a great thing (think: event planning your own funeral) But at the same time, an ending like that would leave me disappointed, because it wouldn’t sum up the show as a whole.

Friday Night Lights has never been about the last second wins (a few too many for my liking as it is), never stuck exclusively to a redemptive ideal for each character’s inevitable flaws, or even necessarily tied the fates of its players to how they performed on the football field. If anything, the show has gone out of its way to emphasize that the characters’ successes, or lack thereof, on the football field holds little to no bearing on how the rest of their lives turnout. Heck, the star quarterback broke his neck at the 50 minute mark of the pilot episode (and then went on to be a sports agent). If that doesn’t send a clear message about relationship between football success and life success, then I don’t know what does.

So it begs the question: What should the final season be? And maybe more importantly, should endings have closure or leave us speculating? Exponentially more popular shows, with wildly anticipated final acts, like Lost or The Sopranos sold the viewer on the idea of finality ** (even if the ends were, to some degree, polarizing) and left little doubt that the show was indeed over. These programs knew their time was up and wrote accordingly instead of scripting for another season of treading water and ultimately limping into the finish (I’m looking at you Alias). And for those shows, closure was ultimately vital.

** Let’s remove the argument about Tony Soprano for a second. He’s dead people.

And while Friday Night Lights has afforded itself the ability to write “The End” after the last scene, it is a wholly different entity than those other shows. The writers of Friday Night Lights have produced something more organic. They’ve created a show about a town rather than about a group of characters. Just like any town there are the mainstays (the Taylors, Buddy), the folks who’ll never leave (Riggins), those itching to get the hell out (Tyra, Julie, Smash to some degree) and those who’ll always just marvel at life in the so-called outside world, only to eventually return (presumably Saracen, Street maybe). This is the unique nature of the show, in that the writers have stuck to a simple rule of: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Characters come and go, games are won and lost and though the faces change (infinitely more than any other show I can think of) the problems remain relatively the same. This is decidedly new ground for television. Just think if Brandon, Dylan, Kelly and company had moved on after season two of 90210 and a whole new group of kids just started hanging out with Nat at the Peach Pit (which Steve now co-managed). And yet Friday Night Lights pulls it off because its grounded in the Taylor family (who’ll never go anywhere) and town of Dillon. Everyone else can come and go as they so please, for better of worse, and that’s pretty much life.

Granted, Friday Night Lights is not transcendent television (although it’s awfully close), but it does reflect a certain, increasingly rare and even possibly cliche’d (in a good way) American sensibility of values and community. And though it never really caught on in the mainstream, the show probably relates to a wider range of viewers than anything else I’ve seen. I don’t have hard proof of this of course, but everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s watched, young or old, has latched on to something within the story’s walls. The sad irony is that just too few folks ever gave it the chance.

But I also suspect the miniscule viewing audience also allowed the show’s writers to take chances beyond the normal scope of television. Namely, they kept the town moving along without having to come up with new story arcs for the same old characters. The hardcore viewing audience (because that’s pretty much all that watches) were there to stay, so the writers simply worked to make the show reflect actual life. No easy feat, and probably something that won’t soon be replicated. Television is much too fickle, fast-moving, and quick to judge. Long story short: Friday Night Lights is in a world (or town, rather) of its own. I doubt anyone else will try to replicate it. After all, it wasn’t too terribly successful.

And so that leaves us rushing downfield towards the endzone and into the locker room once and for all (only two sports analogies used, not bad). I suspect the writers have discussed the idea of closure and what it means for this television show. How will Friday Night Lights end? I suspect much like it started. With expectations on Coach Taylor. With Tammy standing faithfully by his side. With a group of high schoolers seeking something tangible in their lives. And with the town of Dillon waking up for another day of living, breathing and thinking about football. It’s not sexy. There won’t be a cliffhanger.

Instead, think about Friday Night Lights less like a television show and more like a town you’re leaving. Just because you left, does the town cease to be? Of course, this is a television show we’re talking about, but really its something more. We’ll remember the good times, the familiar faces, the heartache, the neighborhood, the Riggins boys causing trouble, the day Matty Saracen’s father passed, what Jason Street could have been, that one Crucifictorious show, the state championship, when the high schools split, the tornado, the pep rallies and the “For Sale” signs on Coach Taylor’s lawn. Because Friday Night Lights isn’t really ending. We’re just moving out of Dillon. Bittersweet indeed.
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