On May 26, a legion of cool kids will gather. They’ll stay up late, and watch the new, Netflix-exclusive episodes of “Arrested Development” in succession. HDMI cables will be key party favors, there will be shit tons of buffering.
The occasion will be made possible by Fox Network executives that couldn’t sell one of the 21st Century’s most brilliant comedies. After three, too-brief seasons including some petty, subversive jokes about bad ratings during the final stretch of episodes, Fox iced “Arrested Development” in 2006. And as is often the case with underappreciated art, a cult following popped up around dorm rooms, DVDs, and in-the-know Halloween costumes.
“The Office,” which aired its final episode on Thursday night after nine seasons, is a better and more satisfying show.
Forget about comparing main characters—Michael Scott put “The Office” on his back for most of the good seasons so this category is painfully one-sided—“The Office” handicapped itself with bland settings, far less star power, and having to read off a cheat sheet (the UK’s pace-setting version).
It’s kind of the old “Simpsons” versus “Seinfeld” argument that would stem from the fact that the two staple comedies were often aired back-to-back during Fox affiliate rerun cycles. So out of boredom you’d have to draw a line in the sand and choose the better comedy. “Seinfeld” is nine seasons of immaculate work; “The Simpsons” has been useless since 1999.
I guess it’s also a Beatles or Stones debate—somewhat fair when we compare parallel timing, but one loses influence and critical affection when its corpus becomes bloated and yields diminishing returns.
Imagine then, if “The Office” ended where it probably should have. Jim Halpert–after realizing that a life in New York City with the beautiful, interesting, and intelligent Rashida Jones would fall short of a first date in Scranton with Pam–leaves it all behind in a mad dash, rushes back to Dunder Mifflin, and Season 3 ends with Jim asking Pam, “Are you free for dinner tonight?”
Whoop—there it is. The cults, costumes, and inside jokes live forever. The cultural thumbs up committee pines for what could have been; critics lament America’s bad taste. But, really, no one is surprised that Brick Tamland and his cast of nobodies failed to work as network television.
For this post-script to have happened, however, “The Office” needed to be far less successful. It would have needed for its supporting cast to not turn into major Hollywood players. It would have needed to not be overrun with wildly relatable human optimism. It would have needed to not change the dynamics of American offices everywhere by casting a net of self-awareness and empathy. I’ve organized an Office Olympics, I’ve seen Dwight Schrute bobbleheads on desks of superiors.
“Arrested Development,” make no mistake, is three seasons of thickly hysterical comedy that makes a splash with its sweeping catchphrases about bananas, but sticks with its hidden notes about cookies that contain no preservatives. “The Office,” at least for its first three competing seasons, was every bit as laugh out loud funny, but I like it better because its supporting cast wasn’t a posse of established voices that used the show as an outlet to do their routines: Phyllis talking about her “jugs” in a talking head bit that’s headed for the Deadpan Hall of Fame; Creed mistaking a spiraling Word Document for a blog; Toby Flenderson’s star-crossed dreams of writing novels.
The show got bad when its side characters fleshed out, became compelling, and crowded the narrative deck. The series became less and less plausible as consequences were left unexplored—Christ there’s a scene where Jim drives home drunk after a party at Robert California’s mansion and we never circled back.
During the final season, the behind the veil bullshit of working in the PBS documentary crew as characters and love interests failed because by that point most of us were rooting for Jim and Pam to get divorced. Jim is awesome, and Pam is paranoid and clingy and unhappy with Jim’s professional success.
But that was point and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker—“The Office” is basically just life. Stuff happens, people change. Thursday night’s finale left no questions to answer but I loved it because it played out like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.” Everyone showed up and hung out and cried.
And that’s why this is not “The Simpsons” against “Seinfeld.” The value of the subsequent, less funny seasons is in the comfort of watching characters live life after the wedding or the baby or the several other weddings.
Let’s say that “Arrested Development” and “The Office” played to a draw after three respective seasons. The tiebreaker has to be Andy and Dwight serenading Erin with dueling, virtuosic renditions of “Country Road.”