I FINALLY got around to watching the series finale of "Friday Night Lights, Steve Carrell's farewell on "The Office", both of which are on my short list of best-ever TV comedy and drama shows. [Note: Earlier, I thought this was the season finale of "The Office," but an alert reader corrected me.]
For those of you only now seeing "Friday Night Lights" on broadcast TV and wondering how I've seen the whole season, I get Direct TV, where the program aired first and finished in February. (So, why, you wonder, have I only just gotten around to it? Just busy.) I won't spoil it for you, but I'll say that it doesn't end with a 30-mile wide asteroid crashing into the the city of Dillon, Texas.
In a way, one almost hopes for that sort of an ending. As I've written here in the past, "Friday Night Lights" is a show that got too little attention from the American viewing public, which, the ratings will show, seems more interested in schlockey so-called "reality shows" and cliche detective and doctor dramas. Part of me thinks that destroying the entire town and all its compelling characters in a single stroke, while a tad heavy handed, would symbolically tell all those who missed this great show that they can't have it, don't deserve it. Also, as with the ending of "The Sopranos" (yes, they did kill Tony), the producers could pretty much say, 'we're proud of what we did, and we're not going to mess it up with a disappointing movie version' (I'm thinking of you, "Sex and the City").
We've known for a few months that Steve Carrell was leaving "The Office." So the only suprise this season was how the producers were going to ease him out without destroying the show. Not an easy trick considering he is probably one of the funniest people in America and because so much of the show revolves around everyone reacting to his loveable icky self. It's a bit like taking a nucleus out of a cell and replacing it (if that's what they're trying to do with Will Farrell) with a new and different one.
My guess is that "The Office" will survive this transformation, if only because it is one of the best ensemble shows of all time. Those of us who have watched it loyally (if not obsessively, as I think my family and I may), know all the subtle back stories of every character and still care a great deal about where they end up. And the writing has always been extraordinarily creative, always surprising and experimenting without distorting the characters and the story arc so that they become parodies of themselves. "The Office" hasn't jumped the shark. Not yet at least.
Both "Friday Night Lights" and "The Office" are great because they're as close to "real" as we get not only on TV but in most of our entertainment in the United States.They are much more real than the most popular shows where, say, a dozen people are put through a punishing obstacle course on a remote tropical island and put in the position to be nasty with one another; or where B-list celebrities fight with another for the attention and respect of a famous egomaniac or stumble over themselves to become America's favorite ballroom dancers, or any of the other "reality" shows that, when you think about it, not all about what happens in real life.
To be sure, I can't imagine there are any offices in America that operate quite like the Scranton, Penn., branch of Dunder Mifflin Sabre, at least not any that could remain profitable.
But those of us who have spent a lot of our lives in offices know that the personalities that make up "The Office" are only slightly exaggerated versions of the sorts of people we have worked with. Maybe not all of them at once in one place, but we recognize all of them, don't we? They are filled with the same insecurities, tedium, jealousies, annoying habits, neuroses, nastiness, secret crushes, sweetness and loyalties we encounter every day when we walk into our own offices. The show is really a fictional experiment that tries to show what happens when we subject this very typical collection of personalities to strange, unexpected and sometimes dangerous circumstances. That -- along with great writing and acting -- is what makes it so funny and what makes it such an accurate mirror on our own real worlds.
Like "The Office," some of the situations in "Friday Night Lights" are a bit more exaggerated or accelerated than we know from real life. We have to allow for some dramatic effect and, after all, they can't show everything they should about a couple of dozen characters in less than an hour each week.
But "Friday Night Lights" has dealt directly and candidly with the most difficult realities we find in many American lives: the struggle to succeed and do right, in spite of the pull of negative forces and flagging economic opportunities; fractured families; catastrophic illness; petty but sometimes profoundly damaging political battles; racial conflict; the sometimes strained dynamics of parent-child and husband-wife relationships; how our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reverberate in the lives of ordinary Americans; the exhilaration of glory and how hard it is to hold onto over the long run; the power of love and, ultimately, how each of us needs a father or mother figure in our lives, no matter our age. It's hard to understand why that hasn't attracted a larger and more loyal audience, but we can argue all day about the relative attraction of escapism versus realism.
As the parent of three teenage girls, I have to say, for example, that Tami and Eric Taylor's interactions with their teenage daughter Julie were as real as it gets. Not that my kids are doing any of the crazy stuff she did (or quite as whiney). But my wife and I could truly relate with the give and take that comes with that relationship. Both the writing and the acting that went into some of those scenes (and all the rest) was stripped right out of real life.
So I'll miss "Friday Night Lights" and Michael Scott. But the people in both of those shows will continue on, not only on the TV screen, as will be the case with "The Office," but also in the real world.
P.S. For my money, episode of "The Office" this year when Michael proposed to Holly was one of the two best episodes ever, next to Jim and Pam's wedding. See it if you haven't already.