Clocking off: The American version of The Office will reach its ultimate conclusion after nine years.
One of my clearest childhood memories was the final episode of M*A*S*H. The movie-length offering was the 251st episode of a television series about the Korean War that famously lasted longer than the war itself. To celebrate, my parents threw a M*A*S*H party. All in attendance wore army fatigues bought from disposal stores, moonshine-style martinis were served to the grown-ups and we all sat down to say ''goodbye, farewell and amen'' to Hawkeye Pierce and the good people of the 4077.
As the characters dismantled their field hospital and headed home, it dawned on everyone that it was we who would be left behind. When Hawkeye waved goodbye to Hunnicut, everyone at the party began to cry, knowing that something just wouldn't be the same again. I'm reminded of that moment as this week my wife and I will sit down and say goodbye to our friends at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, as The Office (US) bids farewell after 206 episodes over nine seasons.
If the British Office was an overture to the British workplace, the American Office was a human symphony.
Possibly the grandest achievement of this show is its success as an American version of a wildly successful British program. It's TV folklore how many times US networks made ill-fated attempts to make Fawlty Towers work for an American audience (at least three that I know of). Not to mention disastrous remakes of The Young Ones, Spaced and Absolutely Fabulous.
And yes, in its early days, the American Office suffered from inevitable comparisons to the British original. When the ''stapler set in jelly'' prank appeared at Dunder Mifflin, it was less surprising than it had been when we first saw it happen at Wernham Hogg. The office manager felt less real because he was played by that famous guy from Anchorman. And the office ''normal guy'' Jim felt way too good looking to relate to, unlike that aesthetically realistic Tim Canterbury.
But remarkably, and critically, the show very quickly found its own voice. Its characters built their own identity; the workplace became unmistakably American. And it was the mighty production output of American network television that allowed the show's creative team something that a show of its kind had never had before - time. Time for the famous guy from Anchorman to become Michael Scott, a real person, who would go on to represent all the unrealised childhood dreams that die a slow and tragic death in the workplaces of the world.
Time for Jim and Pam, who initially fulfilled the television cliche of unresolved romantic tension, to shatter everything we thought we knew about that cliche. Not only did they get together without making the show jump the shark, but the couple who at one time barely dared to dream of a life together became sleep-deprived parents of two toddlers, leaning on each other and those around them just to get through early parenthood. None of it played for cheap laughs, but rather because it was exactly how these two real people would live their lives. And now, as they dare to dream of a life beyond a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, they're forced to wonder if, as their world gets bigger, they have enough love to fill it.
Time even allowed Dunder Mifflin to become more real. Between 2005 and 2013, the American workplace has undergone the kind of seismic changes not seen since the industrialisation of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and J..P. Morgan after the Civil War. The global financial crisis, online sales, YouTube, social media and the pressure on medium-size firms to compete with mega-firm competitors such as Staples all happened while the show has been on air. And they all happened to our favourite fictional workplace. Times got tough. Employees who didn't leave because maybe they lacked motivation became the employees who didn't leave because there wasn't another job to go to. The Office itself was buffeted by the economic storm that shaped the world for nearly a decade. The viewer went from saying ''I have a boss like that'', or ''I work in a company like that'' to ''I live in an economy like that''.
This connectedness to the real world allowed the show to gracefully survive a change that destroys most shows. When Michael Scott left, it didn't feel like a TV show losing its lead; it felt like an office having a change of staff. There was the inevitable churn. The arrival of guru chief exectutive Robert California (James Spader) felt less like a celebrity cameo aimed at saving a series, and more like a flawed company hire that came and went almost as rapidly as his idea to save the company by selling cheaply made triangular tablet computers. When the company gracefully settled on Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) as manager, it was a perfect fit for the company and the viewer. A brilliant lesson in patient, thoughtful television making.
And in bringing the show to a close in this final season, the employees were somehow made even more real as the fictional documentary of their life finally went to air. They finally get to watch themselves as we have watched them. They are self-conscious for the first time in nine years.
In all this time, the performances, the writing and also the experience of the viewer got better. This was a truly ensemble performance. The players' instruments were their characters and their ability to play was honed over years. If the British Office was an overture to the British workplace, the American Office was a human symphony.
The finale of M*A*S*H remains the most-watched episode of scripted television ever. It was a completely shared experience - something most people at the time had in common. Today, with the fracturing of television across a number of digital platforms, we have fewer of those shared experiences. If you're really into something, chances are nobody in your office is into it as much as you. And if they are, they're probably not up to the same series as you, so you can't talk about it anyway.
But this week, my wife and I will share that final episode with the same group of real people we've shared it with for 206 episodes. And I have no doubt we will cry as we say goodbye, farewell and amen.
The Office two-part finale begins Wednesday, Eleven, 10.30pm. Part two, next Wednesday (September 11).