In recent years The Office seemed like a show that was showing it's age. There was a big drop off in quality after season 3. Season 5 did represent a comeback for the show but that was quickly wasted by the atrocity known as season 6. Season 7 turned out to be an erratic season that had some of the best episodes in the entire series' run but also had some moments that reminded me of season 6.
This season of The Office dealt with the departure of Steve Carell. Although Michael Scott did announce his departure until late in the season, Carell's departure had a presence from the very beginning. This entire season really played as a swan song to both Steve Carell and Michael Scott.
Paul Lieberstein (who also plays Toby) and Mindy Kaling (who also plays Kelly) continue to be the show runners of the series and Jeffrey Blitz continued to be the main director for the series. This creative team was given a huge opportunity with the Carell/Scott departure, and, for the most part, they used this opportunity effectively. The season really felt like the first season of fellow Thursday night comedy Community. Both seasons had some phenomenal episodes but never really found a true rhythm. While I hope that this creative team uses the momentum they now have to make a completely successful season like Community did this year, Community didn't have it's star leave at the end of the season.
Lieberstein and company always made sure that the audience knew that Carell was going to leave this season (hints were dropped at the beginning of the season when Michael said he would rather quit his job than have counseling with Toby). This was definitely not the most effective way of dealing with the departure early in the season as they hints never developed into anything and it seemed like the series was stalling until it could finally begin the departure arc. That's not to say the first half of the season had its moments. "Andy's Play" showed that the hints about Carell's departure weren't the only changes being made to the show this season. Supporting players were given episodes the centered around them and the most successful of these episodes was this one that centered on Ed Helm's Andy. Another early episode was the perfect representation of the season. That episode was "Christening" (the episode centering on the christening of Pam and Jim's daughter and Michael's attempts to get their attention) and it tried some new and interesting story techniques (this episode was notably darker and once again gave Ed Helms a lot of screen time). However, not all of them worked. It was a mixed bag. In the end, I respected the episode (and the season) completely and kind of liked it.
The season really kicked into gear when Holly (Amy Ryan) returned into "Classy Christmas" (one of their best Christmas episodes and a great showcase for Carell's acting) and the departure arc began. The departure arc was one of the best arcs the show has ever done (right up there with the Michael Scott Paper Company arc). Some of the highlights included "Threat Level Midnight" (which was a complete love letter to the fans but a good one at that), "Garage Sale" (it turns out that Steve Carell is not only a great actor and writer, but a good director too), "Michael's Last Dundies" (a sequel that actually lives up to the original) and of course the amazing send-off to Michael, "Goodbye, Michael". "Goodbye, Michael" was an episode that started off slow with the very distracting Will Ferrell guest appearance but slowly built up until I was floored (and left teary-eyed) by the final scene in the airport. The writing, directing and acting by Carell and Jenna Fischer are all top notch in this scene (It actually is the best scene in any television series this season).
The last three episodes did suggest to me that this show could, surprisingly, survive without Steve Carell. "The Inner Circle" actually made Will Ferrell's character watchable. "Dwight K. Schrute, (Acting) Manager" might have been the episode I laughed at the most this season and "Search Committee"was a great showcase for the ensemble (especially Rainn Wilson who really stepped up his game after Carell left and he would definitely be my pick to take his position as the lead of the show).
Some other things I would like to point out:
-This season probably had as many guest stars as guest star crazy (and fellow Thursday night comedy) 30 Rock has and most of them were a waste of time. Exception has to be noted for Ricky Gervais' first appearance as David Brent (although his appearance in the finale was a great example of a waste of time) and the always great Amy Ryan.
-This was the first season that Jim and Pam really became annoying to me (although Jenna Fischer redeemed Pam with the last batch of episodes).
-Ellie Kemper is definitely the most improved member of the cast. She changed a character that was the least interesting end of a love triangle into the best female character on the show.
I am still very worried about this next season of The Office, but the cast and crew proved with this season that there is potential for continued success (and provided a perfect sendoff for one of the best characters in comedy tv ever). Now we just have to hope Steve Carell finally gets his way overdue Emmy!