Friday, May 20, 2011

Love Is Boring: The Office Series Recap

The seventh season finale of The Office aired last night. Though the show will continue next fall in some iteration, Steve Carell’s departure effectively ended whatever remained of what was once the best show on network television. Carell's Michael Scott had been The Office's protagonist for several seasons. While the show left many things to be desired over the last few seasons, Carell's performance was never one of them.

The central theme of the first two seasons of The Office was suburban loneliness. The vast majority of the drama generated those first two seasons came from the actions the various characters took to combat that loneliness. Though every character on the show fought this battle on one level or another, it was most poignantly depicted through salesmen Jim Halpert. Jim was in love with the receptionist Pam, herself engaged to the inadequate warehouseman Roy. Meanwhile, most of the comedic plotlines were based around manager Michael Scott’s ignorance and buffoonery.

The Office
peaked during its second season, finding the perfect balance of comedy and drama between Michael’s antics and Jim’s daily torment. The second season mined as much heartbreak from Jim’s tortured soul as it could, then threw a perfectly timed curveball in its final episode when Jim finally professed his love to Pam.

Season Three wisely took a step back, introducing Rashida Jones as Jim’s new love interest and Ed Helms as Andy, a second-tier utility character who would eventually play half a dozen different roles. Other than Carell, no actor on The Office possessed the range and talent of Helms, which became more and more obvious the longer the show aired. Season Three prudently recalibrated The Office’s formula, substituting mirth for melodrama, focusing more intently on Michael, Dwight, Angela, Andy, and Pam, who was now on the other side of the goldfish bowl. The writing was outstanding throughout the season, in the mechanics of the individual episodes as well as exploration of long-term plotlines (the merger of Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton and Stamford branches, Michael’s relationships with Carol and Jan, the construction of round, dynamic characters in Andy, Dwight, Pam and Roy).

After Pam and Jim were finally allowed to be together and celebrate their love in half-hour television dramedy cookie-cutter bliss, the show’s writers and producers faced an unsolvable dilemma: unrequited love is a dramatic thing to observe, but legitimate, dependable love is not. They should be lauded for squaring Pam and Jim away, for letting them live and love together in peace rather than dredging up soapy plotlines to keep their original theme alive. However, this left them without compelling emotional characters. Season Four began the conversion to Michael as the show’s dramatic center, though this was often supplemented by Andy and Dwight. This was a tricky metamorphosis, as Michael Scott had always been too small and self-centered to genuinely generate empathy. Michael’s quests for romantic fulfillment had no chance of packing the emotional punch that Pam and Jim’s had, as Michael had built up too tall a wall of repugnance during the first three seasons.

At the same time, the quality of the writing began to deteriorate. While Season Three actually felt even fresher and more creative than the first two seasons, the sharp blade of wit began to dull in Season Four. Inexorably, the show simply became less and less funny. When they weren’t retreads, the jokes became more desperate and obscure. All the American standby gimmicks – holidays, birthdays, weddings, etc. – had been mined. Any prejudice Michael could have – racism, sexism, homophobia, drug use, prison, disability, technophobia – had been used as a launchpad for an episode somewhere along the way. Any plausible office romances had been played out. Any decent prank Jim could pull on Dwight had been executed.

Michael was presented with an erratic array of love interests, starting with Amy Ryan’s Holly Flax. Holly was too intelligent and virtuous for the version of Michael Scott we had seen the first four seasons, but their original relationship was believable in its brevity. It was conceivable that Holly could have an attraction to Michael and even date him for a while, but the indecent Michael Scott of the first four seasons would have eventually revolted her. The challenge of the seventh season was creating a kinder, gentler, more selfless Michael, a version the audience could believe could land someone like Holly and root on to do just that. Though this was executed efficiently, casting Michael as a father figure for new receptionist Erin while minimizing his bigotry, Holly leaving her perfectly normal, well-adjusted boyfriend A.J. for Michael was ultimately too farfetched to accept as anything more than a plot device.

As the show began to crumble, it seemed Pam and Jim had little left to offer comedically or romantically, their supply of cinematic ammunition exhausted. But a closer look reveals the writers were actually villainizing the couple. Take the insipid “Koi Pond” episode from Season Six, when it’s revealed Jim deliberately let Michael fall into a local koi pond when he could have caught him. Or “Michael’s Last Dundies” in Season Seven when Jim is bored by Erin’s confession that she finds Gabe repulsive. Or “Training Day”’s obnoxious flaunting of the couple’s baby daughter to new boss D’Angelo Vickers. Perhaps it remains to be seen why Pam and Jim are being cast in a newly malevolent light, but no one will be left to care when it is explained.

Plotlines degenerated into absurd retroactively-inauthentic gimmicks like Pam’s mother (played by a different actress than the original seen in season two) dating Michael and Pam’s having dated salesman extraordinaire Randy Cordray (which would have been a major plotline in season three but was just assumed to have happened). Later episodes insisted on gathering the officemates together outside of work, often in ridiculous scenarios such as the dreadful “Christening” episode last fall.

Season Seven was actually quite a bit better than the previous one, mainly because a lot of good material was stockpiled for some “event” episodes down the stretch – Michael’s proposal to Holly, his departure, temporary replacement by Will Ferrell, and the star-studded season finale, The Office’s best episode in years. Last night's episode was a classic, worthy of standing alongside the show's greatest moments.

The Office's top ten episodes:

10) "Search Committee" (Season Seven)

When you save your best jokes for two years and hand them to some of the most talented comedians in Hollywood, good things are bound to happen. James Spader’s take as managerial applicant Robert California took the award for best cameo in a competitive category.

9) "Money" (Season Four)

The most epic, plot-heavy episode in series history. Credit card debt forces Michael to work a telemarketing job to supplement his Dunder-Mifflin salary, while Pam and Jim stay overnight at the Schrute Farm. This was as cinematic as The Office ever got.

8) "Conflict Resolution" (Season Two)

Jim recalls many of his greatest pranks on Dwight and Michael turns out to be “sort of an expert at photoshop.”

7) "Booze Cruise" (Season Two)

The series' most heartbreaking episode. Pam and Roy set a date for their wedding, Jim breaks up with Katy, then hits bottom and confides in Michael.

6) "The Return" (Season Three)

Though "The Return" refers to Oscar’s return to the office from his “gaycation”, it’s really a showcase for Helms as Andy Bernard. Pushed over the edge by one of Jim’s pranks and Michael’s dismissal of his friendship, Andy reveals a tortured side for the first time – snapping and punching his fist through a wall. Meanwhile, Karen confronts Jim about his feelings for Pam for the first time, and gets an honest answer. "The Return" also features a classic, ironic quote from Michael in reference to Andy: “I don’t understand how someone can have so little self-awareness.”

5) "Casino Night" (Season Two)

The episode that had the courage to break the tension that had been building in every preceding moment, to violently push the show in a different direction. The show was never the same afterwards, but “Casino Night” gave more weight to every episode aired before it.

4) "Dinner Party" (Season Four)

Arguably the most hysterical episode in the show’s history, "Dinner Party" contains its two funniest lines ever, both spoken by Dwight: “So…can we come in?” inquired on the steps of Jan and Michael’s condo immediately following an epic spat; and “Purely carnal, that’s all you need to know” in reference to Dwight's relationship with the 60ish former babysitter brought as his date to the dinner party.

3) "The Injury" (Season Two)

"The Injury" featured Rainn Wilson’s best performance as Dwight, who suffers a concussion while rushing to Michael’s house after the boss steps on his George Foreman grill and burns his foot. Clever one-liners about the injury abound, especially after Michael bandages it in bubble wrap.

2) "The Client" (Season Two)

"The Client", with Tim Meadows in the title role, was the first Office episode in which something actually happened. "The Client" built upon everything that had been established up till that point, then pushed the show in a new, more explosive direction. The Pam and Jim drama reached new heights with a rooftop grilled cheese “first date” before Jim quietly suggested to Pam for the first time that Roy wasn’t the right choice. But what made this episode truly indispensable was how deftly it expanded Michael’s personality and role in the show. Michael’s interactions with the client showed why he has his job as branch manager, how he could have risen to that position, and how he could continue to function in that capacity. Most importantly, "The Client" created a love interest for Michael for the first time, and did so in plausible fashion.

1) "Christmas Party" (Season Two)

"Christmas Party" could be the flat-out funniest episode ever, with Michael buying a video i-Pod as a not-so Secret Santa for Ryan the Temp despite a $20 limit. The brilliant Secret Santa/White Elephant concept hilariously highlighted the quirks and nuances of the whole cast of characters. "Christmas Party" also featured Dwight in elven ears, a drunken Todd Packer, and Jim nearly telling Pam his feelings before chickening out. As it concluded, the episode circled back to the central theme of loneliness. No less than five characters became symptomatic during the episode, using alcohol and the holidays as an impetus to absolve their desperation.


Blogger Bag said...

Great post Moon. Very well written and accurate. I have watched every episode of this show, but have watched seasons 1 - 4 countless times. I can't argue with your top 10 - as they are all great episodes - but I just wanted to throw out some honorable mentions:

The Deposition
For me, this episode has it all and was the only one I was surprised to not see in your top 10. The dialogue during the actual deposition is priceless - with the lawyers taking every comment by Michael literally, and subsequently getting bogged down in figuring out what he meant. The greed and betrayal shown by Jan sort of vilified her further in this episode. Michael gained points for his unrelenting loyalty to Dunder Mifflin and just when you think Michael and Toby might have a moment together, Michael pushes Toby's tray off the lunch table.

I think this episode is one of the funniest in the show's history. Stanley being absolutely terrible at basketball, Dwight actually being legitimate, and Kevin (who didn't play) sinking shot after shot during the 30 second tail end segment of the show. The episode also features a great battle between Roy and Jim - competing for Pam's attention.

The Convict
Prison Mike is Michael's best alter ego. His presentation about his TV-based reality of prison is amazing. Maybe it's just because I love prison shows like Oz, but this episode is in my top 10 for sure.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Bag said...

Also, this is the sort of chemistry that was lost once Jim and Pam tied the knot. <a href=">This clip</a> contains so much genuine love and emotion that if I were dating the actress who plays Pam in real life I'd be jealous of this connection. A classic moment from The Convict.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Bag said...

HTML fail: The clip

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We had a hard time watching the series - know/worked with too many people like the characters and it made us uncomfortable, not amused. Your post almost makes us try again...almost. UJ and AJ

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christmas party is the all-time best. Especially when he marks the asian chick with a pen.


9:50 PM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

L is referring to the excellent "Benihana Christmas" episode of Season 3 which almost cracked this top 10.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous AJ said...

i agree that the first 3 seasons were top notch, best of the best. the 4th season was a step below but still very good imo and then the last 3 seasons were well below that (of course, still good enough to be 1 of the 3 or 4 shows i watch).

my personal favorites also include Office Olympics, The Dundies, Diversity Day, and Health Care. Of course seasons 1-3, almost everything was a hit and super well done.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Ditto on "The Deposition" -- perhaps my two favorite moments of the entire series are (1) when Michael can't help himself from saying "That's what she said" during his depo and then the ensuing hilarity, and (2) Michael saying "line" to nobody in particular when asked a particularly troublesome question about his antics.

That said, I wanted to weigh in with something I am sensing you will disagree with, that I thought the episode where Jim and Pam got married did an awesome job playing out what could have been a totally trite plot and turning it into one of my favorite all-time Office episodes, probably even my favorite. Sure it was cheesy, but I think The Office pulled off "the cheesy wedding episode" as well as anybody ever has that I can recall. I do love when Jim cuts his tie right off.

I'm also surprised you like this year's finalethat much. I found it to be meandering aimlessly, and just generally to substitute plot and good jokes for cameos from a multitude of well-known stars. That said, Spader was awesome no doubt.

1:15 PM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

The wedding episode "Niagara" was easily the best episode from the start of season 5 until the season 7 finale, another example of still being able to crank out a quality show when the stakes are higher.

3:20 PM  
Blogger GreenGal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:51 PM  
Blogger 81Trucolors said...

Extremely well thought out and well written. You should either capitalize on this talent or get out of the house more. :)

11:46 PM  

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