Something Funny Happened on the Way to Five Thursday’s Ago

(This a post I intended to compose a month ago, but then the holidays hit, and then the Thursday night comedies went on winter vacation so there was no real rush to write this.  But with the comedy block returning tonight, save for The Office, this seemed like the right time to finally record these thoughts).

One month ago, on December 10, before the Jaypocalypse, NBC’s Thursday night comedies aired their Christmas themed episodes.  And something funny happened:  The Office, well, wasn’t.  At least it was very clearly the weak link in what was otherwise a very strong night of comedy.  30 Rock continued to be the joke-for-joke best show on television, Parks and Rec extended what has been a breakout second season, and Community turned in what might have been its best episode yet.  And The Office?  By far it’s weakest Christmas episode to date.  Sure, it had a lot of live up to – Christmas Party, Benihana Christmas – but it didn’t even equal last season’s Moroccan Christmas, which itself was rather a disappointment. And against the other comedies that night, it just didn’t measure up.  Something seemed off.

Now, I’m not out on the ledge yet.  But it’s certainly concerning.

It seemed as if The Office focused on making the episode Christmas themed, going all out on the decor, but forget the themes of Christmas, the things made their previous Christmas episodes so effective: heart, emotion, vulnerability.  And even if they remembered those things,  “Secret Santa” still wouldn’t have been exceptionally funny.  Michael Scott was Michael Scott at his worst, belligerent, irascible, unbearable.  When Michael coerced Oscar into a man on man kiss of tolerance in “Gay Witch Hunt,” it was awkward, but somewhat charming and necessary; however, when Michael forces Ryan onto his lap so he can assert his Santa authority it’s just plain uncomfortable, sad, and wrong.  At least Jim does acknowledges this.

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“Secret Santa” exhibited the two worst trends in The Office, the first being a completely contemptible Michael, and the second being resolving conflicts too quickly and easily, in this case the sale of Dunder-Mifflin, which ostensibly save the company and its employees from completely going under, but sealing the fate of upper management like David Wallace.  Like with the Michael Scott Paper Company last year, and Michael’s dalliance with Pam’s mother earlier in the season, the Dunder Mifflin bankruptcy plot was tied up too fast, too neatly.  It felt like this was going to be the arc for the season, and I trusted (and genuinely feared) that there would be some real consequences for at least some of the Scranton employees, whether it be at the top (the co-managers) or the bottom (accountants or salesmen).  But only a few weeks into the bankruptcy panic it now appears to be over.  And this is different from the “Branch Closing” situation, in which the danger was averted in a single episode; in that case it made sense, the threat merely served to bring Jim back and set up the real story, which was the merger and the integration of Andy and (dearly missed) Karen (and, I hate to say, but it almost seems like things were running a little smoother when Jan was in charge.  Well, before she went crazy.  Way to go, Michael).  But the impending insolvency of Dunder Mifflin seemed less like a red herring and more like a centerpiece, especially because it reflects the current economic condition.  It should have had real consequences and created real drama.  And to be honest, experiencing a slight creative crisis in its sixth season, The Office could have used a game changer, something to really shake things up.  Instead, the sky has cleared and everyone’s safe, and I guess they’re clearing the way for Pam’s pregnancy to take center stage in the second half of the season (semi-related thought: it’s interesting that in this scenario it was the executives who paid for their own greediness and myopic vision, but on the network on which The Office airs it’s the higher-ups who manage to escape unscathed while the worker drones play scapegoat).

And perhaps this episode could have been saved if it wasn’t the same old Michael is a jerk but he winds up inadvertently saving the day story.  I did love the line, “This office needed a Santa Claus.  Then they needed a Jesus.  Now they need Michael Scott.”  It was exciting, and encouraging, and sometimes it’s true.  Except in this case, Michael didn’t really do anything to help, he just kind of got lucky.  By going to the staff and telling them that they’re all going to lose their jobs he likely could have done more harm than good.  When they get David Wallace back on the phone and learn that their jobs are secure Michael seems like the hero.  But after the damage he had done at the beginning of the episode, the goodwill he tarnished by tramping around pouting about Phyllis also playing Santa Claus, this wasn’t enough to redeem himself.

And while The Office seemed to have lost its way in “Secret Santa,” forgetting to trust the viewer and instill genuine emotion and compassion during the holiday season, its compatriots all seemed to get that message loud and clear.  On Community they managed to get that spirit across through an on-campus brawl (and a mustachioed Anthony Michael Hall).  From beginning to end, starting with the hyper-politically correct Dean wishing everyone a Merry Happy and bringing out the holiday mascot Mr. Winter, to the closing with Abed wrapping Troy in tinsel, and everything in between (especially Anthony Michael Hall), the show was in top form.  It truly ended its first semester on a high-note.  It was followed by another solid, if unspectacular, Parks and Recreation, in which the gang rallies around Leslie when a corrupt local politician claims they had an affair.  While Leslie takes a leave of absence to sort out the accusations, everyone else (including Anne, even though she still doesn’t work at the Parks Department) pitches in to cover her responsibilities, and they discover just how valuable Leslie is, just how committed she is to the department and the town.  When Leslie returns in time for the Christmas party we learn that they waited for her to turn on the snow machine, and, well, it was really a touching moment, truly in the spirit of Christmas (-themed episodes).

Even on 30 Rock, the most cynical, sarcastic of the four shows, the one that I’ve argued cannot reach The Office-esque resonance because it lacks true emotional depth, came through with probably the sweetest moments of the night, and at least tied Community for most laughs, if not just edging it out.  It featured Kenneth struggling with his faith after the writers convinced him they are Verdukians who celebrate the fictional holiday of Merlinpeen, Pete trying to get the ultimate Christmas present (humiliating Jenna), and Tracy (although underused in the episode) uttering one of my favorite all-time lines (“What the whaaaaaa?”  Okay, it’s all in the delivery).  But the gooey soft center inside the hard 30 Rock shell has and always will be the Liz Lemon-Jack Donaghy relationship.  Struggling to find Jack the perfect no-cost Christmas gift Liz gives him the only thing he really wanted, more time with his visiting high school crush, Nancy Donovan (played by Julianne Moore, who was phenomenal and gorgeous, and joyfully carried out a perfectly exaggerated south Boston accent).  But, not to be outdone, Jack was able to secure Chips‘ Larry Wilcox, Liz’s own high school crush, motorcycle and all.  If the subplots with Kenneth and Jenna were the savory, this was the sweet.  And it might have also been 30 Rock‘s best episode this season, one which most critics thought got off to a rocky start (but not this critic).  Firing on all cylinders, with jokes and the right amount of heart, on that night 30 Rock was superior to its lead-in.

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So what does this all mean for The Office?  Maybe nothing.  It could have just been an off night in the midst of a few off few weeks.  To be fair, the show had delivered 12 new episodes in 13 weeks (taking Thanksgiving off for Home Alone, as is customary), including the hour-long Pam & Jim wedding spectacular.  So perhaps by the time they got to the end of the stretch, the Christmas episode, they had run out of gas.  And while the rest of the shows return from winter break tonight, The Office doesn’t come back until next week.  Maybe that further speaks to some exhaustion (Mindy Kaling lets us know that they’re at least easily distracted) Let’s hope that extra bit of rest helps.  Am I panicking? no?  But am I slightly alarmed?  You better believe it.

Perhaps the producer’s cut of “Secret Santa” completely belies my whole argument.  If I watch and find out, I’ll let you know.

But let’s end this on a more encouraging note, the highlight of the that night, Community‘s Florence and the Machine backed brawl:

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My life is a gym!!!

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1 Comment

Filed under Analysis, Bad Humor, Dunder Mifflin, this is Pam, Good Humor, Must See TV

One response to “Something Funny Happened on the Way to Five Thursday’s Ago

  1. Pingback: Dear ‘The Office:’ You’re Making it Harder and Harder to Keep Defending You « Jumped The Snark

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