‘The Office’: Mindgames & Makeovers

We won’t say that The Office is entirely back on track, but this week was definitely a marked improvement over the season premiere.  While we were at first disappointed to see that they were going to carry over the Michael spanking his nephew storyline – or as Michael refers to it, “corporate punishment” – because we rejected the ridiculous premise, this episode showed that perhaps in this instance there will actually be consequences to Michael’s actions.

(one quibble, however: the dictum that Michael would need to complete counseling with Toby came at the end of last week’s episode, in the final closing segment usually reserved for gags or non-essential content (or, on Community, raps), so the veracity of the punishment was in question.  We’re happy that they followed through with this plotline, but it shouldn’t have been introduced so offhandedly.  But we digress…)

The Michael-Toby dynamic has remained relatively stable over the course of the series, and by returning to and exploring this relationship “Counseling” was a success, allowing Toby to obtain a small victory over Michael by tricking him through children’s games into opening up emotionally, and by permitting Michael to continue his crusade against Toby, but not because he harbors a completely unjustified vendetta, but because, in a way, Toby is his arch-enemy, the Joker to his Batman.  “Counseling” sets them up as worthy competitors, not just petty rivals.  And while we hate to belabor the point that we’ve made on this blog over and over again that defensive, vulnerable Michael = good, and horrible, viscous Michael = bad, this episode certainly follows that pattern and supports that argument.

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But it wasn’t just the Michael story that showed signs of life this week.  Last week’s b-story in which Pam tries to prank Dwight in order to make up for spoiling Jim’s own prank was cute, but fell too much into this rhythm of Pam and Jim as the adorable couple who live and work together and are generally happy all the time, even when their baby keeps them up nights.  Now we’re not suggesting that the show annul their marriage, or give little baby Cecilia a crippling disease, but it shouldn’t be so easy all the time.  Cute plays a lot better when it’s up against the backdrop of serious conflict and emotional drama (see the first three seasons of NBC’s The Office).  Therefore, splitting up the Pam and Jim stories this week, and showing Pam’s frustration with sales, worked to better effect.

It was refreshing to witness Pam struggle with her position; that she so effortlessly became a member of the Dunder Mifflin sales team in the first place felt a little artificial.  And while we’re still a little upset that she abandoned (for now) her art, we really enjoyed her spunk and cunning in this episode, as she invented and then conned the department heads into approving the position of Office Administrator.  We at first became nervous that she was going to realize she wanted her receptionist job back, which would have been a horrible decision, both for the character and for the viewers, but we like this direction.  Especially since the office could certainly use Pam’s immense skills, as it seems Erin can do little else besides answer phones and send faxes, evidenced her belief that one simply throws out disposable cameras when finished with the roll (and while we’re mentioning this, it was a clever joke, but too stupid, even for Erin).  But while we appreciate this storyline, we hope it’s not forgotten by next week.  And we don’t mean Pam’s role as Office Administrator, but her growth and ambition.  After she began dating Jim she quickly shed the shy, cardigan’d, doormat persona that we first met and turned into a confident, determined go-getter.  That momentum has been derailed, so as we lead up to Michael Scott’s eventual departure, we also hope to see Pam continue the evolution that started three seasons ago.

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While Pam confronted and conquered her professional conflict in this episode, Jim’s role was on the lighter side, reuniting with Dwight (and third Musketeer Andy) to turn him into Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman, with intent of getting revenge on a “fancy” store in the Steamtown Mall that refused to tend to Dwight.  This concept enabled Jim to go back to his roots: organizing the majority of the office to focus on something other than work.  That’s the social, charismatic, benevolent Jim that we so missed last season, as he struggled with the co-manager title.  And playing makeover with Dwight, with Mindy Kaling’s Kelly providing her romantic comedy expertise, was just good fun.

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However, the transformation of Dwight reminded us of a troubling trend within the show itself.  While this episode showed Dwight being made over into a glasses-less, monochromatic tie-free aristocrat, The Office has to some degree been making over Dwight and its other characters over the course of its run.  Characters should grow and change and evolve, but it should always serve the story.  However, if you look at the physical appearances of the actors, they look more glamorous and polished now than they did at the start of the series, and not necessarily because the characters have improved their style.  It’s a concerning phenomenon, and we hope it doesn’t point to the actors themselves, the stars of the shows, objecting to the dour, depressing style that defined the early seasons of the show and its UK progenitor.  Behold, a side-by-side comparison:

Like we said, characters change, that’s a given.  Their looks, their hairstyle, their clothes, their personality all change.   We want that.  We don’t want static characters.  That’s lesson #1.  But, at the same time, it would be disappointing if the appearance of these characters is due in part to the actors’ vanity.  Are we seeing Jim Halpert or John Krasinski?  The UK original was known for its gritty look, an anti-network sheen, bordering on depressing.  And the first two seasons of the American version adhered to this (albeit in a less severe form), allowing for somewhat schlubby characters and grubby visuals (as much as network TV allows).  But over time that’s changed, and the show glistens now in a way it didn’t before.  And in some respects the storylines and tone have changed as well, gussied up and simplified.  Now the show doesn’t need to return to its original look, throw out the new wardrobe and ban make-up.  But it needs to remember where it came from.  And where it originally was going.

Which brings us, finally, back to Jim.  While we enjoyed his story in “Counseling” we’re still concerned about his direction.  You look at Jim now, and gone is the shaggy hair and the  ill-fitting brown sport coats, replaced by a slick pompadour and dapper threads.  He’s like Dunder Mifflin’s very own GQ model.  But just as Pam is struggling to find her way, Jim needs reassess his career.  Co-manger didn’t work out.  We know Michael is on his way out at some point, but is that what really suits Jim?  That’s not what we’ve been lead to believe, and not what his physical appearance indicates.  If he’s going to look like a Hollywood star, then he might as well work in a congruent setting.

The last thing we want is The Office: The New Class. But the truth is that some of these characters probably need to move on.  Mindy Kaling recently told NY Magazine that this will probably be her last year (something which has been far overshadowed by Steve Carell’s similar plans), and if that’s the evolution of Kelly Kapoor, fresh off her leadership training, then so be it.  And if it makes sense for the characters of Jim and Pam to find a home elsewhere then we support that too.  As we pointed out last week, The Office has always made a point to honor and respect its characters, allowing them to make decisions like normal human beings.  Let’s hope that in this critical, crossroads season that they don’t lose sight of this ideal.  Because I’d rather have no Office at all than one then one I don’t enjoy or respect.

You can take off its glasses, you can give it a pipe, you can let its hair down, you can give it a pair of suspenders, you can give it a haircut.  Just don’t touch its heart.  Don’t touch its soul.  Wasn’t that the lesson of Pretty Woman after all? (never seen it)


Filed under Analysis, Dunder Mifflin, this is Pam, Good Humor

3 responses to “‘The Office’: Mindgames & Makeovers

  1. Pingback: ‘The Office’: Fleet Week « Jumped The Snark

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