Halloween often brings out the best in Dunder Mifflin (and the “best” usually means the worst in the characters), and this year’s entry, “Costume Contest,” joined that distinguished class of strong Office holiday themed episodes. We’ll say that it wasn’t quite as good as last week’s outing, “The Sting,” but we’re also grading “Costume Contest” on the far end of a true bell curve. The holiday episodes immediately have an advantage, especially Halloween eps with their possibilities for outrageous costumes, so we have to give them something of a reverse benefit of the doubt. But, with that in mind, Halloween 2010 continued a bit of a return to form for The Office.
Really, in what has become something of a hallmark of the season, this was an ensemble effort (other great examples from season six are the staff venturing out for Andy’s play and the sex ed discussion moderated by Andy). The series really began to hit in season two when it moved beyond the UK Office paradigm of “obnoxious boss – good-natured salesman – weirdo salesman – shy receptionist” and began to more successfully integrate the rest of the Dunder Mifflin team (you saw this immediately in the season two premiere “The Dundies“), but this episode, with the clever conceit of a costume contest (for a Scranton coupon book), was truly a showcase for the whole cast. This might have led to a somewhat unfocused episode, as Alan Sepinwall argued, but we think it worked, and we’ll take a fun episode with the whole cast as the A story instead of a weak, grating episode that clearly focuses on a weak, grating Michael Scott.
[sidebar: Sepinwall also suggests that this episode, with so many moving pieces, would have worked better as a one hour entry. And we can’t say that we disagree. However, this reminded us that the series has cut significantly down on the super-sized episodes, after a string of mediocre hour-long editions nearly derailed the show in season 4 (last season featured two hour-long episodes, one for Jim and Pam’s wedding and another for the birth of their child, two seminal events in the show’s history, whereas season 4 offered five hour-long episodes of various importance). We’re all for giving the show room to explore, and with this it’s improvisatory and documentary approach, The Office likely produces as much quality material as any show on television. But, it’s also shown that it does sometimes struggle to fill an hour-long episode when it explicitly writes 44 minutes of material; however, the extended “Producer’s Cuts” that frequently appear on the DVDs and sometimes broadcast on the network often prove to be more successful. End sidebar].
And the emphasis given to the supporting cast neutralized a rabid, scorned Michael Scott, and preventing him from ruining the day, and the episode, like he did in last season’s Christmas episode, “Secret Santa,” in which his Santa Claus/Jesus proved insufferable. But with Michael’s worst tendencies in check, his anger of Darryl going over his head/around his back to Gabe, allowed for some of the best moments so far from Gabe, who appeared freer and more relaxed than ever in his Lady Gaga costume. And it also engendered some terrific work from Craig Robinson, who is quickly emerging from the warehouse as the season’s signature character, and possibly the future manager of Dunder Mifflin Sabre Scranton. The declaration of Darryl’s aspirations within Dunder Mifflin could just be a red herring, but whether or not Darryl does take over for Michael, his evolution is certainly one of the most compelling storylines of season seven (we’re also loving the friendship that has blossomed between Darryl and Andy, especially this week as the roles were reversed and it was Andy doling out advice to Darryl (“Is becoming CEO of this company your a capella group?”)).
“Costume Contest” also contained probably our favorite Jim and Pam story of the season, as they shake down new hire Tim Olyphant Danny. While they were still set up as a team, they were more than just the peanut gallery this time around, and served a role other than taking turns mugging to the camera. We can commiserate with their determination to find out why Danny never called Pam back for another date, even if it was four years ago, and we share Jim’s sentiment of “who doesn’t call a dork like that back?” However, it is worth remembering, that four years ago, with Jim in Stamford, Pam was still in her ugly duckling, pink cardigan, pulled back hair phase (until the fashion show, fashion show, fashion show at lunch!). We even witnessed her on an awkward double date with Kelly (in “The Convention“), so it’s not surprising that a dude like Danny wouldn’t have called her back. But it’s nice to see that they’re dialing Pam down, striking that balance between old dorky Pam and new cool Pam.
Our one real complaint: While the show answered our prayers and brought back Dave Koechner, his Todd Packer barely played a role, and indeed felt barely acknowledged. He appeared more of a ghost than a nun. But perhaps this was just a prelude to a Packer-Cordray showdown. Maybe that’ll be the centerpiece of a super-sized Christmas special.
And let’s have a little fun; our picks for the top three costumes:
3) Ryan as the Biebs (interesting that BJ Novak got his start on Punk’d, whose revival Bieber is slated to host) :
2) Andy as True Blood‘s Bill Compton (simple, yet effective. But one ask has to ask, did Andy plan his costume in concert with Meredith’s Sookie? What’s going on there?)
1) Samurai Stanley (helped by the brilliant cold opening)
And, just because:
(and thanks to this episode for giving us the opportunity to use “Justin Bieber” and “Lady Gaga” tags. That’ll certainly help traffic)