We very clearly remember the moment that we fell for The Office, the NBC stalwart that closes up shop at Dunder Mifflin tonight after nine mostly great seasons. It was the fall of 2005, when The Office was starting to find its legs after a rocky and uneven six episode first season, and we in our first autumn post-college, back at our parents’, and for the first time since we were four-years-old not attending school. We were at our best friend and future roommate’s house, hanging out, maybe barbecuing, maybe drinking a few beers, maybe watching the first season of Lost on DVD, which dominated much of our time (and thoughts) during that period. We knew about the The Office, another blatant attempt to import a UK hit stateside, but missed its brief run earlier that year, as was the case with the aforementioned Lost, as the only shows we watched religiously during our final year of college (and last few months before true adulthood) were The Simpsons and Survivor. We did, however, recall reading that it was an imperfect translation of the original, and the Steve Carell-led vehicle – who was then best known as the other Steve from The Daily Show – was not likely to resurrect NBC Thursday night Must See TV, let alone make it past Season 2. So with the middling reviews in mind, and the fact that we were unfamiliar with the original Ricky Gervais version, we didn’t go out of our way to watch the show. But that night changed everything.
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This week we’re looking back on the just completed/completing seasons of NBC’s Thursday night comedies. Today we check in the senior member of the team, ‘The Office.’
For quite some time we were religious with our Office recaps, but then two things happened 1) we were working a paid job more than full-time and 2) the show became, well, inessential. We hoped to check-in during Steve Carell’s final season, but analyses was few and far between. But even though we weren’t providing regular reviews, the series was still required viewing. We might not follow-up the next morning with our thoughts, but we were still going out of our way to watch it Thursday night, as much out of habit as desire. But this season, with Carell’s Michael Scott off to Colorado, the show became the least appealing, least critical member of the lineup. Wait til Friday to watch Community? We’d rather not. Skip an episode of Parks and Rec? No way. But go a week without watching the latest The Office? Sure. View an episode of Robert California’s Dunder Mifflin out-of-order? Fine. We just didn’t care that much anymore.
But a funny thing happened at the end of The Office’s eighth season. We were actually invested. We almost felt things, things that just nearly came close to approximating the real emotions that the show’s best seasons elicited. For the first time all year, the series seemed to find its voice.
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.
Finally. FINALLY. This was the kind of episode we’ve been waiting for all season, that we’ve been waiting for since last season, and maybe even before that. We’ve begun to feel like a broken record on this blog, constantly finding more negative than positive with The Office. But, for the first time in a while, we can honestly feel good about the show. Giddy even. And it’s a nice feeling.
We might never know from whom Michael contracted herpes, or if the unsightly sore on his face was in fact the nasty little disease (although, we can probably trust Meredith’s expert diagnosis). But what we can surmise is that the unflattering blemish is perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to Michael, because it has put him on a path towards genuine self-reflection and, we can only hope, reconciliation with true love Holly Flax. Who ever heard of an STD bringing two people closer together?
[note: not sure if that title will have anything to do with our reaction to last night’s Office. We just liked it.]
Week 3 of the Michael Scott death march brought us “Andy’s Play,” which slots below last week’s Michael Scott – Toby Flenderson tete-a-tete “Counseling” but above the season premiere “Nepotism.” It exhibited many of the symptoms that have plagued the show in recent seasons, but also demonstrated some encouraging signs, some beats that harken back to the show’s roots. Uneven, sure, but with a strong finish. And as some porn star was probably once told, it’s better to finish strong than start strong.
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.