Sunday, October 11, 2009

Weekly Rant: The Office, Season 6


If there’s been a better comedy than The Office on American television over the past five years, I haven’t seen it. Then again, that says as much about me as it does about the show. The Office is the only comedy I even attempt to follow on network TV or cable. 30 Rock? I couldn’t get into it. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Family Guy, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Weeds? I know them only by their advertisements and Emmy Awards hype; I haven’t watched so much as a scene. Not that I’m complaining. The Office hasn’t been immune to unavoidable peaks and valleys, but on the whole it has proved as dependable as my other all-time favorite comedies, Cheers and Seinfeld, albeit over a shorter period. I never miss an episode and I always leave at least mostly fulfilled. Until this season.

Four episodes in – including the two-part Pam & Jim wedding called “Niagara” – The Office’s sixth season hasn’t just been underwhelming, it’s been downright problematic. It’s one thing to come up short of expectations while following the model that created those lofty standards, but it’s another thing to fail while abandoning the very formula that made the show a smash success in the first place. Unless these recent episodes prove to be the exception to the rule, The Office is smack dab in the middle of a mid-life identity crisis, and for the first time I’m skeptical that the show’s talented writing staff can climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. It might still be a bit soon to sound the alarm, but here are two big reasons that fans of The Office should have their fingers hovered over the panic button.

1. Jim as Co-manager
Beyond suggesting that the writers have run out of ideas within the show’s original framework, this seemingly small plot twist upsets almost everything we’ve come to expect from The Office. Until now the show has relied upon two “us vs. them” models for dramatic and comedic tension: the first pits “us” the exasperated workers against “them” the clueless management; the second pits “us” the relatively sane against “them” the workplace crazies. According to both models, Jim has always been our most reliable audience surrogate, rolling his eyes on behalf of “us” at each impropriety committed by “them.” But now that Jim has a management position, he’s less of an “us” and more of a “them,” because his newfound authority allows him to act on the inappropriate behavior that he used to have to suffer quietly.

Within the world The Office has created over five full seasons, this doesn’t work. There’s no joy in watching Jim bungle his management role, because it subverts our principal understanding of Dunder Mifflin, which is that it’s a business so straightforward even an idiot could manage it (as Michael Scott repeatedly proves). If Jim can’t handle the job, it suggests that we can’t. If Jim is as inept as Michael, it suggests that we are. If being the boss is tougher than we think, it means we’ve been wrong all those times we laughed at Michael and wondered why he couldn’t see the obvious. In other words, it takes away the fun of laughing at “them,” because the line between them and us blurs.

In addition, Jim’s leadership position makes some scenes involving Pam difficult to read. In the intro to “Niagara,” for example, Jim stands by his pregnant almost-wife’s side as they request that their coworkers go out of their way to avoid triggering Pam’s nausea with odoriferous foods and fragrances. Does this request come from Jim the supportive partner, or does it come from Jim the boss? The former would make sense and play true to the Jim we know and love, but the latter would make Jim a lot like Michael in one of those moments when he uses his position of authority to issue an all-about-me demand that makes us shake our heads. Scenes like that one reveal that for The Office to work, Jim needs to be the Jim he’s always been – ever sensible, normal and relatable. We must be shaking our heads with him, not at him. Otherwise he’s just another crazy creature in the Dunder Mifflin zoo, and there are plenty of those already.

2) The YouTube Wedding
If you were unfamiliar with the popular YouTube clip of a wedding party dancing down the aisles to Chris Brown’s “Forever,” the booty-shaking escapades at Jim and Pam’s wedding couldn’t have made much sense. Alas, if you had seen the YouTube clip, the climactic moment of “Niagara” was disappointingly familiar. That the talented writers of The Office drew inspiration from viral video isn’t what’s disturbing. The problem is that this creative staff essentially quoted the scene verbatim, and in doing so sent the Dunder Mifflin employees into an alternate universe in which they all work well together and get along. The dance sequence of “Niagara” is a love fest for a group that otherwise spends the majority of its time bickering with one another, not to mention that it’s a successful covert-op for a group that rarely gets the simplest things right. It doesn’t make sense within the established Dunder Mifflin world.

If The Office writers had their heads on straight, the YouTube allusion (and it would have only been an allusion) would have been constructed so that Michael, in his desperate attempt to be the star, pressed play on his own personal stereo just before Pam was ready to walk down the aisle. Painfully alone, Michael would have danced down the aisle to “Forever,” perhaps even recording his dance moves with a video camera in the hopes of being a YouTube sensation himself. Per usual, Michael would fully expect to be embraced for his performance but would instead draw horrified stares. At that point Jim or Pam, whose hearts have always been too big to watch Michael crash and burn, would have rushed to Michael’s side and joined in the dancing, sacrificing their own dignity to save his.

From there, if the writers wished, “Niagara” could have climaxed with an all-in dance exhibition that stayed true to the spirit of the characters. Michael would have been reinforced as criminally na├»ve but well intending, Jim and Pam would have been reinforced as caring and good-natured and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin crew could have done what they always do and followed their lead. That approach would have been both funny and honest. Instead, the wedding dance-off isn’t as entertaining as the YouTube clip it rips off (minus Dwight’s accidental kick to the face, of course), and Jim and Pam are forced to the margins in their big moment, smiling back and forth at one another as the camera struggles to give everyone a closeup.

Thankfully, the cutaways to Jim and Pam’s private nuptials at Niagara Falls save the episode from being an almost complete flop, but it’s hardly an episode to cherish. By my count, The Office has gone for laughs with dance sequences three times now in the past two years. It’s as if the writers are so desperate to find new laughs that they’ve abandoned the formula that’s gotten them here. Righting the ship shouldn’t be a huge problem for The Office, which has bounced back from other not-so-great ideas (Ryan as drug-addicted big-shot) and avoided forcing the typical bullshit relationship drama on Jim and Pam (a functional sitcom couple? what a concept!). But The Office needs to get back to basics and quit trying to reinvent itself.


Addendum: I already had this written when I noticed that friend-of-The Cooler Craig of The Man from Porlock has a kinder view of The Office's sixth season. Check it out.

15 comments:

Craig said...

Ah, a Jason v. Craig brouhaha! My view of the episode and its dance sequence is more than kinder than yours; I flat out fucking loved it.

First of all, reenacting the You Tube video is exactly the kind of thing Michael would do. And it perfectly conveyed his feelings for Jim and Pam. He feels more deeply for them than, say, Phyllis, whose wedding he ruined unabashedly. He has a man-crush on Jim and loves Pam for her loyalty during the "Michael Scott Paper Company" story arc, so while "Niagara" amusingly shows the myriad of ways in which Michael tries to make their wedding all about him (such as, hilariously, tying unemptied cans to the back of his own car), he also clearly sees it as a gift to them. His self-centeredness is tempered somewhat in that respect.

Second, it's not a verbatim reenactment, but gives each of the characters his or her moment, reflecting all their personalities via their varying interpretations of the dance. I also don't see dancing together as an example that they're all suddenly getting along. The dance, as in "Cafe Disco" along with over seventy years of movie musicals, is a respite from the daily grind of work and life.

Third, the beauty of the sequence is that Jim so readily anticipates it, and initiates a backup plan so that he and Pam can have their moment too. I do think the writers could have prepared this a little better without giving the game away. An earlier scene at the church suggests that Michael and Jim's older brothers don't know each other, yet they obviously had to have planned it together well in advance. That's a regrettable plot hole, but not a fatal one for me because --

Fourth and finally, it's fucking joyous. "The Office" is typically such a deadpan comedy that I love it when it goes for broke as it does here. It's a celebration of cheesiness, of average people adding a little music and poetry to their lives, and is filled with nothing but affection.

Craig said...

Oh, and the Jim/Pam reaction shots were another example of how well those two communicate without words. Krasinski was probably hired in part for his priceless facial expressions and each one of his reaction shots during the dance is different from the last (shaking his head at Dwight's leg-kick, raising an eyebrow when Erin reveals a glimpse of underwear). An early scene with the pair going over "Do's" and "Don't's" on a whiteboard shows them trying to control everything that happens in advance (one foreshadowing "Do" on the list is "Dance...when appropriate"), but by the end they've accepted that a wedding needn't be perfect. Torn veils and chopped ties are fine as long as they're together.

We chose the same picture for our posts. Weird.

Jason Bellamy said...

First of all, reenacting the You Tube video is exactly the kind of thing Michael would do.

Right. Which is what I suggest should have happened, but in Michael's typical botched hijacking way. Instead everyone is in on it and it all goes perfectly, with the music pumping through the regular speakers and not some cheap boom-box like Michael would use. Are Jim's brothers in on it? Are they the architects of it? We don't know. That's the problem. As far as I know, the brothers designed it outside of Michael's knowledge and Michael made the best of it and jumped in (or did I miss something?).

Yes, it is joyous in the sense that dancing is always joyous. But The Office is rarely joyous. To say that the dance represents each character's personalities (which is true) overlooks that their personalities would have rebelled against the idea in the first place. Again, that's why this should have been Michael's plan on his own all along. THAT would have been perfect.

Still, I'm nervous when a clever comedy is resorting to goofy dancing, a torn scrotum and vomit to find its gags -- and that's just in one episode. There are laughs here, to be sure, but they aren't nearly as sustained or as rich as what the show has built its success on. (The most hilarious bit in "Niagara" is the one involving Dwight's binder of useless Internet research. THAT is classic Office humor.)

I have hope that things will turn around. But, indeed, I'm nervous.

Jason Bellamy said...

Torn veils and chopped ties are fine as long as they're together.

Actually, that's the way they've been all along, which is why that Dos and Don'ts moment doesn't ring true. (And is that coming from Jim the groom or Jim the boss?) Pam never would have cared about a torn veil, and when did she start having panic attacks about her appearance?

The Niagara Falls stuff is vintage office. The rest, not so much.

Craig said...

Instead everyone is in on it and it all goes perfectly,

Dwight kicks the hot bridesmaid in the face and Oscar nearly pushes Kevin over, so I wouldn't say it all goes off without a hitch.

As far as I know, the brothers designed it outside of Michael's knowledge and Michael made the best of it and jumped in (or did I miss something?).

Michael seems to instigate it. He nods to one of the brothers, who tugs his ear at Dwight, who runs over and turns on the ipod. How they planned it is a hole that could have been smoothed over better. On the other hand, it totally makes sense that those two goofballs would join Michael in the scheme. And that makes it easier to see how everyone else would have co-opted into it. (Kelly and Erin wouldn't have been difficult to persuade.)

Yes, it is joyous in the sense that dancing is always joyous. But The Office is rarely joyous.

Oh, come on. Anything with Jim and Pam is filled with joy and this episode had them at the heart of it, while still leaving plenty of room for caustic barbs and general snarkiness. I don't see two minutes of joyful dancing in a forty-two minute episode as a betrayal of tone so much as adding to the palette.

To say that the dance represents each character's personalities (which is true) overlooks that their personalities would have rebelled against the idea in the first place. Again, that's why this should have been Michael's plan on his own all along. THAT would have been perfect.

Before "Cafe Disco," I might have agreed. But that episode, often thought to be a one-off, set the stage for how the group has bonded more over the last year or so. Also, Michael making an ass of himself all by himself...who wants to see that again?

Pam never would have cared about a torn veil, and when did she start having panic attacks about her appearance?

Probably the moment she became five months pregnant.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I had the same thoughts as you did Jason during the wedding scene. It just didn't feel right seeing everyone so compatible. They should have just ended it with the music from the viral video and then faded out on Pam and Jim looking at each other and smiling.

I've felt for awhile that the show has been on the ropes since the end of the 4th season. Ed Helms pretty much saves every show for me as I was getting pretty disinterested in the Jim and Pam stuff...it felt too normal (sitcomy) for this type of show.

Not to sound too snooty, but I guess this is why the Brits do it better...they know when to quit (and how not to shove their product down their audiences throat with unnecessary episodes).

The show just needs to be done with already.

Oh...and you're really missing something with "30 Rock". If you're a fan of zany, fast-talking slapstick comedy from the 30's then you would definitely like it...id not then just continue skipping it.

Great thoughts here...from Craig too, as a few of my close friends feel the way he feels. I just thought that the episodes parts were better than the whole, and then the entire ending was a misfire as all of these people who have spent the past 5 years bickering at each other come together for a laugh that's cribbed from a viral video (one that I haven't even seen)? Booo. Hehe.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Oh, and the stuff with Michael finding his comedic soul mates in Jim's brothers was the steal-the-show moment for me. The whoopee cushion part was just wonderful stuff.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: No, it doesn't go off without a hitch, I guess, but in essence it all goes according to plan, and that's a problem within the world the writers have created. Other than Dwight, since when has the staff been eager to jump into one of Michael's plots? Since when has Michael wanted to share the spotlight? Since when has his impression of something so nearly resembled the thing he's trying to impersonate?

Who wants to see Michael making an ass of himself all by himself? I do! That's the essence of the show. If you had to nutshell the first four seasons wouldn't you call The Office a show about the daily grind of a workplace with a boss who constantly makes an ass of himself? That's The Office.

Anything with Jim and Pam is filled with joy and this episode had them at the heart of it.

See, I don't think that Jim and Pam were at the heart of this episode. Loved the Niagara Falls scenes, but otherwise they're forced to the edges. But, yes, Jim and Pam provide the joy with regularity. We do tune in to see them connect. But every other character is attractive, if you will, because of what's wrong with them not what's right. Again, going back to my original rant, I concede that there's a way to do a group dance scenario. I'm not anti-joy. But it should spring up from the world the writers have created. (Not to mention that there's a second plot hole: Jim and Pam don't run off to the falls unless she rips her veil, so Jim's foresight about "Forever" really has nothing to do with anything when it comes down to it.)

But that episode, often thought to be a one-off, set the stage for how the group has bonded more over the last year or so.

If you say so, buddy. But I'm not drinking that Kool-Aid. Were they bonding in that moment, sure? But I'm not sure I saw a carryover effect.

Probably the moment she became five months pregnant.

In other words, that's a different Pam than we're used to seeing. And, look, change is fine. But my argument is that The Office is losing its grasp of its perfectly defined characters.

Yes, as with Cheers and Seinfeld, I want more of the same. Reinvented, yes. But the framework must stay intact.

Jason Bellamy said...

Kevin: OK, now let me stick up for The Office ...

I guess this is why the Brits do it better...they know when to quit.

I've always thought this argument is unfair. The Ricky Gervais version had, I believe, 14 episodes. That's nothing. So unless Brit loyalists can only find 14 solid episodes of the American version of The Office (and I could easily point to three times that), it stands to reason that this show has been justified in continuing on.

That said, I'm with you that the appeal of this show has gone down a bit. I still think Seasons 2 and 3 are the strongest (I know Craig disagrees). But I thought in Season 5 they got back to basics after a rather awkward Season 4. I still have some hope the writers will turn things around, but right now I can't see how the Jim-as-boss element is a good thing. I hope I'm proven wrong.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, as for 30 Rock: I've probably watched about an hour of that show over time. It's made me chuckle, maybe, but never really laugh. But I realize that by dropping in and out I'm probably missing some subtleties. When I hear fans of the show talking about it, I think, "That sounds like a great show!" But then I watch and it doesn't match up. Oh, well. I'm sure there are other good comedies out there, but The Office has always been enough to fulfill me. Hope it stays that way.

Craig said...

Other than Dwight, since when has the staff been eager to jump into one of Michael's plots?

Um, don't they do it all the time? When has one of them ever dissed one of Michael's meetings, functions or parties? They all go grudgingly, and sometimes one of them will bolt early (usually Stanley), but they always go.

Who wants to see Michael making an ass of himself all by himself? I do! That's the essence of the show. If you had to nutshell the first four seasons wouldn't you call The Office a show about the daily grind of a workplace with a boss who constantly makes an ass of himself? That's The Office.

But "The Office" is also about Michael the salesman, Michael the manipulator. We saw this big time in the "Michael Scott Paper Company" storyline, and we caught a few glimpses of it at the wedding, when he rebounds from his "different sensations" speech (heh) and talks the grandmother into staying. Those are both sides of his character. Personally, I've always found one more convincing than the other; but I see nothing different here than the way he's behaved before.

Still, I'm nervous when a clever comedy is resorting to goofy dancing, a torn scrotum and vomit to find its gags

Well, it was a Very Special Episode.

But I'm not drinking that Kool-Aid.

Get it straight: it's gin.

Craig said...

A lovely review by Rob Humanick.

Jason Bellamy said...

When has one of them ever dissed one of Michael's meetings, functions or parties?

Well, you can't skip a meeting, and that's always been the point. Michael uses his authority status to force the workers to do things they don't want. There's a huge difference between suffering Michael at a meeting and gleefully taking part in an elective dance-off. Just sayin.

But "The Office" is also about Michael the salesman, Michael the manipulator.

That's very true. But you're filling in the gap for the show. You're seeing the YouTube rip-off unfold and figuring out how it must have happened. And even though your theories are totally plausible and supported by previous episodes, I can cite just as many examples from the show's past to suggest that the YouTube rip-off is fraudulent, that it wouldn't and couldn't have happened that way. That's my complaint. The writers could have made the scene airtight. Instead it's anything but. And if Season 6 unravels from here (and it might not), I suspect you'll look back on this episode differently. Or, again, they'll turn things around and I'll have panicked too soon.

Finally...

Rob Humanick's review is beautiful, but if he thinks "Niagara" "delivers beyond all level of expectation," well, I don't even know what to say. That line doesn't really make sense, because it contrasts with his own suggestions that the show has hit a creative wall. Where I really disagree is this: He suggests Season 6 has been more of the same. I'd argue that since one full episode was dedicated to Jim's new position, which entirely changes the dynamics of Dunder Mifflin, it's been anything but.

Anonymous said...

I 100% agree with Jason. I have been a huge fan of the Office since season 1, and am pretty disappointed with season 6 so far. Its painful to watch because you can see that the show's writing is just unraveling. Dwight, who is by far the funniest of the cast, has not made me crack a smile once this season.

Troy Olson said...

Jason

I've just had a chance to catch up on the last few weeks of the show (up through the "Mafia" episode) and I have to somewhat agree with you here. The dynamic with Jim as the co-manager has some funny moments, but it just doesn't work overall. If his character needed hubris, I guess it would be a good story arc, but that just doesn't seem necessary for Jim, as he was never the cocky type. I more get the feeling the writers just wanted to give some of Michael's uncomfortable moments to someone else and were afraid to make Jim uber-competent because it would then show Michael's as being unnecessary (they've done that with EVERY person they've put up against Michael so far).

As for the wedding, I'll agree that while the dance scene may have been "cute" it was strange in how it was presented. In the end, though, it wasn't anything more than a fun moment for the cast to goof off, even if it was kind of out of character. I guess it didn't bother me so much considering where it was placed in the episode (and especially when they had Jim's line about buying the tickets when he saw the video, which may have been sole excuse to include the dance in the episode).

Overall the current episodes still have enough laughs for me to spend 22 minutes on them, even if they aren't classics or anything.

And I also have to disagree with my brother, Kevin, on the fact that British shows necessarily do it better. Yes, it's easier to get 13 (or less) good shows a season than 22, but as far as sitcoms/comedies go, I agree with Jason here -- most classic shows can probably bat .500 out of 22 episodes, making the extra episodes not too horrible. (Now, this all breaks down when we get to dramatic, hour-long shows, where often it IS extremely difficult to get 22 episodes of good TV in a season).

Oh, 30 Rock is worth the time to watch, although it's gotten so in-jokey and laced with callbacks that it's probably hard to start up in the current season. It was funnier in its first two season anyway, so starting there is a good choice. I'd also recommend the current season of Parks and Recreation, which I've found to be the funniest of the Thursday night sitcoms so far this year.