Sunday, November 18, 2007

"You never expect to get screwed by your girlfriend.": The Office

Now THAT'S what I'm talking about Office. I knew you still had it in you. I could see flashes of it throughout the early going in this season, and I knew that you had another bleaker than bleak gem that still somehow managed to find the hope to go on in you. And here it was! And now you're going away for the foreseeable future. That's pretty lame, Office, but it's necessary, I suppose, and I won't blame you. I'll blame the AMPTP.

You'll notice our Office blogging has been sporadic this season. Part of that has been that it hasn't been clear who was doing what, which I apologize for, but part of it is just that the show's weaknesses and strengths are so remarkably similar from week to week that it's almost not worth writing about the show and endlessly reiterating what was going wrong with episode after episode and having it always be a slight variation on the same thing. There were only so many ways to say that an episode started out promisingly enough and then went too far. The problem extended beyond the rather simplistic "Oh, wow, the hourlong episodes are too much!" complaints you heard all over -- it was like the show had completely forgotten how to write Michael outside of a few telling moments (his conversation with Jan in the train yard; his second job). Without a strong sense of who Michael is, the show flails about in search of a purpose. The rest of the characters were pretty much spot-on, but Michael is the lead character. Without him there to stand against the other characters, we have less of a sense of who THEY are too. Even an episode with as wonderful of revelations as Survivor Man, where Jim realized he could very easily turn into Michael, had that perfect moment tempered by just how stupid the "Michael in the woods" plot was.

But this week fixed all of that by plunging Michael into what may be the bleakest storyline the show has ever done, as a deposition forces him to choose between the company he's given his life to and the woman he's slowly fallen in love with. By the end of the day, he'll have embarrassed himself (in excruciatingly funny ways) and been betrayed by both. Michael's desire here to just be liked is put to the test as he's forced to navigate the tricky waters of telling the truth and keeping Jan happy. It's the sort of situation he doesn't do well at, simply because his failure means that Jan will probably lose millions of dollars that could allow the two to retire forever. In the end, Michael's loyalty to the company wins out, and while he depresses Jan in that moment, the two are too committed to each other at this point to try something else ("Fast food it is"). They're stuck in a life of having to walk around each other and how their boss/employee relationship has come between them in every dealing they've had, even since Jan was fired.

It's interesting that Michael chose Dunder-Mifflin. Obviously, he would have to just so the show could keep going, but the writers were able to believably betray it as a situation where he felt less betrayed by his company than by his woman. In his own passive-aggressive way, Michael was getting back at Jan in the only way he knew how. I don't know whether this moment will show the later fissures in their relationship or not, but I think that it was an attempt at showing just how strong the relationship actually is, to tell the truth. That little moment where Michael angrily confronts her about stealing his diary and she confronts him back about his sending of a naked photo of her to the whole company (BEAUTIFUL callback, Office; brilliantly done) was a perfect example of a couple coming up to the edge of a breakup and then stepping back when they realize just how difficult that would be -- emotionally, psychologically, physically, economically.

It made the storyline even better that Toby went along to NYC. Toby makes a perfect foil to Michael for reasons that seem obscure at first but eventually fall into perfect place -- of COURSE Michael sees him as a stand-in for all the bullies that stood in the way of his young self doing what he wanted when he wanted. The scene where Michael was forced to sit with Toby (he literally could not trust anyone else at that point) and he found himself listening to Toby's heartbreaking story of being a child of divorce felt like one of those moments when The Office earns a reconciliation (no matter how short) between two characters. Instead, his anger was too fresh, and Michael pushed Toby's tray off the table (Toby got his revenge later when he heard the diary mentions of Ryan).

The episode wasn't the greatest of all time, and the B-story was a LITTLE inconsequential (though the ping-pong thing is in keeping with the best stories this season, which have tended to be about the people in The Office taking small steps to make their days a little brighter), but The Office is getting back to its basics by doing what made the second season and the first half of the third season so great -- workplace-based stories that carry an essential element of character and human truth. Good stuff that leaves me hopeful for the future -- whenever it comes.


Anonymous said...

It's about damn time. Both for a posting and for the show to get good again. They've been pulling some far-fetched crap this year. CRAP - I tell you. CRAP.

Toby's snicker during the reading of Michael's diary was priceless.

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