Monday, May 19, 2008

"Elephants are not purple. This is wrong.": Finalerama!

Happy season finale season! Thoughts on the last few episodes of whatever I happen to think of after the jump.

I liked Casino Night well enough, and I thought The Job was pretty good, but Goodbye, Toby is probably the best season finale The Office has done yet, its only misstep an annoying contrivance in the Jim and Pam storyline (just a few weeks ago, Pam seemed ambivalent about a proposal, and now she's worried she's not getting engaged fast enough? I call forced cliffhanger!). It caps a post-strike run that totally redeemed the often frustrating fourth season, from that brilliant dinner party episode onward (though, OK, the last episode before the strike, where Michael had to give a deposition in Jan's case was pretty great too). A friend takes issue with the series becoming less and less of a comedy, but I disagree. The main reason I disagree is because I'm still laughing, but that's the shallowest reason to disagree ever. I do think that the sadness and desperation that's crept into the show in this past season is certainly NOT something that came out of nowhere, and while the series, yes, used to have its small victories, it feels more real to me that after all of these years of failed dreams, the characters would feel more and more trapped. Because desperation is the engine that drives so much of The Office's comedy (the other one being longing, which works well in tandem), this means the show is funnier to those of us who've always been on board with the core conceits of the show and harder to take for those who are just along for the warm and whimsical character moments that crowd the edges of the show. Put another way, The Office is the bleakest mainstream American sitcom to find mass success in ages, perhaps since Taxi.

Now, the bleakness can get to be too much when the show either forces Michael to be stupider than he is (like when he drove into that lake early in the season) or when the show forces drama (as it did in the Jim and Pam plot in the finale), but I don't think the show has reached the point of misery porn just yet. The show's writers have heaped plenty on Michael over the show's run, but there's always a sense that, karmically, he sort of deserves some of it, if not ALL of it. His connection with the Amy Ryan character (so great is my love for Ryan that I do not care to remember character names) is real, but he's also going to "sort of" be a dad. This has been read as the writers roping Michael back into Jan's twisted web (after all, who's a regular and who's not), but I see it as the latest small step Michael takes toward decency. Libby and I were arguing about whether or not David Brent or Michael Scott was the more believable character, and while Brent was probably more fully realized from the first (he was never as blithely unaware as Michael was), Michael is a character who's seemed capable of change. If the British Office was about a whole host of characters forced to confront something akin to a force of nature and try to take away a tiny piece of happiness from it, the AMERICAN Office is shaping up to be about how that force of nature is slowly altered by everything around it. It's a distinctly American spin on the idea, and the cynic in me insists it's not plausible. But, if it turns up episodes as good as Goodbye, Toby, I'm fine with that.

While we're sort of on the subject of karma, My Name Is Earl was on notice with us and about to be dropped from the rotation until it came up with a finale that wasn't terrific but also wasn't terrible. I still don't like the blatantly misogynistic ways that they dealt with the Alyssa Milano character, but it feels like the writers have rediscovered the voices of Earl and Randy, and as long as the show is getting those two right, it'll be good for a chuckle or two.

How I Met Your Mother's last few episodes weren't as good as some of the heights the show hit right after it came back from the strike (breaking up Barney and Ted allowed both characters to hit some different notes, but it also presented a real problem structurally, as the gang had basically nothing to react to), but I quite liked the finale, which didn't make me laugh a lot, but did a very good job at reminding us of the surrogate family at the center of the episode and all of the ways they cared about each other. The slow-motion race of everyone to Ted's bedside in the hospital grew maudlin after a while, but the mix of the characters and the song "Nice Dream" was a good one at first, and it was genuinely moving to see, say, Marshall run to the hospital with his guitar from his video game still around his neck. And if the miracles device never quite took off, it still allowed for some pretty funny flashbacks (especially that pencil one) and let the show cram in some exposition in a not-too-painful way. Obviously, since Ted has now proposed to Stella, she cannot be the mother, but I liked that Barney clearly cares for Robin. That seems like a good way to go in season four -- Ted coping with an engagement he wasn't prepared for (unless Stella says no) and Barney trying to cope with real feelings of romance for once. Here's hoping for a more-even season four, though I'll take an uneven one if it hits heights as high as "How I Met Everyone Else" and the March Madness episode.

And, hey, what the hey is up with Bones? I've really been enjoying the show this season, not really caring that they don't bother with plots that make sense, since it's more fun just to see Bones wander around and be thrust into situations that make no sense to her. But that season finale was just trying way too hard. From the bizarre fake funeral scene to ZACK BEING THE KILLER (or, rather, Gormogon's assistant), the episode just seemed intent on introducing big twists for the sake of introducing big twists. I wasn't a huge devotee to the Zack character, but this just seems mean, especially as there was very little build to this reveal. This is just another example of how big season finales are seriously throwing off the balance of television, which is something I keep planning to write about. One of these days. (While we're at it, the Fat Pam character was pretty stupid too. Bones, I guess, angers me because I like it so much, but then find something irreparably stupid in every episode.)

Meanwhile, over on House, they know how to write out a semi-regular. The first part of the season finale was kind of stupid, with its over-obvious clues and anvils to the heads of the audience, but the second part was a pretty aces episode, the sort of thing you might see on ER back in the '90s, when the whole team would band together to SAVE ONE OF THEIR OWN and fail. The episode literally trotted out every '90s drama death cliche (right down to the person who is on the verge of death but can have cogent conversations with all of the regulars and the weird mass-transit system of the afterlife AND the note left for the beloved that contains a portent of doom). And guess what? Because these cliches were retired for so long, it WORKED. The whole episode was a pretty terrific goodbye to Amber, played memorably by Anne Dudek, who deserves her own series at this point.

But, anyway, I'm going to go listen to the new Hold Steady song a few times and head for bed. I'm trying to clean out my DVR before moving, so I'm up for talking about anything. What are you guys interested in?

1 comment:

Andy Asensio said...

As a big proponent of misery, porn, and misery porn, I tend to think that The Office often works better as a drama than it does a comedy these days. That's why I'll gladly trade off Toby as a character for Paul Lieberstein committing to working full-time as a writer and showrunner next year. Lieberstein's pretty easily my favorite writer in the crew, as he seems to inherently know the pathos of these characters better than anyone. If Lieberstein being promoted to co-showrunner is an indication of the tone the show will take in S5, I'll gladly take it. As you write, Todd, some people will no doubt be put off by a sadder, darker version of the show, but I'd guess that any of us familiar with the British Office are more likely to prefer a show that dovetails more closely with that show's tone.