Friday, September 28, 2007

The Office: Crash into you

Couple of housekeeping points. First, if you want to hear my "All Things Considered" interview, you can follow this link. Second, I'm not going to do a separate post for the "My Name Is Earl" premiere, but if you want to talk about it, you can comment in the post about my "Earl"/"House"/"Unit" column.

Spoilers for "The Office" season premiere coming up just as soon as I study some recent footage...

A long time ago (in TV years), there was "Seinfeld," and within "Seinfeld" there was "The Boyfriend," an hourlong episode so consistently brilliant that it cemented the show's status as TV's next great comedy. Now there's "The Office," and not so long ago there was "Casino Night," an hourlong episode so consistently brilliant that yada yada yada...

Unfortunately, the obvious brilliance of "The Boyfriend," coupled with the fact that each "Seinfeld" episode featured far more material than could be squeezed into 22-24 minutes, led Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David and NBC to produce many more hourlong shows, none of which were remotely as good as the original. They had their moments (the Judge Reinhold "Schindler's List" parody is a favorite of mine), but they usually felt padded and awkward.

Meanwhile (and skip to the next paragraph if you see where I'm so obviously going with this), the obvious brilliance of "Casino Night," coupled with all that excess footage of the supporting cast that kept getting left on the cutting room floor led Greg Daniels and NBC to produce many more hourlong shows, yada yada yada...

Now we're starting off season four with a bunch of one-hour episodes in a row, and based on "Fun Run," I still feel like "Casino Night" should be considered the exception, not the rule.

There was some absolutely brilliant material in there, sure. I whooped for a very long time after Michael hit Meredith with the car (which worked both because Meredith is absolutely the one that would happen to, and because they shot it from Michael's POV, as opposed to all those hit-by-a-bus gags that are so popular elsewhere). Kevin's righteous indignation about Pam and Jim's subterfuge was hilarious, as was the notion of the camera crew just confronting PB&J (which I think is a much better 'shipper nickname than Jam) with the footage. (Daniels said he wanted to remind viewers that the Talking Heads were part of a documentary format; that was the most obvious of several reminders). I also loved Pam's reaction to getting a look at Michael's "dangling participle," as well as little throwaway moments like Kelly's ongoing confusion about her religion, Andy comforting Angela while his nipple tape protruded, Creed's Talking Head about the pros and cons of being a cult leader vs. cult follower, among others.

But I don't feel like the episode hung well together at all. Some of that can be blamed on the length, and some can't.

While the pre-destined coupling of PB&J is one of the biggest developments in the show's history (more below on how the writers are handling it), Michael's 17 Stages of Grief reaction to hitting Meredith with the car and Dwight killing Angela's cat are not stories that held up well stretched to an hour. They were too slight, focused too much on the series' broadest main characters at their cartooniest, and featured very little behavior that's recognizably human in any way. What was that second half-hour even about? Usually, when Michael has one of these spaz outs and Pam talks him down, you can understand the impulse behind it -- say, throwing the bird funeral because of his fear of dying alone and unloved -- but this was just Michael acting foolish for no real reason other than the runtime.

Michael's initial attempts to weasel out of any blame for the car accident were fine, but once he started talking seriously about curses, then setting up that meaningless charity fun run, we went off the rails in a hurry. It reminded me of Michael's apology video from the episode with the pornographic watermark -- silly and missing the point even by Michael standards -- only stretching over two-thirds of an hour. Dwight trying to figure out why Michael tried to murder Meredith and later offering to pull the plug on her were also pushing the outer edge of the disturbing Dwight envelope. (Dwight killing Angela's cat was more within acceptable limits, but would have been much funnier if it was condensed.)

And yet I'm very pleased by the approach to PB&J. As I've said before, resolving the Unresolved Sexual Tension doesn't have to be the death of a show. (More often than not, in fact, UST shows are ruined by trying to postpone the inevitable for too long.) "NewsRadio" put Dave and Lisa together in episode two and had far more fun with them as a couple -- first in secret, then as a topic of constant office mockery -- than if they had just flirted off and on for years. We had now reached the point where the 'shippers were going to riot if they didn't hook up, and this episode showed that they can be a couple, be funny, and not dominate the show. Good. More of that, please.

A few other notes:
  • Now we know why Daniels didn't want to say how many episodes Rashida Jones would be in. Does a two-second flashback scene -- shot through the window to the break room, and obviously done last season when Jim was still Big Haircut -- even count as an episode appearance? She had more screen time in that summer vacation YouTube video (which now seems like a brilliant fakeout, as it implied she'd be around for a while to make things uncomfortable). Goodbye, Karen Filippelli. I'll miss you and your, um, exotic looks. (Was her father a GI?)
  • Focus on continuity: not only was Meredith's bat attack a key plot point, but the "rabies nurse" who picked up the giant check was the stripper from Bob Vance's bachelor party. At least, I think so; as you may recall, I was too afraid to actually look at my television during that Michael lapdance scene.
  • Jan the psychotic clingy girlfriend has potential to be at least as funny as Jan the frustrated boss.
  • While I didn't like the curse angle overall, I think I'm going to have to start referring to myself as 'stitious instead of superstitious from now on.
  • Dwight wanting to pull the plug was stupid, but that scene had some good moments, including the intern trying to tell a joke on-camera and the revelation that Meredith has also been bitten by a racoon and a rat. ("Separate incidents.")
  • I'm still laughing this morning at Jim's shirtless Talking Head: "Oh, I'm sorry. Is this a working office and not a French beach?"
What did everybody else think?

32 comments:

Abbie said...

The show actually broke down into two half-hour segments cleanly, clearly meant to be two half-hour shows rather than one large show. The first dealt with Michael hitting Meredith and then coming to terms with that (the climax being that he reasoned that he saved her life with the rabies thing) and then ending with the shot of Jim getting in Pam's car.
The second half hour was all about the 5K run, and while it clearly was dependent on the first show for a lot of the plot, it was a completely separate show. I think if you see them as two separate shows just plonked back-to-back, you might have enjoyed them more.

I say "yes!" also to the Jim/Pam stuff. Newsradio dealt with the Dave/Lisa so well, but I would throw a fit if Jim and Pam broke up or something stupid, just for plot contrivance. The Office could use Friday Night Lights as a better example of how to make a couple likable and watchable without constant drama.

Jesse said...

Definitely not up to expectations. I had been watching the 3rd season DVDs up until last week, so maybe I was hoping for some of that wackiness to kick the season off. The biggest problem was that it was way too dark, especially Dwight killing Sprinkles in a fairly horrific manner, even if he thought he was euthanizing her. Michael just seemed too pathetic and confusing, and the "dangling participle" scene seemed so out of place, except as a lame setup for jokes that fell flat. The hour-long format may have contributed to the weirdness, although they've pulled it off quite well before. The way they edited it, though, it could very easily have been two 1/2 hr episodes, because the scene with PB&J came at just about the 9:25 remark, IIRC.

It wasn't all bad though. I definitely dug the PB&J "reveal" (although it was obvious it was coming) and the nod towards the documentary. Pam and Jim just seemed too happy to not be with each other, and they played it just cute enough not to get on my nerves. Pam's boldness definitely won me over, and I hope they don't make her revert back to mousy and meek. It doesn't hurt that Jenna Fischer made the visual transformation quite well. Hummina!

As my co-worker put it, let's hope they can only go up from here.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I recognized the obvious split with the Jim/Pam kiss, but I can't agree that the 5K half was a separate show, as all three storylines -- Michael running the 5K, Jim and Pam's relationship, Angela blaming Dwight for Sprinkles' death -- were continued directly from the first half.

Whether you want to consider it a two-parter or an hourlong episode is a matter of semantics, but this was one long, flat story.

Mac said...

I liked it a lot, and I'd just finished off the Season 3 DVDs. A matter of taste, I guess.

I think the two half hours split pretty cleanly, even if the plots all continued. If nothing else, there was no planning for the Fun Run, even by Michael standards. Episodes generally take place over one or two days (seemingly) and several days apparently passed at the half hour mark.

TL said...

Well, of course the half hours split cleanly; they have to think ahead to syndication. Overall, I thought it was good even if it didn't fire on all cylinders. I've come to accept that not every episode can be wall-to-wall home run jokes.

Andrew said...

Something about the pacing as an hour-long episode just didn't work-- it felt like two half-hours put together, but the second half-hour also doesn't quite stand alone.

Loved Creed on being a cult leader and Ryan calling the office while everyone was out on the run.

Tom C. said...

There were a lot of things that made me laugh (Dwight's comment about how cats don't produce "milk meat or wool"), but I just didn't buy that Michael would seriously believe the office was cursed, or that he had rabies. It seemed too gullible, even for him.

Anonymous said...

Is "'shippers" your term, or is that something already in use to describe that subset of the viewership? If so, is that a term those folks use to describe themselveS?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Believe me, I did not invent the concept of 'shippers and 'shipping. You can peruse Michael Scott's favorite website for a brief history of the concept.

Jon Delfin said...

Come the halfway point, I had an impulse to turn off the TV and watch the rest today. Regretfully, I stayed up and finished. I wonder if the second half mightn't have seemed better had it not been viewed so close to the superior first half.

The pause-the-DVR-and-phone-my-viewing-buddy line: "What is, We're fine?"

TuckPendleton said...

The check made out to "Science" got my biggest laugh of the night...

Anonymous said...

Another continuity point from the episode: the IT guy that Michael thought was a terrorist from Season 2's "Email Surveillance" makes a reappearance.

Anonymous said...

Aw I loved it. I loved the whole hour. Didn't disappoint me in the least. Parts dragged on but it didn't bother me, I was just too happy to see the Dunder Mifflin crew again. I will miss Karen though.

Steve Pick said...

Was it just me, or did Dwight seem just off in this show? I thought it was nice to see him interact with Angela in private, but then they made him do something he knew would hurt her. In the past, he's given up his job to help her. I just don't buy that he would kill the cat, even with the logic of his farm-raised explanation.

Most of the time, his mind seemed in other places, even when trying to figure out why Michael would want to kill Meredith.

Oh, there were thirty minutes of laughs in this episode, but another thirty minutes of what the hell?

Siddhartha said...

Karen may not be off the show completely according to an interview with Mindy Kaling on NYMag.com

Bruce Reid said...

There was a definate dropoff in the second half (episode, whatever), but I was still entertained enough. Part of that is probably because I think Angela Kinsey's the best actor on the show--or at least the bravest, as I can't think of a television performance so fearlessly dedicated to an unlikable character since Bebe Neuwirth's Lilith. I mean, Gandolfini at least had the wish-fulfillment glamor of amorality; Angela's just a self-absorbed prig. It's the very thoroughness of the portrayal--no winks to the audience or campy self-indulgences to show Kinsey's not really that bad--that paradoxically makes me so sympathetic to her.

Plus, Andy's nipples.

Steve Pick: "Was it just me, or did Dwight seem just off in this show....I just don't buy that he would kill the cat, even with the logic of his farm-raised explanation."

I agree the bulk of his actions were too broad to be funny, but I bought the cat euthenasia entirely.

BigTed said...

Michael seems to be undergoing a transformation from a hilariously flawed character to a cartoonish buffoon who says and does things that defy credibility. The same thing happened to Homer a few years into "The Simpsons." And while it opened up new possibilities for his character, at times it prevents the show from being rooted in any kind of recognizable reality. I'd hate to see that happen to "The Office," too.

The other problem with this episode was that a lot of the jokes were what Ken Levine would describe as having been written at 3 in the morning: Funny, sure, but without making a lot of sense for the characters.

On the plus side, there were more fantastic revelations from Creed: In addition to learning that he enjoys being involved with cults, we find out that he's 81 years old. That's the kind of reality-bending I can live with.

Ellelque said...

I love the show, but found this one disconnected, like two shows smashed together instead of the nice smooth hourly ones from the past. The cat killing could have been a show itself.

I was sad they copped-out and got rid of Karen so soon. She should have been around long enough to cause some tension with PB&J and give them a better reason to hide their relationship.

I love that Dwight and Angela have a real reason to fight. Dwight was pretty callous. Also note that Andy was much more sensative to Angela. Will that come back to haunt Dwight. Maybe Andy will give her a kitten. Would make for nice Dwight/Andy tension.

But, I am still happy the summer is over and we have new office episodes.

TuckPendleton said...

Bigted --

My impression of Creed being "81" was that he was lying about his age in order to get into an easier age bracket to win prizes and money...hence his question about what there was to win.

Cat Pick said...

I thought that most everything involving PB&J was great, but the rest of the show was rather blah and unfocused. However, I did love Andy's bleeding nipples, however gross that scene was.

Number Five said...

Yet another continuity moment: Kevin, trying to get out of the 5K run, bringing up Michael's lack of concern for his skin cancer test back in season 2.

I remember reading somewhere (maybe here, perhaps?) that Greg Daniels has said 28 minutes, the length of the supersized episodes, is the ideal length for the show, and I agree. I thought it started slow, but overall was a very good episode, and I'm pretty sure most of the flat moments/weaker jokes would have been cut for a shorter length. My two favorite moments, if I have to pick, were Jan sprawled out on the bed at the beginning, and the tag with Michael and Meredith "sharing" the lollipop. Oh and anything involving Angela, she was incredible.

Hopefully the next three hourlongs will be a bit tighter. I really wish NBC hadn't scheduled them this way. But it's great to have The Office back, in any length.

Larry McGillicuddy said...

First of all, a little nitpick. Casino Night was not an hour long episode. It was a supersized 40 minute episode. The only two hour long episodes they've done were Benihana Christmas and The Job, which are two of my favorites of the series. This wasn't quite up to those standards, but I still enjoyed it.

If anything, I think the show woulsd be better if it was an hour long. Whereas Seinfeld just had 4 main characters, The Office has a multitude of characters that just can't be properly accomodated in 20 minutes of screen time. Looking at the DVD, almost every episode has so much great material left on the cutting room floor. I'd rather see it in the episodes.

Chrissie said...

I agree Dwight seemed way out of character this episode. Not so much that he would euthanize the cat, but the coldness with which he told Angela Sprinkles was dead and walked away from her as she cried. It felt like a knee-jerk move by the writers to add tension between Angela and Dwight to counter the new romance between Jim and Pam.

The "French beach" line was definitely the biggest LOL of the night, but I also loved the deadpan delivery from Phyllis on "You shot Dwight."

dez said...

Oh, there were thirty minutes of laughs in this episode, but another thirty minutes of what the hell?

Agreed. I thought it started off brilliantly, and things went gradually downhill.

The reveal that Dwight euthanized Angela's cat did have me rolling, though.

ShaWn said...

wait til you see the episodes in syndication. it will work better for you guys who feel it's too long.

damn. i'm sick of this being a complaint.

it was obviously two seperate episodes.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised there's been no mention of the lame "Nissan" contest. The name of Angela's dead cat???? C'mon! This show attracts educated & intelligent viewers (although not a ratings gangbuster, this demographic is the most coveted by sponsors), and 5 people will win this car for (basically) submitting viewer data? I'd expect this type of no brainer "contest" on some of the other network shows, but not on "The Office." "A 5K run is not five thousand miles", brilliant!

Kristin said...

The shows that revolve mainly around Michael tend to fall flat for me. Some are winners, but most...? He is way too over the top unbelievable for me to want to have him carry the whole hour. I like it better when he is just a supporting player.

However, I did laugh quite a bit throughout Thursday's show. The part with the cat was hilarious...the ripped up bags of frozen french fries...I did NOT expect that at all! Jim's face whenever Michael referred to his genitals. Creed. Ryan's five-o-clock shadow.

I think they are setting up this season for an Angela/Andy romance, which would be SO funny with Andy & Dwight pretty much hating each other. More to be rivals over.

Also, I'm wondering if there might be some kind of crazy Kelly/Toby thing that might develop.

I think there is a lot of good territory they can cover with Jim/Pam in a relationship. Either from outside forces intruding or them figuring out how to be a couple. I think it would actually work to have them be the only normal couple on there as a comparison for the rest of the weirdos in the office and their failures.

Here's to a few more hour-long episodes!

Anonymous said...

Rashida Jones' father wasn't a GI, he was Quincy Jones

Anonymous said...

"Rashida Jones' father wasn't a GI, he was Quincy Jones"

"Was your father a GI" refers to what Michael said the first time he met Karen. By the way, Pam's reaction to that comment was great.

Jennifer J. said...

Alan: I'm on board: PB&J it is and shall be! :)

Anonymous said...

What about the background shot of Darryl feeding the squirrel? That killed me!

CM said...

The episode had its moments, but I agree -- too long. Michael's musings on various animal-deity combinations made me turn to my husband and say, "This is what happens when the show gets an hour."