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?"