We had to wait through those four uneven hour-long episodes, and then through a bunch of good but not great half-hours, and then through the longest strike hiatus of any show on any network, and then through last week's unfortunately-timed masterpiece of claustrophobia, but we finally, seven months and 10 episodes into season four, got a classic "Office" episode out of these guys.
I would actually argue that "Dinner Party" was classic "Office" too, but it was a different type of classic, and, as I said last week, not the type I hoped to get first after the long hiatus. It had to air first to set up the events of "Chairmodel," but the latter was a far more ideal post-strike return, because it had everything you expect from "The Office" at its best.
We got Michael behaving inappropriately, but not in such an extreme way that we didn't believe him, or didn't believe that other people would put up with him. We got Kevin and Andy's quest to reclaim the parking spots, and Pam and Creed's efforts to trade up with their office chairs, the sort of God is in the details comedy this show can do so well. And we got a Jim and Pam subplot in miniature that I'm sure had every PB&J lover out there swooning, if my wife's reaction to the engagement ring was any indication. It used every single character well except Meredith, who always seems to end up on the cutting room floor, and Ryan, who was absent because his alter ego was busy writing this sucker.
Of the show's three regular actor-writers, Mindy Kaling tends to write the most explosively funny material, while Paul Lieberstein has the best grasp of the melancholy of these characters' lives. With this wonderful script, B.J. Novak split the difference.
Michael's quest for love (or just sex) was played for a lot of laughs -- his interrogation of Phyllis about softball players and rowboats was hysterical in its deadpan intensity -- but also just enough pathos that you understood why Pam would be willing to subject her landlady to a blind date with the guy, and why Michael and Dwight's trip to the cemetery was only 98% ridiculous instead of 100. We know that Michael's greatest dream in life is to have lots of kids -- if only for some guaranteed companionship -- and that wasn't going to happen with Jan. (Nor will it happen unless Michael's willing to get his fourth surgical procedure in a row in that area.) So when he talks to the entire staff about wanting to find the mother of his children, it's with enough sincerity and self-awareness that it makes sense that nobody overrules him (not even Toby), even though they all hate his guts.
Meanwhile, Kevin's quest for a closer parking spot to lower his sweat levels started out silly but completely relatable, ala the Finer Things Club, or the never-ending battle for thermostat supremacy, or the wagering, and then took a beautiful turn at the end with Kevin's final talking head. What had been a running gag for years -- Kevin has an often-mentioned, never-seen (unless she attended Phyllis' wedding and I forgot) fiancee -- led to this beautiful, true emotional moment here. Yes, it's funny that Kevin's life is so mundane that he could get that worked up about the biographies of the Five Families, or about reclaiming his parking space, but it's also sad. Those laughter-into-tears moments usually go to Carell, or Jenna Fischer, or Rainn Wilson, but Brian Baumgartner milked his spotlight for all it was worth. I genuinely felt sorry and yet happy for Kevin as he talked about how badly he needed this teeny, tiny victory.
Some other thoughts on "Chairmodel":
- Why exactly does Creed need two chairs? More importantly, why does he need three? (His "only one to go" line implied that he's waiting for another one in addition to Pam's.) Do we really want to know what he intends to do with them?
- In addition to the aforementioned rowboat/softball moment of hilarity, I loved Phyllis' delivery of "Call us when you get there so we know you're okay" after Andy realized he'd left his cell phone in his car.
- "What part of 'suren't' don't you understand, Kevin?"
- Now that we've met all the heads of the Five Families, whom would you most want to work for? Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration, seems like the nicest guy, but would he be as cool as Paul Faust the motorcycle guy, or as badass as W.B. Jones? Tough, tough call.
- I can't speak to every single thing that happened in the coffee shop sequence, simply because there are moments, both on this show and on the Gervais/Merchant original, where my brain will turn itself off to protect me from experiencing whatever mortifying thing the hero is saying or doing. I emerged from my trance in time to catch Michael inadvertently dialing Jan, which was a nice nod to his problems with technology.
- Have the writers and Jim now set the bar too high for the eventual proposal? And can we all agree by now that a happy and functional Jim and Pam coupling hasn't been the death of this show?
- Andy's "Joe Sixpack" monologue suggested that he's studying well at the knee of Michael. The line about "my kid's orphanage bills" is exactly like the kind of thing Michael would say.
- I've been ambivalent about past closing sequences where Michael shows of his musical chops, like the Diwali song or the singalong on the beach day. They're often funny but also feel like the actors stepping out of character. I felt the improvised version of "American Pie" in salute to the late Chairmodel worked, both as something goofy and as something I believed Michael and Dwight were capable of doing, particularly after the cut to darkness and the shift back to a mangled version of the real lyrics.