"Stanley! Barack is president! YOU ARE BLACK, STANLEY!" -Michael ScottI spent a long time deliberating on what quote I wanted to lead this review with. There were just too many to choose from -- from both a comic and thematic standpoint -- from this balls to the wall, gut-busting, amazing "Office" episode.
I thought about "Boom, roasted!," which I'm planning to work into everyday conversation now, and which neatly sums up Michael's unwavering belief in his own comic genius. I thought about "Turns out I'm the killer. You never expect to be the killer. Great twist, great twist," since it conveyed a rare moment of Michael self-awareness (sort of) in an episode that turned out to be largely about Michael being confronted with his own shortcomings, at his own request. I thought about quoting Creed's line about recognizing the CPR instructor from the parking lot, as it was the kind of hilarious non-sequitur that these one-hour episodes have room for. I thought about Stanley's monologue about working in his own casket, which seemed to sum up the national mood these days (for those of us lucky enough to still be employed, at least).
But in the end, I had to go with Michael's desperate plea for Stanley to not die, which was so explosively, absurdly funny that it had to come right before the opening credits, if only so the audience could catch its breath. I suppose I could have also chosen Angela's plea for Oscar to save her cat, which led to the incredible sight gag of Bandit going up into the ceiling -- and then immediately crashing back down -- but that one was all in the visuals.
By the way, time for the inevitable rant about NBC putting all of the best jokes into the ads, which featured both Bandit's brief flight and "Barack is president!" Everyone says they were funny in the promos, but I can't imagine them being as hilarious as they were in context, in the midst of that ever-escalating chaos of Dwight's fire drill. That was just a dazzling comic set piece, marvelously set up by writer Paul Lieberstein, fiendishly orchestrated by director Jeff Blitz, and played with the right mix of realism (from Jim and Pam and Phyllis) and over-the-top antics (from Andy and Kevin and, of course, Michael) to make it not only the best "Office" pre-credits sequence ever, but an all-time sitcom classic. I know there's a tendency for instant hagiography or demonization in the blogosphere -- to immediately put things in Comic Book Guy terms as the best or worst thing ever -- but I can easily see these five minutes going into a time capsule with the "Taxi" yellow light discussion, or Lucy doing a TV commercial, or the honkies shooting Jack Donaghy, or any of the other usual suspects. It was so meticulously set up, and so well paid-off, repeatedly (Andy thinking the fire was shooting at them, Kevin looting the vending machine), that I would have applauded it if I wasn't laughing so damn hard.
Lieberstein has said that "We wanted to do a stand-alone comedy episode that could bring people in" who had never seen the show before, and I think he more than accomplished that. Beyond the brilliant opening, the show featured a little bit of everything that makes "The Office" so wonderful, in a way that didn't really require previous knowledge to appreciate, but that also didn't spoonfeed things in a way that would annoy the veteran audience.
After the farce of the fire drill, we got to see Michael at an appropriate level of cluelessness -- Lieberstein, as always, seems to have mastered the right degree of obliviousness -- as he undercut David Wallace and the corporate lawyer, then failed to control the disastrous CPR class, and then conducting that ridiculous stress relief session. ("And none of them have shoes. And they give you a funny cigarette, and you feel even more relaxed.")
But the roast, and Michael's inevitable reaction to it, also showed the human side of Michael -- the unfortunate soul who never advanced past the kid in elementary school with no friends -- which led to the marvelous, simultaneously funny, awkward and heart-warming sequence where he returned to the office and insisted on "roasting" everyone. This could have been another unbearable moment for Michael (and the audience), but Stanley's uncontrollable laughter at "You crush your wife during sex and your heart sucks" -- less at the quality of the joke, I think, then at Stanley's amazement that this was the best Michael could do -- proved contagious, and gave Michael enough confidence to throw in an improvised "and you're gayer than Oscar" to Andy, which fully gets the crowd on his side (someone else even calls out "Boom, roasted!") and allows him to make peace with the staff. I'm sure he'll be back to annoying the hell out of them within two minutes of the next episode, but Michael does have his moments where the employees can stand him, maybe even like him a tiny bit, and those moments make the rest of the series work as well as it does.
In addition to Michael's story, and all the bits of physical comedy (including Dwight turning the CPR dummy's face into a skin mask, which led into the brilliant immediate cut to him and Michael back in David's office for another scolding), "Stress Relief" also provided yet another Jim and Pam moment that managed to be heartwarming without becoming overly saccharine. The bootleg movie they were watching with Andy wasn't really necessary -- except so NBC could have an excuse to promote the episode as featuring guest appearances by Jessica Alba (who was in it for all of 30 seconds) and Jack Black -- and I don't really want to see that much of Cloris Leachman again, but it was useful in that it provided a running gag to underscore the pathos of Pam's fear about her parents. Pam's speech about how the kids she has with Jim will really have soulmates for parents was a lovely moment, but what made it feel like more than blatant heartstring-tugging was Andy's presence in the background, mistaking Pam's confession for more commentary about the movie and again growing frustrated that he isn't that perceptive. (He is, of course, even less perceptive than he thinks, which only makes it funnier.)
Again, outside of maybe the Black/Leachman stuff (and even that had the funny bit with the malfunctioning chair lift), this was a home run. I don't know that it's going to create many new "Office" fans -- it's been a long time since any show got an appreciable, sustained ratings bump out of a post-Super Bowl airing -- but as a relatively standalone hour that showcased the many shadings, colors and comedy styles of "The Office," it was just splendid.
Some other thoughts on "Stress Relief":
• My friend Phil astutely pointed out that Jim's choice of the copy machine as his battering ram was also a clever payoff to "The Surplus," since it will finally give corporate an excuse to buy the Scranton branch a replacement for the hated old machine.
• One of the key things about Michael is the way that he's built much of his personality on how he thinks people are supposed to act from watching so many movies and TV shows, but it's always a surface imitation. He knows that he's supposed to go stand at the window and sigh before chewing out Dwight in David's office, but he has no idea what to say after that, and instead winds up undermining David. He thinks that a lonely person is supposed to make some kind of connection by at least throwing bread to animals in a park, only he goes to an all-concrete park where ducks aren't likely to congregate. (Phil, much closer to Pam than Andy in his breakdown of this episode, says that Michael has a lot in common with Pete Campbell from "Mad Men.")
• Were all of the clips in the Angry Stanley montage recognizable from previous episodes, or were some of them from deleted scenes?
• Looking back at what I've already written, I feel as if I've given short shrift to the CPR scene, so let me add Michael saying to Kevin, "No arms and no legs is basically how you exist now, Kevin. You don't do anything." That entire sequence, and not just Creed's brief moment of clarity, was a nice example of the breathing room that the one-hour episodes can provide. (And, yes, I spent a good chunk of last season bashing the one-hour shows, but I think they've gotten much better at them lately.)
• For that matter, the gag with Stanley's stress monitor beeping like mad whenever Michael came near him -- or, when Oscar strapped on the monitor, near Oscar -- was a very simple and very effective gag.
• Greg Daniels once told me that, as he and the other writers began expanding the roles of the supporting cast, they came to the decision that not everybody in the office hated Michael, and that people like Kevin and Meredith actually sort of liked him. Based on Kevin's giggle fit in response to the news of the roast, and Meredith's blunt soliloquy about why Michael drives her to drink (after, of course, he tried to drive her to rehab), I guess the Michael fanclub has basically dwindled down to Dwight and Andy. (Though Pam and Jim have been warmer towards him since they got together, I guess.)
• Love that Michael thinks he has to call up YouTube to get someone to record the roast. Anyone have a favorite roast snippet? Andy's song was nice, but I'm inclined to go with Daryl's simple request for Michael to name the random warehouse worker. Actually, no -- I go with Dwight's "You pathetic, short little man. You don't have any friends or any family or any land." "You don't have any land" may have to go in my insult lexicon along with "Boom, roasted!"
• Yet another advantage of the one-hour length: they got to use a longer version of the main title sequence that included shots of all the second bananas, plus a few extra action shots like Jim kissing Pam.
What did everybody else think?