September 25th, 2008
There’s something very ironic about the desire to slim things down that pervades this evening’s much-anticipated season premire of NBC’s The Office. The show’s biggest problem in an uneven fourth season was its hour-long episodes, those which felt too bloated and out of control; it was at its best in shorter segments which left no room to breathe between their humour and their awkwardness (“Dinner Party” as the best example). But here we are with another hour long segment, an awkward concept wherein two half hour parts (which will be split for the purpose of syndication) must come together to introduce us to the season ahead.
But, in the vein of “Goodbye, Toby,” this episode feels more an investigation into this office and its character than last season’s opening episodes which felt much more mundane, much more perfunctory. Choosing to, for a change, show us an entire summer at Dunder Mifflin as opposed to dropping us into the fall, it allows The Office to follow up directly on the great elements of last season’s finale: from the wondrous Amy Ryan continuing to impress, to Ryan’s fall from grace, and both Andy and Jim’s ill-advised engagement strategies.
As the episode unfolds, and the ramifications of last season’s finale echo amidst the weight loss storyline, this never feels like an overstuffed episode: it feels like a welcome return to a familiar environment, an episode where characters get to be characters, histories get to be histories, and more importantly almost every joke lands. Not overwhelmed by any one storyline, and ending with a satisfying note on which to jump start our season, “Weight Loss” is everything I wanted in a premiere.
I cannot say enough good things about Amy Ryan: after catching up on The Wire this summer, it is clear that Amy Ryan has this kind of light-hearted nature to her even in more tragic times, but I could never have imagined how game she would be for this kind of comic material. The episode has many highlights, but most surround Ryan’s Holly: from the smaller moments like her awkward lesbian conversation with Oscar, to the big moments we’ve been waiting for since last season’s finale, she was there every step of the way.
There may be no scene funnier in television this year than when we finally get what we knew was coming: the scene where Holly reveals to everyone that she thinks Kevin is mentally challenged. The scene delivers in spades: whether it’s the intensity with which Ryan demands that Angela stop berating Kevin, or her immediate awkwardness thereafter, it was one of those moments where The Office can be funny in this type of shocking way without going into extremely awkward, Michael Scott territory.
In fact, that scene’s almost a disappointment: we see no fall out from the event, and making it one vignette in this series of moments might actually have limited some of its impact. But that is perhaps the strength of the episode: by not letting these moments linger, but allowing them to slowly develop over time, it allows them to organically reach their conclusions while, without going too far off topic, have these brilliant little interstitials that help all of these characters. The weight loss contest, as each branch works to lose as much weight as possible, is the source of some humour but it is smartly weaved in and out of more general developments.
Holly and Michael’s relationship is one of them, and one that offers some of the episode’s sharpest moments. The episode never creates an explosion for the couple, never ends in one of those moments where Holly loses all faith in Michael: instead, what we get is small moments. Most notable, of course, is the genius that is Amy Ryan beatboxing while Michael Scott MCs; it’s one of those scenes where Michael and Holly are (as Jim notes) both big dorks and why their little connection is something that is worth exploring for Michael.
But the episode has those other moments where Michael’s complete lack of social skills are too much for Holly to handle, but even they are not the unequivocal disasters that usually follow Michael wherever he goes. When he takes over her HR presentation in a slightly deflated sumo suit, she is mortified by most of his behaviour but inspired by his efforts to help Kelly learn to eat again (as awkward as that hug became). When he rips up her Counting Crows tickets in an attempt to show his devotion, she is still at least somewhat charmed by his effort to make up for the money she lost in her missed date.
Of course, Michael is still frustrated: even though Holly is jealous when Pregnant Jan shows up briefly to get a foot rub and some free photocopying, Michael is tired of Jim’s friend zone plan. I’m extremely glad that Ryan agreed to do a handful of episodes to start the season: I’d hate to imagine if they were forced to rush this storyline to conclude it too quickly, because there is something that feels really fresh about the entire thing.
Of our quasi-cliffhangers from last season, though, Jim and Pam’s future was probably the most important: with Pam heading off to art school for three months, the separation leaves them both wanting for something. We only really get Jim’s side of the equation, but the scenario offers us some cute moments: Jim forced out of Pam’s room when a resident is angry over soy milk (As an RA myself I totally know where Pam is at), the rather hilariously awry iChat conversation that ends with the charming Virtual Talking Head, and the difficulties of a long-distance relationship.
It’s a brilliant strategy because it gives us a quick time-lapse version of the difficulties of this couple to stay apart so that, without spending half a season slowly seeing Jim’s patience run out, by the end of the episode he’s on one knee in the rain at a rest stop. It’s the kind of storyline that could have been dragged out for much longer, but the speed has its purposes: it keeps these two together, skips over all of that ugly part, and reassured fans who were worried about this fake engagement tearing the couple apart in a contrived fashion that, yes, Jim and Pam are together for good.
And all of this in the same episode with the saga of Andy, Angela and Dwight, one of those great scenarios that plays out (again) in a sort of time lapse fashion. The portrayal of Angela that they chose was perfect: it isn’t that she’s with Dwight in any emotional capacity, but rather that she is using him as an outlet for whenever she gets too scared of the reality of marrying Andy Bernard. And it’s not that she dislikes Andy: all of the work that he does for her does, eventually, earn him a kiss and earn Dwight some sexual frustration time in warehouse.
There are some hilarious lines at Andy’s expense, but in the end we kind of feel bad for the guy: he genuinely wants the wedding he’s been dreaming of since he was a little boy, and so what if he wants his entire acapella band to be his best man and to live with them for three weeks? Ed Helms’ integration into the cast is complete: even as it is clear that Angela has no intentions on marrying the man, he is the one who leads the way in the last minute weight loss challenge, and it’s clear the show has no intentions on using this marriage as a chance to write him away.
And those are only our three main threads: what about Kelly’s cleanse diets? Or Stanley’s fruit birthday? Or Phyllis using her leverage over Angela to become head of the party planning committee? Or Creed selling Kelly a fake tapeworm from Mexico? Or Ryan’s return to The Office as a temp? Or Angela’s answer to “How do you sleep at night?” Or Pam’s college experience? Or Ronnie the “weird” temp secretary? Or Andy’s “Angella-ella-ella” solo? Or ASCII Dwight? Or Phyllis deciding her best feature was her jugs?
There’s just too much to like about this episode: it never stopped being funny, it never overstayed its welcome, and the summer-long format kept the show from spending too much time in certain areas. It is one of the show’s most jam-packed episodes ever, and for the first time we might have an Office premiere that lives up to the finale in terms of providing an epic setup for something much bigger.
I don’t throw the word superlative around a lot, but this episode was just that: a fantastic example of comic television.
- I remain really curious what they’re going to do with Pam’s college experience: seems a waste to bring in Rich Sommer (Mad Men’s Harry Crane) to play her new friend if we were only going to briefly spend time with them. I think that there is some definite potential to explore Pam having new friends and a new life, even with Jim’s shotgun proposal
- On the note of shotguns, “shotgun weddings” are a very, very dangerous threat to our society, Jim – don’t treat them so lightly.
- Michael Scott’s photos to discuss the dangerous of judging people based on their weight: those overweight twins on motorbikes, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (Ghostbusters), Jabba the Hutt, Big Momma, a pig. I think I missed one.
- Meredith was really the only character not to get any sort of storylines this week – I’m curious to see what they do with her in the future, as she’s always seemed the most tangential.
- And how can we not mention the beards? Michael copies Ryan’s beard, and then Dwight copies that beard after Michael shaves so he can be more like Ryan again, who shaved to avoid having the same beard as Michael. It was awesome.
- Also awesome? Ryan in general: in particular, his excuse for being a jerk to Kelly, that “I think I never processed 9/11.” B.J. Ryan knocked his entire arc in this episode out of the park.
- Kevin has a rough episode: Holly calls him mentally challenged, and Dwight compares his character to a mother-murderer. But it’s all funny, all the time.
- Almost forgot Toby’s little epilogue: I missed it when some people were talking, but he’s definitely still in the game. Which is good news – love Toby.