The Office – “Surplus”

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“Surplus”

December 4th, 2008

Last season, an episode like “Surplus” would have felt like a godsend at this stage of the season. After getting bogged down in hour-long episodes with no direction, something so driven by office politics and Michael’s inability to make a decision would feel like a breath of fresh air.

Instead, it felt a little bit too slight. While the charm was there, and it was a nice showcase for Jenna Fischer’s Pam in particular, I think I was missing something to set the episode apart. While the central storyline had its charms, the B-Story felt more like a predictable distraction, and I’d rather have eschewed the plot entire in favour of a more complete reaction to the crisis of Copier vs. Chairs.

But, nonetheless, I consider it a good sign for the show: a show that has a problem with excess needs one of these every now and then, an episode that is almost entirely fat-free and plentiful in, if not stuffed with, comedy.

One of the things that The Office can do better than most “sitcoms” is make something very mundane into something that can become very funny. The idea of a simple surplus setting off a highly competitive race for who gets to spend the money is not exactly complicated, nor is it something that would seem out of place on any other workplace comedy. But we have such an affection for these characters that it feels like something more eventful by default.

And this one had the added benefits of being central to Jim and Pam without feeling like an “event” in the span of their relationship. The relationship they had before they had a relationship was not “lovey-dovey” but rather charming – they had their disagreements, they had their games, and in this episode they had their own agendas. Pam’s too-quick return from her time in New York was a forced re-entry, where she chose her quiet life at Dunder Mifflin over a new career path. I was worried that we couldn’t return to a place like this, where something could grip the office and also bring Pam and Jim into the zaniness. I thought it might feel false, but in reality I thought it was a very smooth re-entry.

Pam, really, was the showcase of this episode. This would be a smart Emmy reel for Fischer, considering how often she is in the episode and, more importantly, how much fun she gets to have vamping it up. Her sexy makeover was just perfect, over-the-top enough to seem abnormally present; combined with her shameless actions in regards to Michael’s $9 pants from the TJMaxx boys’ department, her overall behaviour was of chair-related desperation. Fischer is great at playing this character in that kind of setting, and I thought she was a real standout here.

I guess I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t get to see anything from the rest of the supporting cast: we got some of Andy’s trademark “foot-in-mouth” ramblings and pratfalls in his visit to Schrute Farms, but Dwight’s comedy was in a predictable big gesture. Anyone who didn’t see the “this is going to be a real wedding” coming the second he said he was going to play the groom wasn’t paying attention, and if they didn’t clue in by the time we reached the Germanic Mennonite preacher I don’t know what to tell you. That “3-Way” (as Andy called it) was the part of the episode connected to broader storylines, and I’ll be honest: I’d rather have heard what the three of them had to say about the chair/copier issue than their little adventure.

Michael was really the center of attention here: while Oscar and Jim got to present the major opposition (a new copier) to Pam’s proposal (new chairs, may the Chairmodel rest in peace), it was Michael who had the make the tough decisions. I thought that most of Michael’s stuff was quite funny: his obsession with Burlington Coat Factor, his blood-covered fur coat, his use of the work Urkelnomical to describe Pam’s chair, his inability to talk to David Wallace because he was too busy choking on dessert, or Kevin’s rather hilarious insistence that Michael was a genius for so quickly thinking out what 15% of 4300 is. Steve Carell was at his level best here, and it made for some funny segments.

But I guess it’s a question of missed potential. I liked our visit from Hank the Security Guard, but I also thought that getting Darryl’s point of view might have been interesting. It felt like an episode that was missing a large number of talking heads fleshing out the various positions of the office members, and therefore a missed opportunity to make this feel like even more of a democratic “office” episode instead of being dominated by Pam and Michael.

Which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing: the two scenes of Jim and Pam’s seductive reasoning and in-close whisper awkward kisses of shame were two of the episode’s highlights, and Michael was at that great point of total disbelief that his master plan of letting them decide for themselves backfired as it did. It just felt like this could have been something bigger, and the Dwight B-Story robbed us of a better episode.

Cultural Observations

  • I have to stress again how much I liked the coda: this review was a bit harsher before Jim and Pam’s little battle came full circle, and the idea that he was unwilling to let her copy things for him was both charming and, in the context of the end of the episode, a nice way to show the small but darn funny consequences from Pam’s victory.
  • I know I say I wanted Darryl instead, but “You know, I hustled up the stairs!” was one of my favourite lines of the episode for some strange reason.
  • There was a lot of math in this episode, but my favourite was “Two engagement rings, one chair” from Pam. If it’s math, it must be true (and that is kind of sad, let’s admit it).
  • From now on, I am going to end all conversations by backing out of the room and yelling “TO BE CONTINUED!”

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