February 1st, 2009
I am not conditioned to enjoy this hour of The Office.
First off, I don’t think the show should be in this position in the first place: Chuck has a special 3D episode ready to go tomorrow night, and is much more vulnerable to audience erosion than what is quickly becoming NBC’s flagship series.
Second, I don’t like hour long episode of The Office: they are often overblown, and rarely is there enough comedy to justify the longer running time. Combine with the always frustrating reality that they will eventually be split into two parts in syndication, so they’re forced to split into two separate stories at some level, and they are rarely worthwhile (“Goodbye, Toby” and “Weight Loss” could be seen as a reversal of the trend, but the Amy Ryan variable is the more likely explanation for their quality).
And third, as if that all wasn’t enough, we have the blatant stuntcasting of Jack Black and Jessica Alba, a principle that has been a bit of an achilles heel for NBC’s other Thursday comedy, 30 Rock, all season. The Office has always been pretty immune, being as it is about the mundane life of office employees, but now even that is bleeding its way into the series.
So going into “Stress Relief,” my expectations were fairly low, and I was fully prepared to harp on all three of the above points for 1500 words.
And, well…old habits die hard, I guess – this was a mess of an episode that tried too hard to be worthy of the Super Bowl, was too scattershot to be a cohesive hour, and represented the most superfluous and tangential use of guest stars that I could possibly imagine. So in the end, my opinion remains the same: it shouldn’t have been an hour long, it shouldn’t have cast celebrities, and it shouldn’t have even been airing after the Super Bowl in the first place.
The problem with hour-long episodes of the office is not that they aren’t funny, but rather that the writers never seem to understand why they are funny. Case in point in this episode is the cold open, an expansive and elaborate example of Dwight’s idiocy as he creates a fake fire and the panic that results from the fake fire causes Stanley to have a heart attack. There are some funny things in this sequence: in fact, I think I probably laughed the most in the entire episode when Angela threw her filing cabinet cat into the ceiling. It was surreal, it was hilarious, but it was crammed into a scene where sheer chaos was substituting for any sort of nuanced comedy.
The same goes for the scene that came after, as the office took a first aid course. There are some amazing ideas in there, including the stunning breakdown as the instructor’s suggestion of Stayin’ Alive as a rhythm for CPR leads to Michael singing, Andy coming in on lead vocals, and Kelly spotaneously dancing. But, shortly thereafter, it devolves as Dwight pulls out a knife and starts digging into the body looking for organs, eventually cutting the face off of the dummy and placing it on his own face for some unknown reason. That scene had some funny lines, mainly Creed’s “He doesn’t have a wallet, I checked,” but it again devolved into sheer chaos.
The first half of this episode exhibited every problem I usually have with the Office: turning Dwight into too much of an unlikeable character incapable of rational thought, Michael-led group sessions that are funnier in theory than in execution, and an endless parade of pointless sequences that at the mid-point of the episode suddenly add up to a realization that really could have taken two minutes, and is just used as an excuse for extending the episode to an hour in length. I don’t want to sound like I didn’t think the things that were funny were funny: Michael’s relaxation spiel was quite humorous, there were some strong lines weaved into the entire thing, and part of me feels like I’m just being harsh because I’m bitter about the show getting this spot at all.
But when the second half came around, the first half just looked even more lazy and more frustrating. It’s not that the second half was brilliant, in fact it was perhaps even more simple than the first half. But it was simple in a way that didn’t feel run into the ground: there was Michael being insecure, Michael getting roasted by the office who took things too far, and then eventually Michael’s deluded sense of self merging with the office’s good humour to return things to the status quo (As my brother noted, “Boom, roasted” is really deserving of a place in the cultural lexicon). That is an episode, whereas the first half was nothing even close to being one. And that’s frustrating when, really, we could have had a half hour, or even supersized, episode of The Office that would have been cohesive and funny, and yet the desire to stretch it out just made it all feel weary in the end.
The Roast itself, meanwhile, was as entertaining as it sounds on paper, and was the part of the episode that felt like it catered the most to fans of the show as opposed to new viewers (who got a montage of past Stanley behaviour and some other exposition moments in the episode). We got Kelly thinking that it was Michael’s birthday (and suggesting she’d kiss Lord Voldemort over him – what, no love for Amon Goeth?), Meredith blaming him for her alcoholism (and for running her over), Dwight trying to protect him but ultimately unable to withhold his “You don’t even own LAND” insult, Pam comparing Michael’s privates to an iPod (Shuffle, harsh), Andy rewriting “What I Like About You” into “What I Hate About You,” and Toby not even being allowed on the stage (much to my chagrin) because only friends were allowed. Combine with Michael giving rimshots to things that shouldn’t get rimshots, like running over Meredith, and you have some really sharp comedy in there.
But I have to wonder what someone seeing this for the first time would really think: they’d think that Dwight is a total douchebag (not caring to apologize, fooling people into getting their signatures), whereas we as longtime viewers know that Dwight has done far worse; they’d think that the Office was being pretty hard on Michael, who for all of his bumblings seemed to have pretty good intentions in the first half; they’d think that this Jim and Pam storyline wasn’t very funny, so what is it doing in a comedy show? And they’d also think that, if you’re going to bother getting celebrities, doing something other than an entirely tangential and uninteresting pirated movie subplot might not be a bad idea.
Yes, the much advertised celebrities cameos were a complete dud, pointless as you could ever imagine as we see Jim and Pam (and Andy) watching the tale of Mrs. Albert Hannaday, which seems to be a tale of a young man who is engaged to a woman but falls in love with her mother (Grandmother?) instead. We see Jessica Alba for all of a few seconds, and are then subjected to Jack Black and Cloris Leachman making out and, eventually, the climactic scene as Lily Hannaday rides her stair chair away from an emotional…guy Jack Black played. The film had no narrative, and it had no purpose: a hackneyed attempt to make it connect with the Jim and Pam storyline, about her parents’ impending divorce, by having Andy think that their conversations about their own situation were actually indepth insights into the movie, was just plain sad.
If it had been really funny, maybe I would have been on board. If it had really connected to the episode, might have been worth it. But it was a blind attempt to draw in an audience, never clicking on any level. And that’s frustrating when the episode was kind of all over the place as it was, and here we are diverting attention away from actual storylines to something that didn’t matter in the end.
And ultimately, the best hour-long episodes of The Office are the ones that matter: not the ones where Stanley has a heart attack, not the ones where mass chaos leads to a perfectly timed switchover to a second half, but episodes where things happens, where storylines begin or end, and where the show feels like it is telling a story worthy of an hour long episode as opposed to a story stretched out to fit into an hour long timeslot. And while I was hoping that this Super Bowl slot, deserved or not, could change that fact, all it did was try to mask the show’s problems with broad laughs, a technique that might have kept this from bombing completely but certainly didn’t convince me of its worthiness.
- But seriously, people, the episode wasn’t not funny: I listed above a lot of great lines, and there were plenty all over the place here. Angela’s roast, and Angela in general, was just great here: while jokes without punchlines are not uncommon on the show, “I don’t usually like to make people laugh…” made me, well, laugh. A lot.
- Loved Kevin giving up on the first aid dummy after 20 seconds, telling them to just “call it.”
- Dwight’s meetings at corporate were kind of lame overall, but I do love that he suggests that “Stanley was attacked by his own heart.”
- I enjoyed the Montage Stanley got, and his realization that if he really needed to react more positively to stay live, he was in fact going to die.
- Michael apparently thinks that videos on YouTube are taped “by” YouTube: also, black people eating chocolate ice cream is a racist myth, and in his dream there are four men without shoes who give him a funny cigarette.
- If there’s a spaceman up in space with a microscope that can only see my face, then he saw a fair bit of laughing, some chuckling, but mostly a frustrated head-shaking during this episode.
- In the opening chaos, the one thing that was more clever than I probably gave it credit for above was Michael breaking the window in the conference room with a chair, and Kevin breaking into the snack machine with his.