May 14th, 2009
In what may perhaps be the Office’s most daring and diverse season, with the most substantial disruptions handled with the most impressive cost/benefit ratio, “Company Picnic” plays like a greatest hits of all of the things that have worked so well in the past year, and even a chance to help rewrite something that didn’t work quite as well. It’s not a daring episode designed to paradigm shift our expectations (I’m being facetious using that term, by the way), nor is it really about indulging in the drama-laden situations which could have emerged at the annual retreat.
Rather, it’s an episode about how humanity, and the people at Dunder-Mifflin who we enjoy so much in particular, are above all of that on some level: building more directly from “Cafe Disco” than I could have ever expected, the joys of group sport go from a lesson in anger management to a true bonding exercise, and a comedy routine with little to no actual comedy (for the crowd, not the viewer) stands as nothing but a life’s lesson learned as opposed to some pivotal stage in someone’s life.
What makes “The Office” so great, and what in this episode recalled perhaps my favourite Office finale in “Casino Night” (Favourite does not equal best, I’ll discuss this), is that the biggest moments come exactly when you’re not expecting them: just when you think that one thing is about to happen, or that a joke is about to come, real life comes and sweeps it all away.
The result is the most sweet and real finale I’ve seen in a long time, for a show that’s in no rush to end and no rush to close off this really quite awesome chapter in the series.
From the cold open, which set the tone by having everyone in the office prank a food coma’d Michael into thinking it’s five o’clock, it’s clear that the Office is not a place of turmoil during this retreat. Unlike “Beach Games,” the last time we left the office for something similar in tone, this isn’t about pitting everyone in the office against each other. In that opening scene, Jim and Dwight are not rivals, they’re partners in a scheme that, as Dwight notes, goes off like clockwork. It’s not an incredibly novel scene (I chuckled at Pam’s insistence she could change the time on his watch without him waking up, but otherwise it went exactly as you’d expect), but there was something very fitting about Dwight, and then an excited but reluctant Jim, threw up some fake guns and sent us into the credits.
NBC wasn’t pretending that Amy Ryan’s appearance was some sort of surprise: it’s a company picnic, and for Holly to show up with A.J. was simply logical. And considering that Michael already dealt with the initial struggles back during his business lecture tour, it’s not as if he would be entirely shocked to see her: in fact, upon greeting, they seem to have been in communication with one another to play their comedy sketch, and one feels as if we never learned about this because it wasn’t actually dramatic or funny. It was two friends, albeit friends with a history, coming together to brainstorm some really awful comedy together – neither one of them is actually funny, both being extremely goofy and lacking in perspective albeit for different reasons (Michael doesn’t know better, Holly seems to just like having fun), and until we learned that Michael was carrying a real life bomb (Soup Snake? That’s romantic gold) things seemed quite normal.
That revelation, of course, made every subsequent scene suspenseful: as Holly and Michael lounged in the woods, snacking and brainstorming awful movie parodies about Dunder and Mifflin, Steve Carell and Amy Ryan slipped back into their old rapport like the pros they are. It was like Holly had never left, and at every point in their conversations you wondered whether Michael was going to lean in to kiss her, or tell her that she’s his Soup Snake, or pull a Jim from Casino Night and tell her he’s in love with her. Even during the comedy sketch itself (which I’ll get to in a second), you wonder if he’s going to work it into an answer and embarrass himself, and then afterwards as they sit on that log with Michael spinning their performance into nothing but a tough audience as she sits there smiling like the radiant beauty she is.
And then nothing happened.
Michael didn’t tell her: for all of that suspense, us sitting on the edge of our seat worried about how Michael is going to embarrass himself (or, if you’re not one of the fans of Michael Scott the good guy, then hoping for him to embarrass himself), he ends up doing something entirely logical. His speech about how these things take time, and that it’s going to be one of those long stories when they finally get together, and how he’s in no rush…it was perfectly played by Carell, and it was the ideal way to end this story. Not only does it give them the opportunity to bring back Holly in the future (for which every single fan of this show should be grateful, as Amy Ryan is so fantastic it hurts to think about), but it also means that Michael actually learned something, and views his relationship with Holly within a mature and adult, but still romantic, perspective. He has decided they are destined to be together, but he even says (albeit with only good intentions to back him up, he is Michael Scott after all) that he might even be seeing someone next time they meet – he might be lying, but in that moment he meant that, and as a result they say goodbye with just a hug.
It was just such a perfect note on which to leave this season: Michael and Holly were such a great pair early in the season, and their separation was a tough thing for the show to weather (it never really got entirely back on its game until the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, although it stayed pretty strong). The show is always at its best when it tests itself and its current cast with a new element, and Steve Carell has proven to be the cast member most able to integrate new elements into his character and his various neuroses. Even if you don’t think this is the show’s strongest season (I don’t know if I’d say that yet, I’d need to consider for a while), I think it has no doubt been Carell’s strongest year on a dramatic level, and still very strong comically – if he doesn’t win the Emmy this year, I don’t know if they’re ever going to take him seriously (I love you Alec Baldwin, but can you lose your submission tape in the mail for me?).
Of course, it’s not actually the note on which we left the season, because that note was on a whole other level on the “adorable” scale that the show has quite often this season found itself on. Some may not like the show going so soft, but if there was anyone who wasn’t at least somewhat emotionally affected by John Krasinski’s tearful phone call to Dwight then I really don’t think you have a soul (if that’s what you’re going for, though, congrats!). As soon as the X-Ray Technician said something about pregnancy, I knew where the storyline was going – there was really no reason for them to go directly to a hospital that quickly (it’s not going to get much worse if she just gets off it for a while), and while it was an intense Volleyball game I don’t think people would really let her keep playing on it. No, this was all about putting them at the right place at the right time, and showing us a truly emotional moment…without any sound.
There was a similar peek into a very private moment during Parks and Recreation tonight, but one where the sound was entirely clear: it’s a cheat of the documentary format, one designed to allow us into the lives of characters to get to know them away from the cameras. However, we didn’t need to hear this moment because we know these characters so well: we knew from the looks on their faces, and especially Jim’s reaction, that this wasn’t about the leg, and then we just get to let that sink in. After Jim calls Dwight, it’s just reality: we don’t rush back to the Volleyball game for one final shot of Dwight counting out 941, or Jim resolving his ongoing tension with Charles Minor (Idris Elba reprising his role, and doing a fine job of being a total jerk), or Michael rushing into the game. We simply sit with Jim, in that hospital, and he gets the “heart melting” moment that Pam got back in “The Job.”
Now, as for how the series is going to handle a pregnancy it isn’t entirely clear: obviously, there is something quite funny about pregnancy, especially when it’s happening to someone who isn’t batshit crazy (Jan, I am looking in your direction), so I don’t think it’s going to slow the show down. However, I really think that the show is maturing a lot right now: it’s still funny, and it’s still crazy at points, but the show is slowly but surely finding itself in a place that’s more capable of handling a pregnancy, and parenthood, and those kinds of comic principles. While we love these characters enough to follow them through an Office scenario, we can’t just see the same things played out without these characters truly changing: considering that Jim and Pam are young to-be-newlyweds, them having a baby is highly logical and realistic considering the show’s premise.
The theme of maturity stretched even further into the episode with both Dwight and Andy, although to different degrees. Andy, hypercompetitive and yelling, finds himself turning the page on Erin (and the team in general) in a small moment that was insignificant outside of the major theme but kind of important to the thesis. Dwight, meanwhile, made the biggest turnaround: after his friend Rolf refuses to allow Angela to play, even after she wants to play, and begins to berate her for breaking his friend’s heart and for being a whore, Dwight eventually puts a stop to it in a move that warms Angela to him and actually shows a really human side of Dwight.
We’ve seen that quite a bit recently: Dwight’s been making less stupid comments lately, instead replacing them with actual jokes that he is aware are jokes (which, even after the joke, remain funny since his real life remains as ridiculous as ever), and here he and Jim even share a big hug following one of Jim’s successful spikes. No, Dwight has not fundamentally changed, but he’s more self-aware than before and, dare I say, more mature than he was before. I don’t think it’s a major problem, humour wise: he was pretty hysterical in the entirety of the episode, and I don’t think it would be fair to write him off for not evolving. I’ve always found blindly idiotic Dwight to be, well, idiotic, and the more human we see in him the better Rainn Wilson becomes.
It all resulted in an extremely feel-good half-hour of television, with the only real downer being the comedy sketch itself. It wasn’t actually funny, as noted: it was moving into that awkward arena of humour that The Office often does, where Michael embarrasses himself. However, in this example, the embarrassment wasn’t personal or based on his lack of humour: rather, it was an honest human mistake (albeit it a silly one) where he reveals news he was told in confidence as it relates to the Buffalo branch closing. I loved the way it led us to think that it was going to finally be the payoff for the tooth brush jokes (which weren’t funny), but then reality kicks in: nope, it’s actually Buffalo. That was the joke they were telling.
It was just really true to what might actually happen, without being exaggerated to fit into the mold of a television show but also without being romanticized that it was without drama or comedy. The entire episode was just operating in that sweet spot, where things felt both unrealistically romantic and realistically grounded outside of the show’s usual structure. After a season where Holly offered an entirely new side of Michael, and where that new side of Michael was tested during his brief exit from the company, it seems as if it has rubbed off on everyone else – the result is a finale that, if not the show’s finest, then certainly is the one that felt the most perfect for this particular critic.
- In terms of which is the best finale, that’s a tough question: I think “Goodbye, Toby” is a really well-executed hour-long (for a show that isn’t that good at them), and definitely comes out ahead of “The Job” for me. I have a soft spot for “Casino Night,” I really do, but I really don’t know if I’m able to make a decision on this front. Weigh in below, and we’ll go from there.
- Pam’s talking head after revealing herself to be good at Volleyball? Made me extremely happy. “and Volleyball camp most summahsss?” Heart. I can also empathize, since I too enjoy a good sporting event or two despite being not traditionally considered an athlete, and I won’t lie and say that I would love to have a camera nearby to document my false modesty in that manner. It would be great fun.
- I kind of mentioned it above, but Dwight’s Horse Doctor runner made me laugh a lot, especially as a connection back to “Cafe Disco” – I really didn’t think that last week’s episode was much of a finale builder, but damned if it didn’t end up working.
- Loved the tiny moment of Toby chatting with another HR rep who was exactly as droll as he was.
- Andy’s story wasn’t very big, but really liked how he tried to pass off his “ARE YOU BLIND?!” to Erin as an honest question of whether the guy in the Ray-Bans was blind, just for reference’s sake.
- I enjoy that Charles still hasn’t given up his grudge on Jim, even after realizing that he was a far superior person to have around then Dwight – Elba played that part of the character well, and it made for some fun tension during the Volleyball games.
- Speaking of which, they were pretty darn good at Volleyball, and it was totally the perfect sport for them to be playing: team based, but with enough chance for individual skill to control the play to let people stand out AND fail miserably all at the same time.
- My one complaint about the episode: not enough Creed.