September 17th, 2009
When The Office premiered last year, it was with an hour-long episode which broke a number of rules in terms of pacing and everything else. That was an episode that was about establishing a relationship between Michael and Holly, and about emphasizing the impact of Michael and Pam’s time apart on their relationship. When the latter story came to a climactic moment at the end of the episode, it felt wholly earned, and really made the episode stand out as likely the show’s best premiere to date.
“Gossip” is not interested in doing any of that, really. If “Weight Loss” was a complex game of parkour designed to get from Point A to Point B in the most inventive and complex fashion (with its various time periods and the weigh-ins to provide a sense of progression over the summer months), then this year’s premiere is a far simpler equation. The episode’s Point A is Jim and Pam keeping her pregnancy a secret, and the Point B is the office finding out about said pregnancy, and Paul Lieberstein’s goal as a writer is to get there in a strong twenty-one minute segment of comedy.
And by keeping things simple, the show creates an engaging and funny premiere, one which doesn’t aim for the heights of last year nor does it really need to. By drawing comedy out of a very simple but well executed concept that plays to Michael Scott’s strengths as a character (and thus faults as a human being), we get a story that takes a common workplace element (gossip, clearly) and lets it loose in a group of characters we know and love.
It isn’t rocket science, and that’s what makes it work so well: this isn’t a show that needs bells and whistles, or one-hour premieres, to make me laugh. And while I might like The Office best when Michael is given a bit more credit, the episode walked that fine line with great success for a wholly satisfying (if not mind-blowing) premiere.
I want to draw attention to how Michael’s behaviour was controlled in this episode. Yes, once he started spreading rumours in order to feel better about himself, he was entering into some very sketchy territory that makes us question his self-awareness in terms of his behaviour. However, the episode had plenty of other opportunities to condemn Michael and resisted doing so. The interns, who we learn at the end of the episode were terrorized by Michael’s penchant for nicknames, almost never interact with Michael in any way. That seems like it would be an easy joke, pitting Michael against the young kids who don’t know what they’re doing, but the show resists. All we get is that moment at the end, and Pam referring to Michael’s previous poor behaviour in regards to Monica Lewinsky jokes and the program getting canceled.
I raise this point because I think it was necessary in order to keep Michael balanced, and to keep the episode from becoming about Michael Scott terrorizing his workplace. Really, the episode is about Michael Scott wanting to be the centre of attention, and not quite realizing the consequences of his action, resulting in a bad situation that he needs to rectify. Of course, Michael is incapable of actually fixing a situation like this (such as, for example, bringing everyone in the office together in order to explain to them what the situation was and to give Stanley a chance to make things right), just as his solution to Teri calling him at episode’s end is so convoluted that he can’t even finish Step One before screwing up. His solution of instead spreading so many vicious rumours that everyone presumes everything is false is just as unrealistic, as the inevitable confrontation draws out the truth anyways, and Michael nearly throws Stanley under the bus anyways before Jim and Pam take one for the team.
I would argue that the episode only really accomplished telling the office about the baby, the cliffhanger from last season and that great scene with Jim at the hospital. But by allowing that to come to light organically, one small lie leading to a huge collection of lies, it forces the issue into the open without really stretching it out. It also was actually quite logical: Michael isn’t smart enough to make up lies that are patently false, so instead he takes his observations about the people and turns them into lies. So, poor Erin is close to losing her job, which could be entirely true, while Andy’s somewhat questionable sexuality gets mentioned and results in a fundamental crisis of identity. Michael’s observational skill far surpasses his social skills, which results in a rather hilarious situation where he mixes the absurd (another person inside of Kevin) with the scarily accurate (such as, of course, Pam being pregnant).
It creates two entirely different kinds of comedy. First, we find humour in Michael’s process, which as always Steve Carell plays with much gusto. However, secondly, we are able to see how the office itself reacts. My favourite reactions were from the resident “weirdos” in the office, Dwight and Creed. For Dwight, he’s extremely serious when he learns that Michael spread a lie that he uses store-bought manure; he knows Michael saw exactly where his manure came from in a previous visit to Schrute Farms, so he can’t believe he would say something so outrageous. And then Creed, who perhaps got off easiest in terms of the rumour that he has asthma (Michael was running out of ideas), gets angry because he worries about it all getting back to his scuba instructor, and that his plan (unexplained) would all be for nothing. In the midst of dealing with something very procedural (the audience knows something the characters don’t, and they need to find out about it), the show dabbles in the absurd and gets a whole lot of different and hilarious results from it.
Really, the only people on the periphery of it all are Jim and Pam, who are the ones who do have a secret and who are eventually forced to step forward. Their shared talking heads were as charming as they always were, as Krasinski and Fischer have nailed that light-hearted chemistry which really makes their characters the heart of the show. Too often their storylines have felt like added drama, and since they’ve been together the ultimate fear has been that the show intends to tear them apart. That all went away with the proposal, and here the same thing occurs: it wasn’t an argument about whether they should do it or not, it just sort of happened in the spur of the moment, and Jim can now proudly display the Sonogram on his desk and Pam can go on being attacked by Angela for carrying a bastard child and everything can go back to far, far left of normal.
“Gossip” is really about the show just getting on with it already. Rather than stretching things out and attempting to drag them along, it wants everything out in the open so it can avoid the drama and get things moving. Sometimes with premieres you’re thinking about where the season goes from here, and this episode didn’t change any of that: Pam’s pregnancy is really the only recurring bit that the show is currently operating, so this certainly didn’t change any expectations. However, it did put a notch under “Successful Storylines which integrate said pregnancy into engaging comic scenario” on the show’s chart, so I’d say it’s a successful first outing for Season 6.
- Ed Helms is perhaps my episode MVP: he stole the Parkour opening with his (clearly choreographed, but still amazing) pratfall into the empty refrigerator box, and the entire Gay storyline was definitely my highlight of the gossip fallout. I think it was the way he talked about the sheer insecurity of it all, and in particular his “Even the one about me being gay? Yes!” after Michael revealed himself to be the perpetrator.
- Help me out here: Where do I know the non-Jet Lie male intern from (Alan Thicke, as Michael calls him?). It was driving me crazy after the ending where we got a good look at him and I still couldn’t place him.
- Jim’s right: he’s going to want that card when he’s stuck between a Moose and her cubs at night.
- It was ruined by a commercial, but I still got a chuckle out of Jim responding to Michael’s question about peeing on a stick – while I am always a fan of where the show demonstrates how fallible really Jim is, there’s no doubt that Krasinski works wonders when he’s allowed to comment sanely (and snarkily) on the absurdity around him.
- I enjoy that Michael’s lie about Toby was that he was a virgin for a few reasons, primarily because it totally seems like the absolute worst thing Michael Scott could think of giving to his archnemesis (unless he really hates people with asthma and is secretly harbouring a hatred for Creed), and also because of the term’s connection with Carell.
- The Parkour section was the kind of cold open the show does so well, and I thought Jim’s Point A/Point B line (which I kind of stole for the above review) was a nice commentary that was then confirmed (or subverted, for those of us who enjoy grown men making fools of themseves more than quips about said fools) by the epic conclusion. HARDCORE PARKOUR!