October 22nd, 2009
This review is going to seem somewhat hypocritical, as I have always been a known supporter of serialized sitcoms. However, there are times when there are elements in previous episodes that I don’t necessarily want to see continue, left to remain as an enjoyable aside that is left to the audience’s imagination. Even heavily serialized shows like The Wire would often introduce small elements that aren’t part of some broader serialized storyline but rather sit under the surface and add to our understanding of these characters.
I know that I was being more than a bit idealistic, but I had really hoped that The Office would resist the temptation to take Michael’s rendezvous with Pam’s mother and follow it through to this logical but blown up conclusion. That small moment in “Niagara” was a shocking moment for the coda, but for it to turn into an entire episode played out like melodrama more than an episode of comedy. The episode succeeds in finding some comedy in the setup to the situation, with Pam’s realization proving to be an absolute highlight, but once things become about yelling things begin to fall off the rails a little.
It isn’t that this is a failure, as I thought the episode did a few interesting things on the dramatic side of things, but in its desire to be both comic hijinks related to the scenario and a depiction of Michael Scott’s eternal sadness it never quite connected on either front.
What makes this episode work, in the end, is that it’s more about Michael Scott’s quest for happiness than it is about Pam’s reaction to the news of Michael and her mother dating, but what keeps it from really working is that we’re really only given Pam’s side of the story. Ultimately, I felt for Michael in this episode, especially when he basically asked the office whether they believed he would ever find happiness. It was the kind of moment that some could view as part of the show’s incessant efforts to embarrass Michael, but in reality it was simply sad: here is someone whose quest for happiness has been the show’s greatest tragedy, Jan turning into a crazy person and Michael turning into a crazy person with Carol, and yet here he’s finally found someone he loves but it’s causing him all of this trouble. In that moment, the rest of the office sympathizes with Michael in a way that Pam can’t, and it’s at that point that we as the audience feel much the same.
However, the episode doesn’t really reflect this, as it derives all of its comedy from Pam’s hilarious overreaction to the news. The moment of realization is the real selling point of this storyline for the writers, allowing Pam to slowly realize that the mother in question is her own, and just how much that horrifies her. And the show gets to play Michael’s naivete, acknowledging that he never expected her to be upset, for laughs as well, along with Jim being stuck in the middle of it all knowing how bad it all was. However, the show starts with Pam’s return rather than with Michael’s affair, which means that we’re meant to see things from her perspective. We never even get to hear Pam’s mother speak, yet alone get to see the nature of her relationship with Michael, so we’re left with only the employment-related chaos that results. This has its comic moments, absolutely, but it has limited returns when it comes to really connecting with the characters involved.
The episode’s final moments are charming, as Michael struggles to walk away without trying to smooth things over while Jim and Pam return to their honeymoon as a way of blocking out everything that is happening. But it seems like the real potential for this story was only hinted at when it should have been the point of the matter, as things kept flitting back and forth between comic and dramatic consequences. If we had seen more of Michael’s side of this story, or if he had even had some talking heads that felt like they reflected less Michael ignoring the impact this was going to have on Pam and more his logical position that his quest for happiness deserves a chance to be proven (as opposed to assumed) wrong. While one could argue that this creates a dichotomy that in itself drives this point home, the lack of time spent with Michael made it seem more like a continued delusion than any sort of deeper sentiment, and that’s unfortunate.
As for the other elements of the episode, there were a lot of fun individual moments in this one that in some ways seemed like a distraction rather than a welcome diversion from the main storyline. Dwight’s attempts at espionage was an intriguing new dynamic to Dwight and Jim’s relationship, where Dwight takes the proactive role and Jim is forced to retaliate. I think it was a really fun little B-Story that unfortunately seemed like it took time away from the other storyline which needed some more time. I thought each scenario (Jim playing the Aria and pointing to Dwight so as to raise his paranoia, and then Kelly and Ryan talking about Fedoras) both played into the larger storyline and offered some really clever little moments (like Dwight’s anger over it being called a duck, or Creed breaking down crying at the beauty of the Aria), and in some ways it was the kind of office storyline the show does best. However, because of the episode operating around it, it didn’t really fit in, and almost felt cut in from an entirely different episode at times.
I said above that the episode felt like melodrama, and I want to make clear that any attempt to deal with this story, including my own where we get more of Pam’s mother’s side of things, would ultimately feel more melodramatic than a normal episode of the show. However, I wanted it to be a better melodrama than it was, in the process better connecting with the dramatic elements of each character. I don’t think that initial reveal would have been less funny if we had had more of the picture, and I thought the comic payoff from the moment wasn’t good enough to justify the streamlining of things. I understand that they couldn’t resist Pam’s reaction and let this be the kind of secret that just sits there and potentially comes up a long way’s down the line, but there was something about how this was handled that just felt off. I don’t know if it would have worked better to have the buildup to Pam’s revelation last an entire episode, having the fallout depicted in another episode once things had settled down somewhat, but the execution was just lacking for me on this one.
- I liked the idea that Jim and Pam came back from their honeymoon with inside jokes, and I kind of liked that they were really mundane. The one moment with Pam that felt really authentic dramatically was the sad “Frank and Beans” from Jim at the end of the episode, so it was nice to see that come full circle.
- I might have felt she dominated the episode a bit too much, but Jenna Fischer was kind of great throughout.
- Loved that Toby ended up in the line of fire of Jim when he found out about the news, and that later Toby and Michael actually bonded. Perhaps I’m underestimating the show’s time spent with Michael, as reconciling with Toby is kind of monumental. However, since I know that will be gone soon enough, I guess I wasn’t entirely jumping up and down or anything similar.
- Volunteerism is a theme on television all week as part of a broad television initiative, and I like that the show chose Dwight to be its volunteerism spokesperson with his pet euthanization. However, I felt Meredith stole the scene with her strategy of painting a mural of Chicano leaders in order to improve life in Scranton.
- I was really shocked that we never actually got Ryan’s back story about the Fedora, and was sad that the coda turned into an unfunny Dwight note (where we says he’s not insane enough to have only one listening device, and then listens to eight hours of Jim discussing paper) as opposed to a hat-related back story.
- Thought the cold open, with blind Michael, was a bit of a dud.