The Office’s Bait and Switch
January 22nd, 2010
Last night, many of you likely tuned into NBC at 9pm ET to enjoy what the network was billing as a “new” episode of The Office. And, sure enough, the episode began with a cold open that tied into ongoing continuity, as a banker (played by David Costible) stops by the branch to do some due diligence in the early stages of the company’s restructuring. We find Michael Scott up to his usual tricks trying to make the office seem more exciting, having Dwight play a sentient computer and riding a Segway for no discernible reason, and we have Pam there to help guide us through his insanity (fake accounts are okay, but Pam is not on board with Fake Stanley).
It sounds like a solid setup to an episode of The Office, but “The Banker” wasn’t actually an episode: as soon as the Banker went back to talk to Toby and asked a question about any potential liability issues, the spidey sense was tingling, and sure enough it was right. Toby began flashing back to previous events, and the episode revealed itself to be a clip show in disguise.
What I find so fascinating about the clip show as an episode structure is that it is becoming both increasingly irrelevant and increasingly attractive in this modern age. While television economics and concerns over lengthy delays between episodes results in a desire to have more “original” content to keep viewers engaged, the clip show seems less necessary when viewers can catch up with previous episodes on DVD or on Hulu, and where “clips” are a part of our everyday lives as opposed to some sort of novelty.
And yet it’s not going to go away entirely any time soon.
Clip shows exist because of financial considerations and for no other reason. There was once a day that you could argue that clip shows were a way for new viewers to catch up with ongoing storylines, but in an era of DVDs and online viewing this is no longer necessary. Instead, they exist because the network wants as much new content as possible, and clip shows are considerably cheaper to produce since they involve less time and less manpower. NBC can order 25 episodes of The Office in a season, but making one of them a clip show frees up some extra money for a more eventful finale, or just a way for NBC to adjust its bottom line.
Survivor has made it a yearly tradition to do a recap show during holidays weeks, but what’s interesting is how their focus has shifted in recent years. While the show used to simply show clips to remind you how things went down before the merge, including a new scene here or there, this year the producers went out of their way to find new narratives within the existing story. They went through the basic story beats, reminding us who went home, but they also expanded on stories only hinted at by the aired episodes: while the quest to capture an escaped chicken was used in order to demonstrate the chaos at Galu’s camp and thus left unresolved by the series as a whole, the clip show showed how they actually all worked together to capture the chicken using some ingenious methods.
As Jaime Weinman points out, all clip shows tend to try to create some time of new narrative, but Survivor’s narrative was unique in that it took us behind the cameras to moments that were purposefully not shown to us. And as James Poniewozik tweeted this morning, and as I had thought independently before logging on this morning (honest), The Office actually has a perfect set up for this with its documentary filmmakers working behind the scenes. Showing us their attempts to edit a show out of this footage would have been a way to make the idea seem more novel, and a “concept” like that would have kept me watching beyond the first few minutes. The Simpsons’ 138th Episode Spectacular is perhaps the perfect example of this, as the show just let the late, great Phil Hartman as Troy McClure meta-narrate a special about The Simpsons’ legacy.
Considering that I ask for continuity in my sitcoms, as futile as that can be with a show like The Big Bang Theory, it may seem weird that I’m suggesting the show’s attempt to use ongoing stories as an excuse for the clip show was a mistake. However, I think that it creates an incongruity that feels like a contrived reason for us to sit through the clips as opposed to a compelling reason for those clips to exist. It created an initial expectation that this could actually be a real episode, that what Costible’s character was going to fall into one of Michael’s crazy traps and lead to an actual half-hour of television, so for the episode to turn into a very traditional clip show felt particularly frustrating. While The Office can often present standalone episodes like many other sitcoms, it’s in the middle of a pretty extensive long-term story right now, so for the episode to hint at that without actually doing anything to expand it was a definite misstep.
I think there was once a time when these kinds of clip shows were considered more acceptable, where shows would use them as a way to cut costs and the episode could get away with it. But The Office is a show that people rewatch quite regularly, and a show where viewers expect continuity, and where viewers had waited six weeks between episodes: for those viewers, a clip show is a slap in the face. And I think we live in an age where the amount of people who see the clip show as a chance to enjoy past clips is shrinking, as DVDs and Hulu offer the ability to revisit past episodes at any particular moment. And while clip shows are increasingly rare as networks worry about the wealth of other options available on other networks and cable, they are also increasingly valuable if they are successful, and considering the strong ratings that “The Banker” received I think NBC is probably pretty happy right now.
However, they might not be as happy next week when the show returns with a new episode with some somewhat cranky viewers, or in early February when fans express anger that the show came back for just a handful of episodes before going on hiatus again during the Olympics.
- Speaking on a personal level, The Office doesn’t ‘Clip Show’ well: yes, characters montages can capture the show quite well, but what I like about the show are its subtle moments, which aren’t always captured when you’re trying to make things as fast-paced and entertaining. I like when the show gets more broad, but to me 30 Rock would be better suited to a clip show than The Office in terms of capturing what makes the show work.
- While it might seem as if clip shows wouldn’t work well in the DVD era, they actually work somewhat better that way so long as the writers do some commentary on them: I always enjoyed listening to the commentaries on The Simpsons clip shows, as they showed some nice insight into how much the writers hated the process and how they tried to make it moderately more interesting (and yet only occasionally truly succeeded).
- I wrote about this subject nearly three years ago, and it’s interesting to see how much more…cynical, I guess, I was about this at that point. However, I would still argue, as I did then, that clip shows are preferable to cost-cutting measures which damage the integrity of actual episodes through budget cutbacks in terms of actors or in terms of keeping stories grounded.