May 20th, 2010
Last week’s episode of The Office was absolutely, unfathomably terrible: it embodied the absolute worst characterization of Michael Scott (as a purposefully ignorant jerk with no self-awareness or human decency) until the very end, where it tried to claim that a moment of quiet reflection finally forced Michael into realizing what we, and the rest of the show’s characters, had known for the entire episode. It was a bizarre decision because it only frustrates me more: if Michael is inherently a decent human being, why are they forcing viewers to sit through twenty minutes of the character acting like a complete jerk when it’s not nearly as funny as they think it is?
I’m aware they aren’t forcing us to do anything, but when you’ve been watching a show for six years you have a certain attachment to it. And while I may have despised “The Chump,” at least I had some sort of emotional response to it. By comparison, “Whistleblower” was listless to the point of boredom, failing to feel the least bit conclusive and struggling to make anything out of what has been a complete mess of a season from a narrative perspective. None of what happened in the episode felt like it came from anything that we care about, or anything that was even developed adequately in early episodes.
And just like last week, a single moment at episode’s end is meant to make us feel like this unengaging exercise was all worth it; I’m not falling for it, and I may just be to the point where I’m falling out of even an abusive relationship with the series.
I’ve written enough about the Sabre arc this season to be able to spare you that particular rant, but the story flat out doesn’t work: Kathy Bates’ character isn’t funny, or particularly interesting, or even all that functional, and no one really cares about printer fires or product recalls when the people responsible are a corporation we don’t care about. The finale felt like an attempt to make the Sabre arc be important by having our characters caught up in one of their problems, but that means that the characters are secondary to the plot rather than really being part of it. While there was some subtle foreshadowing done with Andy and Darryl’s investigations of printer fires a few weeks ago, that does not make it a compelling recurring storyline, nor does it do anything to make the entire Sabre arc feel like something more than a creative misfire.
The bigger problem is that I felt absolutely no concern for the people caught up in the scandal: there was no clear sign of what their punishment would be, the episode never properly balanced the supposed evils of the act of whistleblowing with the public good done through the announcement, and as much as I love Darryl I wasn’t sure if he was actually telling Michael the truth or not since he hasn’t often done so in the past. Last season’s Michael Scott Paper Company arc had stakes for the characters involved, so to see them emerge was triumphany and joyful: while I’m all for stories which focus more on the drudgery of the job and the struggles of working for a larger corporation, but this didn’t even head in that direction. Instead, it just sort of sat there, unwilling to engage with high stakes and thus unable to reap any benefits from its resolution. I don’t think the episode ever really confirmed what Andy’s fate will be, or how Pam, Kelly and Darryl will be punished for their own quasi-leaks, but it doesn’t feel like the episode really cares about it, so how are we supposed to give a crap?
Sometimes the small moments can save episodes where the A-Story is leading the show astray, but I didn’t know where the show was going here: Andy and Erin have been the show’s lifeline all year but they were entirely absent, and Jim and Pam’s relationship was a cornerstone of some of the season’s stronger emotional episodes and got pushed aside as well. Instead, we got a lot of Jo and Michael talking about their feelings, and we got a lot of Jo randomly telling Dwight that he should invest in property (including the office itself, which could play out in a number of different ways) or talking to Toby about his novel; these scenes have their moments, but they don’t add up to anything, nor do they feel like they’re adding to any previous storylines or character development. Throw in the fact that they aren’t very funny, and you have me wondering why we needed to see any of it, a concern that I haven’t often had with the show.
Are we supposed to see Michael’s decision to throw himself on the sword with the media as a solution to the Office’s problems, as Jo doesn’t have to sacrifice her own reputation? Is it supposed to be heroic, something that makes the character endearing to us? I’m still not sure, and I’m not convinced the show has any clearer idea. Michael’s final moments in the episode are spent in a nostalgic mode, thinking back to the one that got away, Holly Flax. It’s a sign that the show really doesn’t care what happened to Michael all season: in the end, after everything that happened, he’s still pining after Holly, and that the show would be willing to tease us with the idea of Amy Ryan returning to the show is as pathetic as it is exciting. It’s like a white flag, admitting that the show’s current direction pales in comparison to that which came before, and as much as I’d love to see Holly return I’d rather that the show would have developed a storyline that didn’t make us as nostalgic as it makes Michael.
On a show which has been running for six seasons, the last thing you want is an excuse for the audience to look back on previous storylines and wish you were back there: while they may want us to give them points for admitting that things aren’t the same since Holly left, “Whistleblower” is a fine example of how they don’t deserve credit for knowing this storyline has completely bombed, considering that they spend the entire finale pretending that their farts don’t stink. If the show keeps this posture for too long, I’ll get to the point where my critical curiosity will be all that I have left with the show, and the chances of that keeping me engaged enough to write about it are slim to none.
And that’s disappointing.
- I think Jo is pretty useless, but I do like her quality of becoming too intimately involved with her employees’ personal lives for the heck of it, giving Dwight real estate advice and critiquing Toby’s mystery novel.
- Similarly, I like Gabe a lot, but the show is more interested in the big picture and only got the one scene worth of laughs from Gabe trying to settle the issue himself (and just sort of deciding on Andy as the culprit before giving people some time to see how Andy as the whistleblower feels to them). Combine with his comment about the husky tone of Stanley’s voice, and you have someone I want to see more of and someone who should have been the centerpiece of the Sabre story from the beginning.
- The “Woof” bit grew on me as it went along, especially Erin’s “Ryan, you have a Woof on Line One,” but it seemed like it went on too long in the pre-ramble.
- I thought the I.T. guy breaking into their computers and then delivering the big departure speech was contrived, but Kevin’s sudden dash to and from his computer was a whole lot of fun.
- The random aside to David Wallace talking about his own willingness to leak the information about the printers was a bit strange, but I do enjoy David Wallace.