Friday, November 16, 2007

"The Office": to Dunder-Mifflin Infinity -- and beyond!

Posted By on Fri, Nov 16, 2007 at 9:02 PM

click to enlarge dunder.jpg

(Image courtesy NBC)

“The Deposition,” last night’s episode of “The Office” on NBC, marks the last new episode of the show “in the can” since the writers' strike began Nov. 5. There’s no telling when the show’s fourth season will return if the writers' strike drags on for months, and NBC has just suspended the actors on half-pay.

Lots of talk about shark-jumping have accompanied the new season, particularly when “The Office” began with four hour-long episodes, a decision roundly criticized. The real problem came not from the admittedly unwieldy length, but the creators’ decisions in shaking up its formula. For three seasons, the sitcom focused mostly on the maddening minutia of the workplace, enlivened by the clueless behavior of needy boss Michael Scott and fascist geek Dwight Schrute (Steve Carell and the brilliant Rainn Wilson). The unrequited love between Jim and Pam (John Krasinksi and Jenna Fischer) provided a crucial, bittersweet counterpoint. At its best, "The Office" is my favorite television comedy, with its second and third seasons at times improving on the terrific original British show.

“The Office” ended its third season by getting Jim and Pam together, although it’s always a risky move for an episodic show to give in to romantic tension (as “Cheers,” “Moonlighting” and “Northern Exposure” can attest). With Jim and Pam doing just fine, the show’s focus shifted to the breakup of oddball secret lovers Dwight and prim Angela (Angela Kinsey) and Michael’s even more outlandish, idiotic behavior, which have included hitting an employee with his car, kidnapping a pizza delivery boy, driving a car into a lake, getting lost in the woods, nearly running away on a freight train and humiliating himself during the lawsuit deposition of his girlfriend/ex-boss Jan (Melora Hardin). How dumb is too dumb?

Meanwhile, “The Office” promoted put-upon temp Ryan (producer B.J. Novak) to be Jan’s replacement and Michael’s new boss. The justification proved extremely tenuous, relying on paper company Dunder-Mifflin’s 21st-century makeover, driven by a website dubbed “Dunder-Mifflin Infinity.” Having Ryan turn into bullying, cocky New York executive isn’t particularly funny, and probably won’t be until he has a long fall.

Michael clinging to the antiquated, low-tech ways provides plenty of comedic grist while mirroring real-life trends you might find in, say, journalism (to chose an example completely at random). This season’s highlight found Dwight “challenging” the website to see who could make the most sales in a single day (complicated by Jim’s prank to convince Dwight that the computer had become sentient). It resembled a modern-day goof on the tall tale of John Henry vs. the steam drill, and would fit with the hilarious "Dwight Schrute" action hero montage. (Incidentally, you can glimpse former Atlantan Lance Krall in the background of some shots as the head of Dwight's dojo.)

“30 Rock” has now become the funniest show on NBC’s Thursdays, although “The Office” has still got game. Last night Mindy Kaling proved that she’s the show’s most underused comedic resource when she made the distinction between talking “smack” and talking “trash.” (Apparently trash-talk involves insults that are not literally possible, like “Your momma’s so fat, she could eat the Internet.”) Ed Helms, another former Atlantan, has spent too much time on the sidelines as well.

And at times, “The Office” can hit home with the daring notion that Michael Scott is not a complete idiot, despite his self-inflicted disasters. Novak wrote the charming “Local Ad” episode in which Michael created a TV commercial for Dunder-Mifflin. While being something of a clumsy, clichéd ego trip, the spot also proved oddly charming. If and when the show takes up its fourth season, it shouldn’t neglect to include moments like this:

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