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October 22, 2014

The Office: Branch Wars

by Jay Black, posted Nov 2nd 2007 12:20AM
That's the old, dumpy Pam in the background there. This year's Pam is the new hotness.(S04E06) One of the pleasures of watching original Office creator Ricky Gervais's follow-up show Extras was that you got to see the kind of bland, run-of-the-mill sitcom The Office could have been if Gervais hadn't stayed true to his original vision. When the Whistle Blows, the show that Gervais's character creates for the BBC, starts out as something original and creative, but slowly becomes the worst kind of mediocre as network executives tamper with its presentation. The sellout is symbolized within the show by Gervais's character putting on a silly wig and a pair of comical glasses.

Watching Jim, Dwight, and Michael drive to Utica in three matching fake mustaches, I couldn't help but be reminded of that silly wig. We're nowhere near sell-out territory, but tonight's episode was a reminder that mediocreville can be as close to The Office as Utica is to Scranton...

Tonight marked the return of Karen to the show, which is something that I've been looking forward to since the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, much like the reveal of Pam and Jim's relationship, Karen's reappearance on the scene was oddly paced and ultimately anti-climatic.

That's two major dramatic points that the show has handled almost as an afterthought. I'm starting to think that this is a deliberate creative choice on the part of the producers. I suppose you could make the argument that they're going for realism (after all, most relationships don't start with a swell of music so much as the right combination of tequila and loneliness and when you run into your exes it's almost always under the worst of circumstances), but the three out of the last five episodes have eschewed realism in favor of going for some easy laughs.

I'm not sure, then, what the thinking behind this is; all I know is that I don't like it. I don't follow this show solely for the drama, but if they're going to build towards something "big" (like Jim and Pam getting together or Jim seeing Karen for the first time since the breakup), it shouldn't be handled with a smirk and a shrug. Casino Night proved that the writers know how to build to a big moment and that those moments are not out of place on the show. So, what's the deal this season?

As always, I could be wrong. Let me know in the comments!

The crux of tonight's episode was Karen trying to poach Stanley for the Utica office. She offers him more money (and the chance to live in Utica!) and Stanley decides to accept her offer. Michael, who can't deal with anyone leaving him, let alone the sassy black guy, doesn't want him to go. Stanley seems committed to the idea of leaving and Karen doesn't want to back down so, of course, the only recourse left for Micheal is revenge.

Meanwhile, we're made aware that there is a group even more exclusive than the Party Planning Committee: The Finer Things Club. Every week, Pam, Oscar, and Toby get together (in appropriate costume) and read a different book. Each of them have their reasons for being there: Pam is on a multi-season long exploration into self-improvement, Toby is harboring a Jim-sized crush on Pam, and Oscar is gay (funniest line of the night: "Other than having sex with men, The Finer Things Club is the gayest thing I do.")

I wasn't surprised a club like this existed at Dunder-Mifflin -- a group of d-bags getting together to experience "the finer things in life" while excluding their less advanced coworkers seems like something that could very well exist at any office -- but I was surprised to see Pam a part of it. I always got the feeling that despite her reservations about the people she worked with, she was ultimately an inclusive person. I'm all for Pam finding herself, but does she have to do it by losing everyone else? It made me not like her and I'm not used to disliking Pam.

(Though, to be honest, the tightness of her shirt this week went a long way towards undoing any negative thoughts I had about her. Yes, I know I'm a creep; I'm trying to work through it in therapy.)

Dwight and Michael tell Jim that their method of revenge is to make a monster sale and that they need his help. It's only when they're halfway to Utica do they tell him that the monster sale (a worthwhile revenge and one I wouldn't have minded seeing) was a lie and that they're really just going to Utica to perform a "panty-raid" on Karen (a ho-hum Season Four kind of revenge that I responded to about as well as Jim did).

This reveal was, for me, absolutely the best part of the episode because we got to see Jim legitimately mad for the first time... well, maybe ever. It was very nice to see Jim display an emotion other than supercilious exasperation. Perhaps John Krasinski has heard the minor online rumblings about his character becoming a one-note office smart-alec and demanded something a little juicier?

Michael's plan is about as well thought-out as any of his plans -- which is to say, not very well thought-out at all. It involves stink bombs (not real bombs, despite Dwight's insistence) and disguises. Each of them put on a Dunder-Mifflin warehouse uniforms and... fake mustaches. Yep, all three of them put on fake mustaches. I suppose it could have been worse -- the three of them could have gotten on each other's shoulders and worn a giant trench-coat Huey, Dewey and Louie style -- but I still thought the mustaches were pretty lame.

Listen, I'm not going to validate what Kevin said at The Office press conference last Saturday (that the bloggers who review the show are needlessly quick with harsh words and that we're always looking to declare it as "jumping the shark.") I love this show and even when it's off -- like tonight -- it's still better than just about any other option out there. No sharks were jumped tonight.

But, I can't help but feel that this season, despite some strong performers (like last week's Local Ad and Money before it), the show has been dangerously flirting with becoming a conventional sitcom. Funny, yes -- there's no denying that the visual of Jim and Dwight and Michael in the mustaches was funny -- but not special. The pleasure of The Office comes from the shock of recognition we all feel when we see something that is hilariously true about what it's like to work at a real office.

Let me ask you something: when was the last time your boss made you wear a fake mustache and drive to Utica?

Jim refuses to go with Michael and Dwight so we don't get to see exactly what happens, only hear about it over the walkie-talkie. They steal a large industrial copier and try to take it down a flight of stairs, wedging it in there and possibly breaking Dwight's hip. Just another twenty or so thousand dollars that Michael has cost the company.

This leads to Jim and Karen having their first conversation since last May. Karen reveals in a confessional that she's spent the last few months crying over Jim (I guess shaggy hair is the key to a woman's heart) and that she was happy to catch him in such an embarrassing predicament. Their big confrontation, though, is anything but. Essentially: Karen thinks Jim was there to see her; Jim says he wasn't because things are great with Pam; Karen gets upset and sarcastic; Jim gets uncomfortable and leaves.

Casino Night this ain't.

When the three get back to the office, a dejected Michael lets Stanley go. Stanley, however, was just playing Michael for more money and never had any intention of leaving. Michael, without realizing it, called Stanley's bluff. So, like any sitcom (ahem) we're back to the status quo by the end of the 30 minutes.

Other stuff:

-- There wasn't much supporting cast featured tonight. Where was Creed!? Where was Angela?! Where was Kelly and Darryl!?

-- Having spent last Saturday at The Office convention and getting to meet some of the cast, I spent the entire episode annoying the hell out of my wife by saying, "Oh, there's my dear and personal friend <insert name here>" whenever one of the cast members that I got to meet had screen time. If they ever do a reality show about me and my wife, I think one of the more intoxicating (and possibly deadly) drinking games that will come out of it will be "take a shot every time Kristina threatens to divorce Jay."

-- How great is Andy's political maneuvering? "The Finer Things Club is the most exclusive club in the office, so, of course, that's the club I need to be in."

-- Was tonight a further indication of more strife between Pam and Jim (that 'sorry' that she mouthed to the other members of the club for inviting him despite the fact that he obviously didn't read the book), or was it just a funny little capper at the end of the episode? I didn't really think it was, but they pay me the big bucks to over-analyze everything, so I thought I'd throw it out there.

-- "You're like my uncle. My Uncle Remus."

-- Stanley on Michael's Ferris Beuller dummy: "I still don't understand how sleeping in your office is better than not being in it."

-- "I think I cut my penis."

All right boys and girls: I'm going to go and try to sleep away what might be the worst headache I've ever had in my life. By my estimation it's being caused by either a deadly brain tumor or one of those Phenomenon-type tumors that'll give me super powers. If it's the former, I guess I won't be reviewing the show next week. If it's the latter, next week's review will be in Portuguese!

How do you feel about Season Four so far?
It's been a disappointment206 (22.9%)
It's been on par with what I expect from The Office556 (61.9%)
It's rocking my world: Best. Season. Ever.136 (15.1%)

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