Sunday, September 21, 2008

Buy The Office Season 4 DVD

By Rick Morris

September is always a big month for NBC’s THE OFFICE, with the release of the previous season’s DVD and the premier of the new season. My previous review of Season 3, which can be read here (and should be read if you are unfamiliar with the show and want to learn more, because it’s a fairly broad overview of not just that season, but the entire show) indicated that I recommended the DVD heartily. For that matter, I called the program the greatest in TV history in my opinion. In short, Season 4 did not change my opinion about that last note one bit.

The top subplot throughout the history of the show had been the saga of Jim and Pam and their circuitous route from being close friends past a number of self-imposed obstacles to being more than that (which was summed up in the above-linked column). The challenge for this peerless writing staff was to portray accurately the reality that would come from surmounting the misunderstandings and failed communication. I said in my Season 3 review that I loathed the sitcom portrayal of such couples and thought that the “Sam and Diane/Ross and Rachel” formula was hacky and completely unentertaining. I had full confidence that THE OFFICE would not milk melodrama for the sake of melodrama and allow the new circumstances to unfold in as natural a manner as everything that led up to it. The writers vindicated my confidence, as Jim and Pam didn’t actually have any problems during the year (with the possible exception of whether or not Jim was going to propose in the season finale, a point that we will cover a bit later) and indeed, they were in the background more than they were previously as some other storylines got a bit more play during the season.

One of the greatest elements of the program is how the writers can introduce a new element or development into the show very quickly and have it fit neatly alongside anything that has come before. So it was with the continuing twists and turns between office branch manager Michael and his former boss-turned-crazy-live-in-girlfriend Jan – but so it also was with a love triangle that seemed to come out of nowhere but flowed quite naturally between militaristic salesman Dwight, his secret girlfriend in accounting, the severe Angela, and annoying preppie salesman Andy. Along with the promotion of former temp Ryan to become Michael’s boss in New York, these were the most heavily featured storylines of the season.

In terms of Michael and Jan, the last we saw of them at the end of Season 3 was the beginning of the live-in phase of their relationship. Michael had dumped Jan late in the season due to the fact that he could no longer absorb her abusive treatment of him. In the final episode, he reconciled with her for the “mature” reason that she got a breast enlargement and she was then promptly fired as his supervisor. He invited her to move to Scranton and live with him and Season 4 showed the consequences of that decision.

Deprived of the high-powered job, the only thing in her life that made her feel important, Jan unraveled completely in Season 4:

^ With her own completely self-indulgent spending, she contributed mightily to the poor financial picture that his idiotic spending habits had created.

^ She double-crossed Michael on several different levels during the course of her unsuccessful lawsuit against the company.

^ After Michael trapped some of the office couples into joining him and Jan for a dinner party, she and Michael jointly accounted for one of the most uncomfortable episodes in TV history when they slowly and painfully broke up over the course of several hours in front of their associates.

^ Before the breakup, Jan had herself artificially inseminated, a development that she was forced to reveal to Michael during the season finale.

Incredibly, with Michael’s strong desire to have children, the final episode seemed to foreshadow Michael taking Jan back for a third time. His search for a new girlfriend had floundered (with especially memorable moments in the “Chair Model” episode), but the final episode seemed to indicate a promising new direction. The longtime object of his hatred, Toby in Human Resources, was moving to Costa Rica and his replacement, Holly, showed signs of being the one woman on Earth who actually seemed to be a good fit for the frequently infantile Michael. But in the end, it seemed that Michael’s inclination was to go back with Jan and put aside his intrigue for Holly. Indications are that the direction of this storyline will be fleshed out early in Season 5.

While the Michael-and-Jan saga has roots dating all the way back to the pilot episode, the Dwight/Angela/Andy saga materialized suddenly early in Season 4. In the season premier, “Fun Run,” Dwight took it upon himself to (clumsily) euthanize Angela’s sick-but-beloved cat Sprinkles without her knowledge, and despite his desperate efforts to apologize for his destructive-but-well-meaning actions, she pulled the plug on their relationship. Since the overly assertive Dwight and the self-righteous Angela seemed to be such a natural pairing – a pairing of two people that other, normal people would not be able to tolerate for very long – one was left to wonder who could possibly step into the situation. Enter Andy.

Aside from a relationship with a high school girl that the oblivious Andy believed to be much older in Season 3, he hadn’t really made any romantic connections in Scranton since moving almost a year earlier. He set his sights on Angela when she loudly proclaimed her availability after shedding Dwight – a rare move on her part that risked acknowledging her secret relationship with the bespecled oddity. Motivated largely by spite, Angela decided to openly date Dwight’s former nemesis. Throughout the season, Andy remained in the dark about the former relationship between Dwight and Angela even as he wondered why she remained chilly towards him well after they had started dating. This culminated with Andy’s proposal to Angela in front of everyone at the office at Toby’s farewell party in the season finale. She reluctantly accepted, but spent the final scene of the season going at it with Dwight in an empty office as a flustered Phyllis accidentally barged in on them. With Phyllis’ long history of mistreatment at the hands of Angela, including Angela's angry jealousy in that very episode when Phyllis was chosen by Michael to plan Toby’s farewell party – well, it promises to be a very interesting start to the new season.

Like the love triangle, the promotion of Ryan ran on a storyline arc from the season’s first episode to the last. When Jim turned down the chance to replace Jan in the Season 3 finale in favor of the chance to work things out with Pam, Ryan emerged from a crowded field as the shocking choice for the position. A former temporary employee who had never made a sale since joining the sales staff, he was prized by the New York office for the MBA that he had just received and for his familiarity with trendy business buzzwords. It became clear early on in Season 4 that he was not completely secure about having once been the bottom-rung guy in Scranton and now being the boss of the entire branch. Early on, his actions ran from bragging about how much he was enjoying various aspects of the big-city life to hitting on Pam (hilariously and unsuccessfully in front of Jim, as he had not yet learned of their relationship – in an equally riotous callback to late in Season 3 when it was learned that he had unsuccessfully hit on Karen when she was dating Jim) to pompously discussing the merits of his new Dunder-Mifflin website. But as the season progressed, the website’s bugs became more problematic and Ryan’s new coke habit worsened, the big boss’s ugly behavior towards his chosen scapegoat of Jim became uglier.

Eventually, in “Goodbye, Toby,” the financial fraud that he committed to bolster the website’s credibility caught up with him and he was seen by his old officemates doing the “perp walk” on YouTube. Season 5 will auger yet another boss over the Scranton office having to deal with Michael’s antics.

So with the other elements of Dunder-Mifflin Scranton moving into the forefront, Jim and Pam receded somewhat into the foreground this year and did not have contrived drama thrust upon them by the writers. It was inconceivable that after everything that had transpired between them – first, as their feelings developed during her engagement to Roy, then their estrangement as she turned him down right before her wedding, then his return to Scranton with Karen on his arm just as Pam was ready to ask Jim for a second chance, then the near-miss of Jim almost moving out of town with Karen – that the characters would in any realistic universe have to endure the hackneyed TV cliché “obstacles” that insecure writers trump up because they fear their audience becoming bored with a happy couple. Fortunately, again, the writers on this show are a cut above, and when they ran out of natural external obstacles between the best friends, they let matters run their course in a logical manner. What this meant was that the two did not have a single moment of serious consternation between them over the course of the season. But the superior abilities of these writers kept them interesting in the absence of melodrama:

^ Having refocused his energies more in the direction of his job in Season 3 when he was trying to deal with his Pam-angst, he found himself struggling at various times in Season 4 to manage some professional setbacks and frustrations – even before Ryan started messing with him.

^ The external element of tension added by Ryan’s antagonism and threats toward Jim played in nicely in the latter part of the season as it became apparent that Jim was going to propose to Pam and would not do so if he could not do so with a secure job status in hand.

^ Pam’s own professional confidence flagged when she learned how far away she might be from her design dreams in the “Job Fair” episode, but in “Goodbye Toby,” she learned that she had been accepted for a three-month program at a prestigious institution in New York.

In the season finale, with Ryan’s exposed misdeeds having eliminated him as a threat to Jim’s job and with Pam’s three-month exodus looming, Jim prepared to give Pam the engagement ring that he revealed in a “talking head” segment that he bought only a week after they finally got together. Jim even augmented the “party fund” by springing for fireworks to go along with Michael’s over-the-top expenditures for carnival rides and an ornate food selection – but just as Jim had subtly maneuvered the ring out of his pocket, Andy hijacked the moment with his own proposal to Angela. For Pam, who had speculated to the cameras that Jim would take that night to propose, there was much disappoint, matching Jim’s own. With her about to go away to the big city for three months, the new season will begin by showing how she and Jim are dealing with the separation and the first even half-unsettling development in their relationship.

As noted in our recent preview of the current season of IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, THE OFFICE and SUNNY are both characterized by an almost-complete breakdown of the traditional wall between writers and actors. Both shows feature cast and crew members who cross between different professional roles, and both shows seem much better for it in terms of everyone being on the same page creatively. I would strongly urge that any OFFICE fans acquire the Season 4 DVD available at Target, since it contains bonus footage of last year’s “Office Convention” in Scranton. Writers and actors appeared at roundtable question-and-answer segments with fans that were captured for that special edition of the DVD and if you ever wanted to learn a great deal more about the creative process of this elite program, you’ll want to watch this behind-the-scenes material.

In last year’s DVD review, we noted as well that the show’s greatness really flowed from its all-around abilities and the fact that it had successfully carried off every type of topic – from tragedy to comedy to relationship woes to human idiocy – completely flawlessly every time that it tried. This remained the case this year and the show even succeeded in adding wonderfully inexplicable layers to their different characters.

Perhaps the greatest example of this was the slow revelation over time that for all of the idiocy and immaturity that Michael projects on a daily basis, he seems to have odd and random bits of genius that materialize here and there:

^ In Season 2’s “The Client,” he shows himself to be capable of uncommon sales ability even in the face of difficult circumstances.

^ Michael has always nourished a seemingly inexplicable hatred for the quiet Toby, but as Toby’s secret crush on Pam deteriorated from the harmless and pathetic into something that caused him to direct passive-aggressive animosity towards Jim in Season 4, we saw that maybe Michael did indeed glimpse a darker side of the HR rep at some point.

^ For all of Michael’s clueless and often rude behavior that he exhibits on a day-to-day basis, it became clear that he actually had a firmer grasp on some aspects of the office than the level-headed Jim (i.e. the concept of every member of the office receiving an elaborate party to celebrate their birthday instead of a depersonalized monthly “mass party”).

Since even the most over-the-top characters have elements that humanize them or make them more three-dimensional, it’s hard to argue that this show is at worst one of the best on television today. I can’t urge you strongly enough to buy the Season 4 DVD (all seasons, actually) and to watch the new season that begins this Thursday night at 9 PM EDT on NBC.

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