Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tremendous Week: The Office Season 5 DVD review

By Rick Morris

As I've repeatedly mentioned here before, NBC's The Office has become my favorite show of all time. I enthusiastically recommended the Season 3 and Season 4 DVDs in previous reviews (Seasons 1 and 2 were also outstanding, but I did not receive the DVDs when they first came out and hence did not review them). I held my Season 5 review to post as a part of Tremendous Week with The 21st Century Media Alliance (which also included our coverage of the Fire Joe Morgan reunion on Deadspin yesterday). I realize that Ken Tremendous errrrrr Michael Schur has now moved on to Parks and Recreation (which, BTW, The Alliance will be liveblogging the season premiere of at 8:30 PM EDT on Googling Atlee Hammaker before we pick up the liveblogging right here on The FDH Lounge with The Office Season 6 premiere immediately afterwards), but he was a part of Season 5 and surely at the very least we haven't seen the last of him as Cousin Mose!

It must be noted that this DVD had high standards to meet given what had come before, but it clearly achieved at that level. True fans of the show know to look for the versions that include fun extras from the show and as such, I purchased the "Beet Box" being sold at Best Buy, which includes many pieces of Schrute Farms merchandise.

While it was in progress, Season 5 was often critiqued as being uneven on various message boards by the hardcore fans. Some episodes were held up as worthy of the vaunted Seasons 2 and 3 and others were considered more on the par of the less popular Season 4. As somebody who has loved all seasons more or less equally, I find some of the nitpicking to be silly, but it is impossible not to note in terms of creating a clear picture of public perception. The accounts of life at Dunder-Mifflin always contain humor, both broad and subtle, as well as accurate portrayals of human nature and the occational note of pathos.

Before we get started, one quick note: if you read the previous two DVD reviews, you will be familiar with most of the major plotlines in the history of the show leading into Season 5.

Season 5 was a tad different from years past in terms of having more mini-arcs than in past seasons. Generally, there were not as many important storyline progressions that only lasted part of a season as opposed to a full season. Here are some of the bigger ones:

^ Michael started the season answering directly to company CFO David Wallace before the rollercoaster of dealing with the idiot savant successes and infuriating childishness led the exec to hire a no-nonsense intermediary.

^ Pam spent the first part of the season at the Pratt Institute in New York as she pursued her art dreams. She and Jim had to manage a long-distance relationshp in the aftermath of Jim's failed proposal at the end of Season 4 (when Andy hilariously jumped in with his own proposal to Angela just as Jim was getting the words out of his mouth at Toby's farewell party).

^ Speaking of the Andy-Angela-Dwight triangle that materialized at the end of Season 4, it endured as a secret well into Season 5 before exploding dramatically.

To explain each of these elements further, in order:

^ At the end of Season 4, when Michael's "hated enemy," the hapless and mild-mannered Toby, relocated to Costa Rica, he was replaced by the goofy and attractive Holly. She proved to be Michael's perfect child-like match. Initial awkwardness faded away as each realized the extent of the other's interest (and as Michael lost interest once and for all in crazy ex Jan and her new sperm bank baby) and they were happy together -- until David discovered the relationship and, fearing potential trouble, had Holly transferred to New Hampshire. Unlike Jim and Pam, they couldn't even get a long-distance relationship off the ground and Michael's downward spiral ensued. Coincidentally, Holly was portrayed by Amy Ryan, who was previously on The Wire and Michael's late-season nemesis, Charles Miner, was also portrayed by a Wire alum (Idris Elba). He came into the picture after Michael got on David's last nerve (due to, among other things, failing to stop Dwight from repeatedly endangering the lives of fellow employees in the name of "safety" during The Office Super Bowl Special, Michael's outrageously inappropriate presentations that he delivered on the ill-fated "lecture tour" of other branches that David designed for him and Michael's harebrained "Willy Wonka" sales promotion that could have financially crippled the Scranton branch). Tough guy Charles unexpectedly induced Michael to quit and start up the Michael Scott Paper Company. The short-lived battle between the upstart and established firms was headlined by a struggle between Michael and former (and future) protege Dwight and it put Jim and Pam on separate sides after she quit the D-M reception desk to sell for MSPC. In the end, Jim was the unlikely hero as his actions preserved a merger on MSPC's terms. He was motivated not only by a desire to help Pam, but also to undermine Charles, who had developed an immediate and irrational dislike of him.

^ As for Pam, she started the season in New York literally and in marital limbo figuratively after Andy's hijacked proposal. However, in characteristic fashion, she and Jim endured before reaching a breaking point (think back to Casino Night and Beach Games) and the proposal came in an unlikely but memorable way. Pam had a love-hate relationship with her new harried life and she had a smitten male friend try to convince her to stay in NYC for good. But faced with having to stay longer to retake a class, she chose to go home.

^ The very last scene of Season 4 came when Phyllis walked in on Angela and Dwight in a compromising position -- the very night the office phony got engaged to Andy! This allowed Phyllis to blackmail the moralist into permanently surrendering the Party Planning Committee leadership. More importantly, however, the ongoing affair continued even as Andy unwittingly drew Dwight into the wedding planning! Eventually, however, the truth came out and after a wild duel sequence, the two learned of the depths of Angela's treachery and BOTH dumped her! At the end of the season, however, there were subtle signs (further fleshed out on the DVD) of a potential Dwight-Angela reunion, which would be weird but certainly entirely fitting.

The multiple partial-season arcs helped to keep a disproportionate focus off of Jim and Pam. I correctly forecast at the end of Season 3 that once the obstacles were cleared out of their way that there would be no silly "Ross'n'Rachel" or "Sam'n'Diane" melodrama-for-the-sake-of-melodrama. The writers accomplished this by moving them from the forefront in Season 4. Viewers were still invested in the ongoing story and the occasional (small) bumps in the road have been addressed in realistic fashion. These included:

^ resolution of the engagement issue, which started in late Season 4 when Pam indicated that she would not repeat her mistake with Roy and move in without a ring

^ the occasional feelings of disconnection and dislocation between them during Pam's time away, which were subtly fueled by a gleeful Roy's planting of troubling thoughts in Jim's head

^ the wrapup of Pam's Scranton-or-NYC tug-of-war

^ Pam's favorable reaction to Jim's big gamble of buying his parents' house as a surprise gesture

^ the effects of the discord between Pam's parents -- and how it ultimately delivered a reinforcement about the value of Jim where she least expected it

^ Pam's post-Pratt thoughts about her professional future leading to the abrupt decision to leave D-M, only to return as not a receptionist, but a full-fledged saleswoman - with Jim to thank for instigating what amounted to a company bailout and her securing that position over Jim's old nemesis Ryan

^ the season-ending pregnancy revelation, prefaced by Jim once referring to Pam as "the future mother of my children," Pam's encounter with a pregnant (and forgiving) Karen and Pam's discovery about her parents and the lesson for her future

As is always the case, the surrounding characters proved to be part of the greatest ensemble on television:

^ Ryan returned from his ill-fated executive tenure at corporate and subsequent legal mess to begin again at the bottom of the ladder as a temp -- where he also ended the season. In between, he re-wooed and re-dumped Kelly, took a trip out of town (not to where he said it was!), returned to work at a bowling alley, sold for MSPC and then lost out to Pam for the sales position after the merger. The payback he received in Scranton was delicious in light of his Season 4 power trip.

^ Dwight had a typical Dwight year: tricking Angela into marrying him during their affair behind Andy's back, the duel with Andy, subsequently forming a weird friendship with Andy, bristling under Charles' dress code before transferring his allegiance to him and trying to destroy MSPC, putting down Pam's art aspirations ... this remains one of the most unique characters in TV history.

^ Almost in spite of himself, Kevin won the affections of a fairly attractive woman in a nearby office.

^ Phyllis and Bob Vance (Vance Refrigeration) took their piggy love to new and disturbing heights on Valentine's Day.

^ New receptionist Erin learned to navigate the insanity of Dunder-Mifflin Scranton.

^ Angela weathered the fallout from her exposure in characteristically defiant fashion.

^ Andy was morose for awhile after the breakup with Angela, but he became more upbeat late in the season and showed an interest in new girl Erin.

^ Kelly was, well, Kelly ... with relationship drama with Darryl and then Ryan again, getting revenge on Dwight and Jim for a perceived slight and taking a weight-loss challenge way too far.

^ As is the case every year, what can you really say about Creed?

^ Stanley's heart gave way to the stress of the office before he failed as Charles' "productivity czar" due to crossword puzzles not being a part of that equation.

^ Oscar bonded with Andy in a strange manner during their trip to Canada with Michael.

^ Crazy Jan finally pushed her luck with Michael too far.

^ Meredith had a near-miss with alcohol rehab -- not the first in her life, I'd wager!

The DVD extras also added much to the value of the product, as is always the case. A wealth of deleted scenes add so much depth for the completists in the fanbase -- as well as just delivering more fun. There's also so much else that adds value, such as a great blooper reel, episode commentaries, 100 moments from the first 100 episodes (check out #60, prompting the "Everyone poops" justification from Mose Schrute in a Season 4 deleted scene) and what is always one of the best parts of the annual DVD release: the look behind the curtain. This year, that comes in the form of a Q&A session that Andy Richter conducts with the writers and actors. The creative process for this show is incredible and it's always informative to learn more about how everything comes together with the show. There is also considerable entertainment in these features every year because of the wit of those involved and the off-camera camaraderie that is so appparent.

This truly is, in my opinion, the greatest show that television can boast. As this is being posted, the Season 6 premiere is mere hours away and I can't wait. Let us remind you again that The 21st Century Media Alliance will be liveblogging the season premiere of at 8:30 PM EDT on Googling Atlee Hammaker before we pick up the liveblogging right here on The FDH Lounge with The Office Season 6 premiere immediately afterwards. Soak in the love of a truly Tremendous Week!

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