Overthinking Doctor Who Part Two: Enter Ten

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

Between series one and two begins a beloved annual tradition, the Doctor Who Christmas special. David Tennant, briefly glimpsed in the traditional post-regeneration new-guy cameo, makes his proper debut in the closing act of The Christmas Invasion. Before that… well…

Regenerating from absorbing the Time Vortex takes a lot out of The Doctor, and he ends up in a coma for most of the episode. While he sleeps… stalked by robot Santas and Christmas trees… aliens invade, compelling a large chunk of the human race to walk up onto the roof. With The Doctor out of commission, it’s up to Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (told you she’d be back) to face down the invaders.

No, I didn’t say “Harriet Jones and Rose Tyler.” Sure, she’s still here, but she is goddamned useless. If she hadn’t almost wiped out the Earth through her daddy issues, this would definitely be Rose Tyler at her worst. Like half an hour of ugly crying and one pathetic attempt to stand up to the invading Sycorax, and then The Doctor strolls out in his jim-jams and sorts everything out through an epic introductory scene. No, David Tennant doesn’t stroll out, he struts out. He owns every frame of his screentime, and shows off everything that’s amazing about Ten.

This is the only time a Christmas special has ever been used as an intro episode for a new Doctor. Mostly it goes the other way, with three Doctors so far using Christmas (or a combination of Christmas and New Year’s) for their swan songs.

Series Two: “The Doctor, in the Tardis, with Rose Tyler. Just as it should be.”

…Or should it?

As Doctor Who tribute band Chameleon Circuit  put it…

“Because my life before you was unreasonably mundane
Never been happier although we face death every day,
I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

See… supporting cast are often quick to point out the dangers of life with The Doctor. Unreasonably high risk of Dalek-murder, proven risk of Cyberman-related death, and the fact that wanting to impress The Doctor makes people all-too-willing to throw themselves into all of that danger. But what doesn’t get brought up enough is that life in the Tardis is a drug. Life back home can never, ever compete to exploring all of time and space with the most remarkable man (soon to be woman) you’ll ever meet.

And that’s where we find Rose. We’d seen, more than once, that Rose was choosing Tardis life over home life, and given how Jackie and Mickey made it look, who on Earth could blame her. But it gets worse this season. Pay attention and you’ll see it. The very idea of leaving The Doctor seems toxic to Rose. She would stay on a collapsing space station rather than leave it without him. She would abandon her mother on an alternate Earth rather than leave The Doctor’s side. Earth life is losing all meaning as she loses herself in The Doctor.

It’s not just the time travel and other worlds anymore. The Doctor and Rose Tyler are falling in love, which was unprecedented for any incarnation of this show. Even Romana, the only Time Lord companion who wasn’t a blood relation, was a student and not a girlfriend. They might not be able to say the words until it’s too late (or a second past that), but it’s happening. It’s clear. And it’s not heading to a happy place.

He tries to warn her it can only end sadly. “You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of my life with you.” But she only cares about that first half, even if her mother fears that everything that was Rose Tyler is being hollowed out by the experience. Not that Jackie’s opinion on the subject had ever been trustworthy, but… she doesn’t seem to be entirely wrong. Rose is only alive when she’s near The Doctor, and that’s not healthy.

The Doctor

“Look at these people, these human beings. Consider their potential! From the day they arrive on the planet, blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than – no, hold on. Sorry, that’s The Lion King…”

Tennant’s Doctor is a tour de force. His edge has softened since Nine, but it’s not gone. Never gone. But when Ten’s charming and personable, it’s not covering pain. He authentically loves (nearly) everyone, bonds easily, and never forgets a face, even if it was someone he only met briefly who’s aged a couple of decades. Chat with Ten for a few minutes and he’ll be your new best friend. But cross him and you’ll live in fear.

He’s filled with love and compassion, but do. Not. Cross. Him. Tennant goes from gleeful to burning rage on a dime, and the fury of this Time Lord is not to be trifled with. His smile could melt ice, but his rage burns like the sun.

He’s brilliant at speeches. He turns a phrase like nobody’s business (Just watch his fascination with a “big, red button that must never be pressed”). He’s possibly the most lovable Doctor since Tom Baker. I think. I have seen practically no Peter Davison episodes, so I’m kind of guessing on that front.

If you can’t love the Tenth Doctor, you can’t love Doctor Who, and if that’s the case… in his words, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

The Companion

Rose is in love. Deeply, passionately, the type of love that they’d write novels about in the 19th century. Tragic novels. Novels about houses brought to ruin by doomed romance. Her love for The Doctor plays out more like addiction than true love. In most cases, left without The Doctor, she collapses.

There are exceptions. Fear Her, most notably, where The Doctor is taken out of commission and Rose has to finish saving the Earth. Which, with help from the sidelined Doctor, she manages to do. But this is driven more by a need to get him back than a desire to help out anyone else. And when the monster is stopped, it takes a lot for her to care about anything but where The Doctor is.

And her daddy issues are ongoing and rampant. Upon accidentally landing on a parallel Earth where her father never died (or had kids), despite every protest The Doctor lodges, she is drawn to her alt-father like iron to a magnet. This might technically result in The Doctor saving everyone on Earth-2 faster than he might otherwise have, but it doesn’t quite excuse how she cannot wrap her head around “alternate Earth, these are not your parents.”

And she accidentally protects the ultimate evil a little in The Satan Pit but that’s largely excusable.

Rose spends series two insisting that she’ll stay with The Doctor forever, no matter how many red flags ex-companions, her mother, and possibly-Satan throw her way suggesting that she might be wrong about that.

Torchwood

This year’s Bad Wolf is Torchwood, briefly mentioned in the episode Bad Wolf. In the second episode, Tooth and Claw, Queen Victoria, angered over her run-in with aliens and their nonsense, founds the Torchwood Institute to deal with alien menaces.

And then they get mentioned once per episode until taking centre stage for the two-part finale.

It’s kind of weak, really. They don’t add anything to series two. The finale could have been centered around anyone… Earth-1’s Cyberdyne Industries, Harry Van Statten’s people, anyone. That it happened to be a clandestine government agency stealing alien tech to advance Britain is just sort of… there.

All it really does is pave the way for Captain Jack Harkness’ spinoff, as Jack takes control of what’s left of Torchwood following the finale.

The Supporting Cast

Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith improved this year. Jackie didn’t get less demanding, but did begin to shift away from being a personification of the mundane life Rose seeks to escape and towards the real life Rose is throwing away to run from disaster to disaster, monster to monster. Jackie’s concerns about Rose’s safety stop being over-protectiveness (although… not that “over,” all things considered) and start being a legitimate concern about her state of mind.

And Mickey grows tired of being the one left behind. He steps up, joins Team Tardis for a spell, and then charts his own path as a defender of the Earth.

Pete Tyler is a bigger part of the show this year… well, Pete Tyler, because of course he does, because the only thing that drives Rose more than loving The Doctor is her literally world-shattering daddy issues.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Welcome back The Doctor’s number three classic villain, the Cybermen.

Upgrade or be deleted. You pick.

Only now, in a world with actual production values, they’re more horrifying metal monsters instead of people in flimsy looking silver jumpsuits. The Cybermen come into being on an alternate Earth, but eventually find their way to Earth-1. And even if they didn’t, a much later episode claims that the Cybermen happen, always. Wherever man considers upgrading himself with cybernetics, a time will come when emotions will be considered a weakness, and Cybermen will come into being. And from there, they’ll decide everyone should be Cybermen.

This Year in Daleks: What, you thought Rose wiping out all of the Daleks meant no more Daleks? Please. The Daleks come back from utter extinction no less than four times. This year, we meet the Cult of Skaro: Daleks Sec, Jast, Caan, and Thay.

Sec’s gon’ give it to ya

Tasked by Dalek high command during the Time War to experiment with that so un-Dalek notion, creativity, they were the first (and only) Daleks to adopt names, and escaped the end of the Time War by hiding in the void between universes. Not a fun choice for them, all told. They also experimented with something much more important… smack talk. Dalek/Cybermen trash talk is something beautiful to behold. Not that fans didn’t experiment with some improvements.

The Good: The Krillitane might be a little cheesy in their CG bat form, but in their evil teacher/Anthony Head form they work well. As do the clockwork robots of The Girl in the Fireplace. Cassandra the Last Human makes a body-hopping return appearance, only not to end up the villain of the episode.

The Bad: Enjoy watching spoiled brats have a tantrum? No? Then Fear Her might be a rough ride. Also… she mostly works, but I do find the face-eating television lady from The Idiot Lantern a little smug and grating at times.

The Ugly: Look… I’m not saying that Doctor Who shouldn’t work with the Children in Need charity… but the Abzorbaloff is what happens when you ask children to design monsters and promise to put the winner on television.

Yeah. Not… not great.

Could they afford a CG werewolf stalking Queen Victoria through a Scottish manor? No. Should they not have had a werewolf, aided by kung fu monks, stalking Queen Victoria through a Scottish manor? Hell no, that was awesome.

High Point

It’s hard to pick. There are two amazing episodes near the beginning, and it’s impossible to choose which is the real highlight. They aren’t a two-parter, but they are back-to-back.

School Reunion sees The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey investigating bizarre behaviour at a school… bizarre behaviour that has also attracted the attention of Sarah Jane Smith, companion to the Third and Fourth Doctors, and one of the longest-running and most beloved companions of the original series. And even better? She’s brought K-9, the robot dog who The Doctor adopted for much of the 70s.

This was huge for me, since Sarah Jane and K-9 were right out of my childhood. My earliest Who episodes were Tom Baker and Sarah Jane, and K-9 becoming a part of the Tardis crew was the greatest non-Jedi and non-Ghostbuster thing tiny me had ever seen. So having them back was brilliant. Sarah Jane seeing the Tardis for the first time in decades, K-9 back in action, and Rose seeing the first thing that’s truly scared her since she started travelling in the Tardis… the possibility that she could be left behind one day. And it doesn’t hurt that the episode is very well done, features a pivotal character beat for Mickey, has a great villain played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head, and one of the more simply chilling moments for Ten’s dark side. “I used to have so much mercy. One warning. That’s all you get.” This would easily have been the highlight of the year.

But then it’s followed by The Girl in the Fireplace, which is just amazing. Ten, Rose, and on his first proper Tardis voyage ever, Mickey find a spaceship run by clockwork robots and stalking a French noblewoman 3000 years in the past throughout her whole life. Yes, it’s the Moffat episode, and it’s brilliant. Hilarious in places, heartbreaking in others, one of their best historical guest stars in Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis and the uncrowned Queen of France, plenty of callback lines to his last episodes and a few lines that will be called back to in a few years. It’s a genius piece of storytelling that has one of my all-time favourite exchanges:

“It’s a spacio-temporal hyperlink.”
“What’s that?”
“No idea. Made it up. Didn’t want to say ‘Magic door.'”

And this great deleted scene.

I can’t say enough good things about The Girl in the Fireplace, so I’ll stop trying.

Low Point

I always thought it would be Love & Monsters, the first Doctor-light episode, with The Doctor and Rose barely appearing. I mean any episode with more Jackie Tyler than The Doctor can’t be all that great, can it?

But no, it’s Fear Her.

In Fear Her, a trip to 2012 to check out the London Olympics brings The Doctor and Rose into conflict with an alien being that has possessed a young girl, Chloe Webber. Chloe was traumatized by her (now dead) abusive father, and the alien comes from a race that telepathically clings to each other to endure their journeys through space. Now it’s been cut off, lacking connection to billions of friends and family, and is attempting to fight its loneliness by trapping nearby people in drawings.

This is… an annoying monster. Not horrible like the Slitheen, but just annoying. There’s an element of sympathy here, because she’s going crazy from solitude. But her method of dealing with it is inflicting real damage on people. The Doctor and Rose clash on this, correctly identifying it as a child throwing a tantrum. Rose favours discipline, The Doctor empathy… he thinks the only humane response is to find a way to get her back to her people. Once she’s reconnected to billions of her own kind, she won’t need to possess Chloe and lash out at the world.

But she is possessing Chloe and is lashing out at the world. She is trapping innocent people in living Hells and then getting mad at them for not liking it. And she comes alarmingly close to doing this to the entire world.

And she isn’t even sorry. I agree that we’re talking about a traumatized child, so The Doctor’s solution is the best one. Put things right rather than inflicting further harm. But the humane solution falls slightly flat when that punk-ass, whisper-talking, world-ruining psychopath child alien doesn’t even seem to understand why what she did was wrong.

Better hope she doesn’t get lost again, is all I’m saying.

It just makes for an unsatisfying episode.

Highlights?

The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit introduce everyone’s favourite tentacle-faced aliens, the Ood, and are a nicely tense two-parter. Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel are the lynchpin of series two, and allow Mickey to finally be more than the “tin dog” of Rose’s pals and gals. And Tooth and Claw features Queen Victoria, shaolin monks, and a werewolf. I have hooked people on this show with that description alone.

Skippables?

You know, I just don’t love everything in between The Satan Pit and Army of Ghosts. Huh. That turns out to only be two episodes. Love & Monsters and Fear Her. I made my feelings clear regarding Fear Her, and Love & Monsters is just a little… disposable. If you’re going to introduce a bunch of lovable losers and have them become a make-shift family only to start immediately killing them off, make it a better episode.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: I mentioned Anthony Head. Future companion and Sense8’s Best Girlfriend Ever, Freema Agyeman, has a brief role in Army of Ghosts, which is retconned to be her future character’s weirdly identical cousin. They don’t say “weirdly identical,” that’s me, because I have seven cousins and none of us look that similar to each other. Sophia Myles is the titular Girl in the Fireplace, but maybe only I know her from stuff? You might not. Harry Potter’s Moaning Myrtle is a member of LINDA in Love & Monsters.

The Face of Boe is back, with a message for The Doctor that he isn’t quite ready to deliver. In The Doctor’s words… “That is enigmatic. That is textbook enigmatic.”

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Brilliant!” followed closely by “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” But his signature line debuts in the second to last episode.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: As mentioned, we double up this season with Queen Victoria and Madame de Pompadour.

Saddest moment: “I suppose, if it’s my last chance to say it… Rose Tyler–”

Next time, The Doctor’s on the rebound with the first Companion of Colour.

Overthinking Doctor Who Part One: Back from the Dead

Look, if I can spend eleven posts talking about The Office, I can probably manage a few about Doctor Who.

Anyone who knows me… or takes even one look around my living room… knows how much I love Doctor Who. Always have, as far back as I can remember. There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

Series One: “I’m The Doctor, by the way, what’s your name?”

Series one (“series” is British for “season,” and the way their TV shows work, a more apt description) was a miracle. A gift. Doctor Who had been off televisions, more or less, for almost twenty years. The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace had wandered off, and that was it. Save for radio dramas. And the infamous American TV movie, an attempt to launch an American Doctor Who series… on Fox.

That feels like a bad match, network-wise, but in the dark years before Netflix and Amazon Prime it’s hard to think of a network that would be better.

And the weird thing is, as much as we disliked it at the time… enough that I’ve owned it on DVD for years, but still haven’t actually watched it since 1996… it actually serves as a bridge between the languidly paced cliffhanger serial that was old Who, and the more action-driven series it’s become.

So the first series had a daunting job ahead of it. They had to appeal to old-school fans, but also win over a new generation. A generation who might not be used to the BBC’s bargain-basement effects. But they did a decent job. In fact, I’d say a great job.

It’s easy to look down on series one, given that every series is an improvement on the one before it* until… look, series eight had its issues, I don’t deny that. But it is fun, and it’s charming, and it does a solid job of making you love its central characters, whose largest flaw is that they get a little overshadowed by their replacements.

*In my opinion, which is the one we’re listening to here.

The Doctor

Christopher Eccleston had the job of re-introducing TV’s favourite Time Lord. And while the Tennants and Smiths to come may have overshadowed him, that’s not his fault. His material was… slightly dodgy. His Doctor, when you pay attention, is actually pretty great.

A major theme of series one isn’t entirely apparent until you look back on it years later. But the hints are there. Nine is fresh out of the unspeakable, indescribable, and most certainly unfilmable horrors of the Time War. Right before meeting Rose, he (as far as he knows) wiped out his own species, burned his own homeworld, in the desperate hopes of stopping the last great Time War before it could end all of existence.

And that’s the Doctor Eccleston plays. A man haunted by his own deeds, still grappling with the trauma of unspeakable conflict ended with an unbearable price. He’s the last of the Time Lords, and the only way he can deal with that is to grab onto a new companion and run as fast as he can from adventure to adventure.

Nine has a pretty great sense of humour, to be sure, but if you watch closely, you notice something… it’s a defense mechanism. He’s never more jovial than when he’s covering up his own pain and sorrow. This means he’s thoroughly pleasant when he meets Rose, but that’s mostly because he’s freshly regenerated from his Time War self, as we can surmise from him apparently seeing his face for the first time in his second scene.

He’s also got a temper, and is swift to turn on any humans who let him down or seem to be serving a greater evil. When someone helping run a series of game shows that slaughter their contestants states they’re only doing their job, she gets a swift and cold “And with that sentence you’ve lost the right to talk to me.” On the other hand, show promise and he warms up to you. And in Dalek, he begins to shake the trauma of the Time War. He begins to heal, to walk the path away from destruction and towards becoming the everyone’s-best-pal Doctors that are Ten and Eleven.

This progression builds to a head in the season finale, when he finds himself confronted with the same choice that ended the Time War: burn a planet, kill billions of innocents, to end the Daleks. And his choice, in that moment, sums up Nine’s 13 episode journey. The Daleks ask… is he a coward, or a murderer?

“A coward,” he says, abandoning his plan. “Every time.”

Anti-Moffat fans are known to say “Never skip Nine,” out of respect for what Eccleston accomplished. On this, and this alone, we agree. As to Eleven going back on what Nine said, they can get stuffed. But that’s a future discussion.

The Companion

Unpopular opinion coming… Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is the worst contemporary companion. Fight me.

She has her strengths, sure. She is, in her way, exactly what the PST-ridden Ninth Doctor needs. An innocent, filled with curiosity, wonder, and unshakable goodness. She pushes Nine to be a better man by refusing to accept he could be anything else. The Doctor refuses to burn the Earth to stop the Daleks because of Rose’s influence. A classic trope: the companion saves The Doctor so that The Doctor can save everyone. She’s also not without her moments of intuition.

That said.

She is not, when you get down to it, all that useful. For every monster she plays a key role in defeating, there’s a situation she makes actively worse, or an episode where she just collapses into a weepy mess. Mostly she’s there to coo over The Doctor while he saves the day, and improbably believes she represents her species at their best.

And then there’s her daddy issues.

She’s so obsessed with the father who died when she was a baby, she tears a hole in the fabric of time and nearly dooms the entire Earth. Say what you like about Clara Oswald, she never almost wiped out humanity because she was selfish and stupid about history.

Bad Wolf

Russell T. Davies, the man who brought Doctor Who back to television, didn’t really do season arcs. What he would do is have some sort of recurring reference that would finally pay off in the last two episodes of the series. In this case, it’s the words “Bad Wolf.”

The words haunt The Doctor and Rose, being spoken or appearing as text in nearly every episode, until in Boomtown they finally begin to notice and think it’s odd. Why is this happening? Frankly… it’s weird.

Turns out Rose, imbued in the finale with god-like powers by the Heart of the Tardis, planted those words everywhere she and The Doctor had been as a message to herself, that she could in fact get back to the future and save The Doctor.

Sounds… sounds kind of dodgy, doesn’t it? Well, it… mostly works. And the finale also pays off threads started in two of series one’s best episodes, Dalek and The Long Game, so there’s a sense of everything coming together.

That said… anti-Moffat people sometimes complain that Moffat relied on deus ex machina endings. In The Parting of the Ways, Rose gets godlike powers from the Tardis, uses them to magically fix all of their problems, and then The Doctor makes her all better with a kiss.

So if deus ex machinas bother you in the Moffat years, I have to ask what the Hell show you were watching up until then.

The Supporting Cast

The revival of Doctor Who introduced a new element that the classic series never really had: the idea that The Doctor’s companions have friends and family back home that they want to keep in touch with. Normally a companion would get swept up (or assigned to him by UNIT*), bounce around time and space with The Doctor, and eventually get dropped off somewhere to live their post-Tardis life (or, in one case… not). Well, except for Jon Pertwee’s main companions, who didn’t get to travel much.

But Rose Tyler has a home, and she even chooses to check in with it now and again, which allows Russell T. Davies to launch his favourite recurring theme: Everyone’s Mother is Awful.

That’s… I’m not saying that. I don’t even agree with that. My mother isn’t awful, yours probably isn’t either. But if you’re a companion to a Davies-era Doctor, you’re probably unpleasant.

(If you’re the mother of a Moffat-era companion, you’re probably dead. Neither trend is ideal.)

So. Jackie Tyler.

Rose’s overbearing mother turns up no less than six times over the first series, and she’s a nuisance in five of them. Overprotective, over talkative, and we see where Rose gets her weepiness. Jackie Tyler represents, personifies the humdrum, empty life that Rose is trying to escape. There might be real love between the Tyler women, but the one good thing she does in series one is help Rose leave again in the finale.

But we also see where Rose gets her “take no crap from man, god, or Dalek” attitude from, because if her daughter’s in danger, she’ll take no crap from a Time Lord. Which rarely accomplishes anything, and in fact at one point puts the whole world in danger, but still?

And then we have Mickey Smith. Known at times as “Mickey the Idiot,” he actually deserves a bit more respect than the show cares to give him. Mickey is Rose’s kind of useless boyfriend, who she quickly and happily abandons to see all of time and space. This… damages his life. A lot. Mickey never fully gets over Rose, but also learns that he’ll never really have a key place in her life. She’ll always run off with The Doctor, but lord save him, he’ll still come running when she calls.

Mickey is a prototype for a later, better companion. He exists to not be caught up in The Doctor’s aura, to never fall for his charms, to be the first to point out the damage he’s capable of leaving in his wake. Trouble is, he mostly just comes across as whiny and jealous. But he still has his uses. In Rose, he’s Rose Tyler’s boat anchor. By World War III, he’s learning to hack global defense agencies. But mostly he’s just here to be angry that Rose will never choose him over The Doctor.

And there’s one more of note, but we’ll get to him in a minute.

*Unified Intelligence Taskforce, the UN organization that deals with all these alien invasions and whatnot. They’ll come up again.

The Monsters: Good, Bad, and Ugly

The Big Bad: They waste little time (five episodes, to be precise) before getting to the biggest bads in Doctor Who history… the Daleks. They hang a lampshade on all the easily mockable aspects of the classic pepper pots of death… having a plunger for an arm, being seemingly unable to handle stairs… and then push past them. The plunger arm kills a guy, and with post-80s effects, making a Dalek fly is easy enough. One Dalek slaughters his way through dozens of armed guards. And then they dare you to feel empathy for the perfect killing machine.

The Good: The Editor in The Long Game is a top-notch example of a frequent type of Who villain, the human all too willing to sell out his species for power and profit. And he’s played by Simon Pegg, who’s delightful in the role. See also Dalek’s human villain, Henry van Statten.

And future showrunner Steven Moffat shows how he can create classic, creepy villains with just a few flourishes. The Empty Child’s titular villain, a small boy in a gasmask stalking the homeless children of Blitz-era London, is damned unsettling.

The Bad: The goddamn Slitheen. I’ll come back to that.

The Gelf, aliens that use gas to inhabit the bodies of the dead, aren’t really anything to write home about.

The Ugly: Man those bat/vulture aliens from Father’s Day are some bad, cheap CG. Good thing that episode’s real villain is Rose Tyler’s daddy issues.

High Point

The final five minutes of The Doctor Dances are, without question, the most beautiful five minutes of the year. One of the most beautiful sequences of the show’s first five years, frankly. And the road to that point is a fantastic two-parter.

See, Steven Moffat didn’t get asked to replace Davies as showrunner for no reason. During the Davies era, Moffat would come in, write one story per series, and it would be the best one. Or one of them, anyway. In this case, it’s The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances.

We’ve got a brilliant monster in the titular Empty Child (the phrase “Are you my Mummy?” will freak you right out), some perfect subtle scares, a heartbreaking and then heart lifting plot, and the best lines of the year. Anything The Doctor has to say about bananas is gold.

And if that’s not enough, it’s also the first appearance of John Barrowman as time-travelling con artist turned defender of mankind, Captain Jack Harkness. The omni-sexual time traveller out for redemption is a fan-favourite, and you’ll love him too. I mean, he was the first character to get a spinoff for a reason.

Low Point

The goddamn Slitheen.

Aliens of London and World War Three have their moments. Harriet Jones, MP, is a fun and ultimately important character, and this is her debut. Also, Rose’s mother finds out what exactly Rose has been up to, when an attempt to stop off at home 12 hours after they first left goes askew and they discover Rose has been presumed missing for 12 months.

However.

The A-plot to this two parter is simply insufferable. The Slitheen, a family of murderous alien criminals, seize control of the UK in an attempt to nuke the Earth and sell off the slag. All with shit-eating grins and an overwhelming amount of fart jokes. They are actively painful to watch. As a result, this two-parter is virtually irredeemable.

I hate it when the annoying villains get two-parters. That’s two episodes of Nine’s very short run they burned on this train wreck. The Slitheen got one more (admittedly improved) appearance later in the year, and then were banished to the even more kid-friendly* spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures.

*Yes, despite how obsessed adults get with this show, and despite the body count, in the UK it is still largely considered children’s programming. Go figure.

Highlights?

It’s remarkable how much the show improves the second you get away from the Slitheen. Dalek, The Long Game, those are classics by any measure.

Rose is probably still the second best introductory episode ever (my favourite is yet to come), because, well, it had to be. But those first few lines from The Doctor sold me on Nine right away, from his simple intro line (“Run!”) to actually introducing himself (“Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!”). It was a perfect, high-speed into to the central character.

Skippables?

Look, I tried this time, I really tried, to get through the whole first series without skipping anything. But I can’t. I just can’t. The Slitheen are awful. Smug, campy, farty, painful to watch. I can’t go back.

And if the early production values annoy you, or the high camp levels, there is a streamlined approach I’ve recommended in the past. Skip from The End of the World all the way to Dalek. All you’ll miss in The Unquiet Dead is the first of a seven-series long tradition of historical guest stars and a meta-joke that comes from one of the cast turning up in the Who-spinoff Torchwood a couple of years down the line.

You can skip Father’s Day if you like. I think the emotional payoff works, but it is most defintely Rose Tyler at her very worst. And if you’ve skipped Aliens of London and World War Three to avoid the goddamn Slitheen, you may as well also skip Boomtown. The Slitheen in question has improved as a villain, she has an amusing philosophical showdown with The Doctor, Captain Jack is in it, and the resolution sets up something kind of important, so it’s hardly all bad. However, it’s still a Slitheen episode, and the B plot is a relatively empty and meaningless character beat for Mickey and Rose, so it’s not all great either. If your goal is to reach the greener pastures of David Tennant’s run… well, you can always come back later.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: Not something old-school Who was known for (save for a 70s cameo by John Cleese), but new Who manages a few. Simon Pegg is the most notable in The Long Game, which also features Black Books and Green Wings Tamsin Grieg. Penelope Wilton of Shaun of the Dead and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is backbench MP Harriet Jones, who we’ll be seeing more of. And notable British actor Simon Callow is the first historical guest star, Charles Dickens, in The Unquiet Dead.

Perhaps the very best explanation for how British The Doctor is comes in the first episode:
“If you’re an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the north?”
“Lots of planets have a north!”

“Bananas are good.”

The End of the World introduces the Face of Boe. He’s gonna be important.

Rose hints at visiting other worlds, but they must all be off-camera. Series one never makes it further away from Earth than orbit.

Doctor Quote of the Series: “Fantastic!”

Saddest moment: Heartbreak is inevitable on this show, but the hardest hits come from Pete Tyler’s big sacrifice in Father’s Day and the end of Nine in The Parting of the Ways.

Next time… welcome to the Tardis, Mr. Tennant. It’s going to be brilliant.

Overthinking The Office Part 9.5: Goodbye, Farewell, That’s What She Said

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are the last of mine.

For now.

Preparing for the End

The final episode of The Office takes place one year after the release of the documentary (which happened in the previous episode), as the crew returns to Scranton (just in time for Angela and Dwight’s wedding) to film some bonus material for the DVD. I could spend this last Office blog just walking you through all the ups and downs, twists and turns that lead to that point, but instead I want to talk about endgames. When you know you’re into your final season, you get to decide how you want to go out. Where the final leg of the journey is going, and where your characters will be at the end of it. Clark becomes Superman, Buffy destroys the Hellmouth (and Sunnydale), JD leaves Sacred Heart, the humans and Cylons make peace and settle on a new… no, screw it, God doesn’t know what was happening in that finale. Then, you figure out the best way to get there.

No one in The Office’s ensemble gets neglected in season nine, even the new guys, but the big finale of The Office was always going to revolve around the leads, or at least the firsts among equals in the cast. With Michael gone (and Ryan, who despite being in the opening credits, was never really a “lead”), that’s Dwight, Jim, Pam, and Andy. Now, as melancholy as the early seasons were, and as ongoing a theme as self-deception was, they weren’t going to go out on a sad note like the entire branch being shut down or something. The melancholy days were well past by now. Greg Daniels himself moved past them before stepped back from showrunner after season four. Jim and Pam were together, Michael had met Holly, and the threat of downsizing was massively reduced, if not yet gone completely.

Not everyone gets a happy ending, no. Andy, as we discussed, is at most bittersweet, and his ending best fits the theme of self-deception. Sorry to jump back on Andy, but my latest rewatch has been opening my eyes to the fact that, despite his actual vocal talent, Andy’s not actually that good at a capella. Witness his “guitar solo” in season five’s “Heavy Competition,” his reliance on “Root doo da doo” and awkward falsetto, or just how much worse his attempted father/son duet in “Garden Party” is compared to Walters Sr. and Jr. And in the name of Buddha and all his wacky nephews, for his make-or-break reality show singing audition, he picked the Cornell fight song? Oh, Nard-dog. Success was never yours to claim.

Where was I. Right. Some characters don’t even get an “ending,” per se, because Dunder Mifflin lives on and some people (Phyllis, for instance) just keep on as they were. But they were still aiming for a big, heartwarming ending, and that required two ingredients: Jim and Pam happy ever after, and Dwight K. Shrute as regional manager.

At least, I’m 90% sure that was the plan. After all, Dwight’s British equivalent, Gareth, ended up manager.

So… let’s see how they got there.

Jim and Pam: Marriage in Crisis

As I’ve said in the past, nothing they threw at Jim and Pam’s relationship ever felt like a legitimate threat. Distance only made their hearts grow fonder. No outsider could ever lure them away from each other, be it Mad Men’s Rich Sommer or… Cathy? That was her name, right? Man. She’s like the Silence from Doctor Who, once she’s out of your eyeline you forget she was there…

So in order to create a real conflict for the Halperts to drive their final story, they had to get a little more creative. They had to create a situation in which neither of them is 100% right, neither is 100% wrong… but one of them has to lose. That situation? Athlead.

An old college buddy of Jim’s decides to push forward with a sports marketing company he and Jim had discussed back in the day, and Jim, staring down the barrel of spending the rest of his days selling paper, decides to reverse what he and Pam had decided and jump in. The catch? In addition to soaking up $10,000 of their savings (instead of $5000, which Pam had eventually agreed to), the new company is in Philadelphia. Which would mean uprooting the family and leaving both Dunder Mifflin and Scranton.

And Pam did not spend nine years with Roy because she’s great at change.

In the premiere, while Jim is seeing Pete’s lack of life plan and wondering what happened to all of his own career dreams, Pam is telling Dwight “I happen to like my boring life, and will do what I have to to keep it.” Admittedly she was saying this to explain why she wasn’t going to help with an extremely dangerous and ill-thought-out high wire routine, but still, here we have the seed of their conflict.

And before you leap onto Jim’s side, and I know how easy to do that is, he did not really consult Pam. He joined the company without asking Pam (or more accurately, after Pam and he had agreed against it), doubled their investment without asking Pam, then started living in Philadelphia for half the week, leaving Pam alone with their two young children. Pam was kind of an afterthought in Jim’s new big career/lifestyle, and wow, I have been staunchly pro-Jim in this plot for years but I’m starting to talk myself out of it.

Also Brian the boom mic guy clearly had a thing for her but that didn’t really go anywhere.

The Athlead situation comes as close to splitting up Jim and Pam as anything had since her wedding to Roy drove him to Stamford. At what seemed like the 11th hour, Jim, who had been torn between his dream career and his dream wife, had a moment of clarity as to which of those he could live without, and stepped away from the company he helped found to rededicate himself to his wife and kids. And to subtly pranking the newly promoted Dwight.

Which led to a revelation for Pam. Between disbelief from Darryl (who Jim took with him to Athlead) that Jim could really be happy selling paper, hearing that the company was finally becoming a big success but Jim was passing on being part of it, and seeing him regress from having pride an ambition in his work to slacking off and devoting his energies to pranking Dwight, she had a revelation of her own. Jim saw what Athlead might cost him, Pam saw what asking him to stay at Dunder Mifflin meant giving up. But Jim, being confident in his choice, enlists the Documentarians in pulling off a reassuring gesture you just need to see.

That said. Having seen that Jim was willing to sacrifice his dream career for her, Pam decided that maybe she could sacrifice her safe, stable, boring Scranton life to take a risk with him (even before the fans at the reunion panel PBS organized were firmly Team Jim). Pam sells their house (with the help of Michael’s ex, Carol), and the Halperts leave not for Philadelphia but Athlead’s (now Athleap) new home in Austin, Texas. All is well for the Halpert family.

So they kind of pulled a Gift of the Magi. In order to sail into a new, better life (for Jim because of the dream career and for Pam because after a few months of not having to live with Angela’s snipes and Meredith’s calls of “Little Miss Thing wants attention” she is not even going to miss these people), they each first had to prove that what mattered most was each other. Jim by sacrificing Athlead, and Pam by giving it back.

But the problem with hanging a happy ending on Jim and Pam is that Athlead and Austin don’t change the fact that they got their happy ending way back in season six. New city and better career (for Jim) is a nice bow on an ending that basically just re-affirmed the status quo. So Athlead became the finale’s B-plot, and the Big Happy went to Dwight.

The Face Turn of Dwight K. Schrute

Now there are a couple of issues with hanging a happy ending on Dwight and Angela. The first is that some of the producers (and actor Rainn Wilson) wanted to keep the Dwight train rolling, and were pitching a spinoff called The Farm, which would have involved Dwight and his previously unseen non-Mose family running a new, larger Schrute Farm (Michael Schur was far too busy running Parks and Recreation to play Mose on the regular). So while they waited for word from NBC on whether or not that would go forward, a large part of Dwight’s endgame was put on hold… that part being whether or not Dwight and Angela would ever find their way back together, as all appearances were that Angela was not heading to The Farm.

The other issue is that these are not characters who, by and large, had thus far earned a happy ending. Dwight may have become more beloved by viewers than we would have expected at the beginning, but every time he’d been handed authority he abused it instantly. And Angela has been straight up awful. So some steps would need to be taken to pave a path to happily ever after.

The main one, and that fact that it starts happening early is the reason I think Dwight was always meant to end up regional manager, was getting Dwight to a point where he could be in power and not be a train wreck. This happens in episode four, “Work Bus.” It begins with yet another Dwight-as-authoritarian overstep, but as he and Jim butt heads in a more intense fashion than anything since the snowball fight, Jim actually breaks Dwight, and triggers a rare moment of camaraderie between the old nemeses. Dwight believes himself to be infertile, having been deceived about the parentage of Angela’s baby (while The Farm was still in play, we were all led to believe Dwight wasn’t the father), and Jim convinces him to view his coworkers as his family. Something Dwight even had a German word for to encourage him. And so begins a change in Dwight, from the would-be dictator out to crush or eliminate the staff, to a benevolent dictator who only trims off the truly deserving.

Shortly after taking command (at an occasion where I’m not 100% sure who’s filming it, as the Documentarians should have wrapped), Dwight does fire a couple of people… Kevin (for gross incompetence) and Toby (who in fairness checked out years ago), but he also hires on new people, and treats the remaining staff surprisingly well. And he does eventually live out his old dream of firing Jim, but when it happens, it’s out of love… he fires Jim and Pam before they can quit to leave for Austin, sending them on their way with a year’s salary each as severance.

Now, Angela.

Angela has long been the most insufferable member of the ensemble. Judgmental, bullying, demanding that the staff live up to a repressive puritan lifestyle that she herself consistently fails at living. And she’d been extra smug ever since she got together with (State) Senator Robert Lipton. You remember this… the (State) Senator is secretly gay, and everyone on staff seems to know that except her? We talked about it in season seven, and the fact that this story had a long fuse. Well, the fuse reaches the gunpowder pretty quickly this year, as Oscar starts seeing the Senator behind her back. Which causes, shall we say, tension in the workplace when she catches on. With the documentary’s release imminent, an advance review makes it clear that everything is about to, excuse the expression, come out, and Robert makes a choice: he comes out live on television, and announces his relationship with… his press secretary.

It’s a little heartbreaking for Oscar, to be sure, but Angela loses nearly everything. First she’s forced to stand next to her husband on live TV while he says that marrying her helped him come to terms with his homosexuality, as she showed him how “charmless” he finds the female body. Then in rapid succession, she loses her husband, her home, whatever nanny or team of nannies was tending to Phillip so that she her to rub her perfectly poised supermom routine in Pam’s face, and after being forced into a studio apartment, she even loses her cats. And then the apartment. Plus she’s about to lose her moral Christian reputation, as her years-long affair with Dwight is about to be broadcast to the world. She’s left with nothing but her job and her son (who clearly means slightly less than her cats), and ends up living in Oscar’s walk-in closet.

That would have been an appropriate place to leave her. Lord knows she earned it. But having lost everything humbles her enough that when The Farm fell through, we could be on board with Angela and Dwight getting back together. She is a wreck of a human being when she tries to convince Andy not to quit his job in a futile chase for stardom, and by that point, even I think that maybe she’s suffered enough. And come on… those two dysfunctional weirdos belong with each other. And no one else deserves them.

Plus, the wedding of Dwight and Angela is just weird enough that it’s an appropriately “The Office” way to sign off.

The Finale

At the time, I wasn’t certain how I felt about the finale. It gets most of its joy and sentimentality from characters who spent much of the series playing the villain, and so while it is a delight to watch, I wasn’t sure how earned it all was.

Following the wedding, there’s a farewell party back at the office thrown by PBS. While the network executives whoop it up in the warehouse, the Dunder Mifflin staff and the Documentarians head upstairs for a sweet little goodbye party. Sure, it’s not goodbye for everyone… six of them are back to work on Monday. But this farewell again for at least as many, even before we count the film people who’ve been around filming everyone for the last decade, and a new goodbye for two more, as Jim and Pam won’t be back.

It’s not as beautiful as the final moments of Scrubs’ eighth season finale (stupid ninth season keeping that from any “best series finale” list). But it’s sweet, and it’s funny, the return appearances are pretty perfect, there is the occasional moment to lure out tears. I couldn’t say it was perfect, but I also couldn’t think of a thing I’d change about it. Still can’t.

Key Episodes

“New Guys” for the introduction of Pete and Clark, who are, as I said, delightful. “Andy’s Ancestry” brings Darryl into Athlead. “The Boat” writes Andy out for a while, and “Couple’s Discount” reveals that his return is nothing to be celebrated. “The Whale,” “Suit Warehouse,” and “Stairmaggedon” are the best team-ups of Dwight and Dwight Jr (Clark). “Customer Loyalty” is when Brian makes his entry and the Documentarians take their first full step beyond the fourth wall. “Promos” is when the existence of the documentary fully enters the story.

And “AARM” and “Finale” take us home.

Skippables

Let’s talk “backdoor pilots.” A backdoor pilot is an episode of a TV show that exists to set up a spinoff, rather than give said spinoff a standard pilot episode. Take, for example, the episode of CSI where Catherine follows a suspect to Miami, where she meets up with David Caruso and his CSI team. Then years later, David Caruso followed a perp to New York, where he met the CSI New York team. That sort of thing.

Backdoor pilots can be weird for binge-watchers. On the one hand, Jess on Gilmore Girls travelling to Venice Beach to see his father makes perfect sense. On the other, if you’re watching Bones on Netflix and suddenly a whole episode gets handed over to someone called The Finder, that’s a little jarring. And it’s especially jarring when it’s a backdoor pilot for a spinoff that didn’t get picked up, introducing us to a bunch of characters we’ll never see again.

Which brings us to The Farm.

The Farm was set up through a backdoor pilot in the back half of the season. Dwight’s Aunt Shirley passes away, and her video will gives a challenge: she’ll leave her enormous farm to Dwight and his siblings if they run it together. This is our first time meeting Dwight’s farmer brother (“After I left the army, I bought a 9-acre worm farm from a Californian. Turns out “worm” means something else out there. And, I am now in the business of… pain management. Or, the smoking of pain management.”) and his single mom sister, and our second time meeting his non-Mose cousin Zeke. Some might see this sudden introduction of siblings as being out of left field, like when Frasier invented a father and brother for Frasier Crane that didn’t match and even actively contradicted what we knew about his family from Cheers, but the fact is that they’d always been clear about the Schrutes being a large family. Dwight obviously had siblings, this was just our first time meeting any of them.

First and only.

Between filming the episode and writing the finale, The Farm was rejected by NBC. And in the wake of it all, they began walking back everything that happened. Dwight’s new farm became a sidenote, as his rise to Regional Manager became his one, true endgame. Dwight’s new love interest became just an obstacle for Angela.

And Dwight’s siblings don’t even show up at his wedding.

Kind of makes that episode feel pointless. Although if you skip it, you will miss the final appearance of Todd Packer.

Notable Guest Stars?

So, so many. In terms of returning players, Pam and Jim have to attend Roy’s wedding at the beginning of the season (also appearing, his dolt brother); Jan makes two last appearances (one over the phone) as the new head of the White Pages, the county’s biggest paper client; Josh Groban returns as Andy’s younger, more loved brother; Nancy Carell makes one last appearance as realtor Carol Stills; Todd Packer turns up one last time with drugged “apology” cupcakes; the stripper from Ben Franklin and Fun Run works Dwight’s bachelor party while Merdith’s son (first seen in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”); and of all people, Devin (unseen since season two’s Halloween, save for a deleted scene) gets hired back to replace Creed.

Also Kelly, Ryan, and even Michael are all back for the wedding. Michael only has two lines, one of which is a final “That’s what she said.”

Lucifer’s Rachel Harris turns up for the wedding as Angela’s sister.

Mr. Show/Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk turns up as a real estate office manager Pam interviews with, who turns out to be a carbon copy of early Michael Scott.

One last Daily Show veteran as Stephen Colbert plays Andy’s old friend/nemesis, Broccoli Rob.

Michael Imperioli turns up as Dwight’s new sensei.

A bunch of athletes someone other than me might recognise pass through Athlead.

Dakota Johnson and Better Off Ted’s Malcolm Barrett are new hires in the finale, replacing Kevin and Stanley.

And Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr. are perfectly cast as Erin’s long-lost birth parents.

Final Thoughts

Is The Office perfect? No, it drags in places and the cringe comedy can misfire. The cast is solid, but not quite the sitcom supercasts of Newsradio, Arrested Development, or Brooklyn 99. Speaking of that last one, The Office has left an impressive legacy, serving as the prototype for the knockout follow-up Parks and Recreation and its successor, Brooklyn 99, both from Michael Schur, who has now brought us the hilarious, if entirely different, The Good Place. That dude moves from success to success.

The Office may not be the most clever, nor the most touching, but succeeds at both often enough that it’s endlessly endearing and, to me and others, endlessly rewatchable.

Even if you may never, ever be on board with Angela and Andy as a couple. Jesus, Andy. Way to over-commit to a bad idea.

Thanks for joining me on this journey, those who did. Next time, let’s talk Oscar nominees. Or nerd stuff. A little of both to come.

Overthinking the Office Part 9: Beginning of the End

And we’re back.

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Final Season

There’s something about a final season that knows it’s the final season. When the creators have a chance to build a satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t always work out, no denying that… Lost had three years to prepare, and Battlestar Galactica had a year-long break mid “season” (if you’re off the air for 12 months, how is it still season four, BSG? HOW?), but they infamously fell short. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s final season is very much a “leave everything on the field” story, but nobody considers it one of their best. Losing the creator/showrunner and her writer/producer husband hamstrung the final season of Gilmore Girls. I would, however, argue that each of those is better than the poor shows that were cancelled unexpectedly after ending the season on a cliffhanger, like Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles, Carnivale (had it ended just two minutes earlier…), My Name Is Earl, or the most unnecessarily dark finale for a family-friendly show of all time, Alf.

“And then the main character is taken to a secret government torture lab. The end.”

But the really good or great series finales all have one thing in common… they all knew it was coming.

So after giving up on The Office after Tallahassee, when I heard that the upcoming ninth season of the show would officially be its last, they regained my attention. Especially when I heard it would feature an important return.

(Not Steve Carell. Let’s just rip that band-aid off now.)

Return of the King

A few things necessitated The Office bringing itself to a close. In addition to being just long in the tooth (something that doesn’t seem to be stopping The Simpsons or Supernatural, but there are plenty willing to argue “maybe it should”), they were beginning to haemorrhage key personnel. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, of course, had been gone since late season seven. The fall of Sabre at the end of season eight meant the departure of James Spader’s Robert California and, more unfortunately, Zach Woods as Gabe Lewis. But far more significant? Writer/producer Mindy “Kelly Kapoor” Kaling left to do The Mindy Project on Fox, and took writer/producer BJ “Ryan Howard” Novak with her, meaning season nine’s “How we spent our summer” montage included the departures of Kelly and Ryan. And Ed Helms was only willing to come back part time. So with all of these departures, it took one return to revitalise the show… series creator Greg Daniels.

See, for all the departures we’ve covered, from the Roys and Jans all the way to Michael Scott, we haven’t discussed all the comings and goings behind the scenes. Greg Daniels brought the show to America and refined the Gervais/Merchant clone of season one to the golden years of seasons two and three. But after four seasons at the helm, Daniels and writer/producer/Cousin Mose Michael Schur left to create Parks and Recreation (and who could begrudge them that?), leaving Jennifer Celotta and Paul “Toby” Lieberstein in charge. Celotta left two years later, leaving only Lieberstein in charge (which probably explains Toby’s diminished role during the Sabre years).

I don’t know if he was just burnt out, being the last showrunner standing, but season eight proved that he just wasn’t able to maintain the show’s quality. So you can understand how I was excited to have the original creator– fine, original adaptor back.

Having Daniels back in charge meant a few things. More natural, earned romance arcs for one. The best Jim prank in years, for another. But most significantly, the Documentarians re-entered the story in a big way. No, they’d never really gone… the talking head sections never stopped, and there was the odd reaction to the cameras’ presence (particularly when Michael left for Colorado or when Dwight tried to get Angela to admit little Phillip was his baby), but they’d dialed back considerably. There were multiple moments where the presence of the cameras would/should have been a bigger deal.

Not so in season nine. In the premiere, they take their first step from behind the scenes and into the story, as we hear one of their voices for the first time. Jim and Pam ask why the crew is still coming back year after year, and they admit that at this point they’re just curious what happens to Jim and Pam (which sparks one of the year’s big arcs but we’ll get back to that). Later, we get our first glimpse at the crew, as Brian the boom mic guy breaks the cone of silence to comfort Pam after a hard day. Oscar asks the crew for discretion after his new relationship is revealed, only to hilariously realise he’s just let Kevin in on the secret.

And as the season comes to a close, promos for the documentary begin popping up on the internet, and the Dunder Mifflin staff realise just how much of their lives has been filmed.

The unseen, unsung, hidden leads of the show finally get their day in the sun, and the documentary becomes the lynchpin of the final episodes.

But first, there were some gaps in the cast to be filled.

The New Guys

If there’s one thing that revitalized the show in its final year and kept it from being a slow crawl to the finale, it’s the additions made to replace the departing Kelly, Ryan, etc.

Following a contentious battle for the manager position with Andy, Catherine Tate’s Nellie Bertram is still around, and she’s even funnier in season nine. She’s freed of the manipulative, ambitious streak that defined her earlier appearances, and is able to just be quirky and part of the team. They even come up with a cute explanation for the softening of her character, after the documentary promos come out and everyone begins realising what they were filmed doing. “I sneezed into the candy bowl!” Nellie exclaims. “I thought I’d get more screen time as a villain!”

Now, many shows add people as they go along. Sometimes it’s a Poochie scenario, and the addition doesn’t really work. Think Conner on Angel, Riley on Buffy, or Nikki and Paolo on Lost. Added, swiftly dropped, never missed. Other times, they fit right in, as if they should have been there since the beginning. We saw this back in season six with Erin. And sometimes they manage to find that perfect fit character just as the show is ending. Scrubs managed it with Denise the surly intern (the always delightful Eliza Coupe), and The Office pulled it off with Pete and Clark, aka Plop and Dwight Jr.

Played by Jake Lacy and Darryl’s Hot Tub Time Machine co-star Clark Duke, Pete (swiftly, randomly, and to his unending chagrin nicknamed “Plop” by Andy) and Clark (nicknamed Dwight Jr. for his resemblance to Dwight), the new customer relations staff become indispensable pretty quickly.

Clark brings a blend of low-key yet determined ambition and ethical flexibility that makes him a perfect partner in crime for Dwight… yet he’s still grounded enough to be baffled at how said shenanigans end up going. A particular highlight is when Dwight, having lost hope at promotion, tranquillises Stanley to force him to attend a customer meeting. Clark goes from unwilling bystander (“Hey, c-c-can you just let me out of here before whatever comes next?”) to sidekick in the struggle to get an unconscious Stanley down the stairs and into the car, where he becomes weirdly impressed at how intuitive Dwight finds the process. (“If only there was any other use or situation for that kind of knowledge.”)

Pete falls easily into the role Ryan was supposed to have back in the early years: the new guy who isn’t desensitised to the DM shenanigans (eg. cutting off a list of insulting names Meredith claims to have been called with “Meredith! That is enough. That is more than enough. Why does no one stop her?”). But he also fits easily in with the others: in an early episode, he unites much of the staff in a quest to build a ceiling-height house of cards out of customer complaints.

Pete also comes the closest of any pairing save Michael and Holly to recapturing the old, easy chemistry of young Jim and Pam. Of course, for that to happen, someone else had to be pushed aside.

The Heel Turn of Andy Bernard

Y’all know the words, sing along… Andy Bernard is a cypher, Andy is whatever the show needs him to be. And when season nine starts, they don’t need him to be sympathetic anymore. Which is kind of awkward.

The end of season eight revolves around two things: Andy trying to win back Erin, and then trying to reclaim the manager position he lost to Nellie by driving to Florida to win back Erin. And as season nine starts, he immediately takes both of those things for granted. Okay he only takes Erin for granted immediately, it takes a few episodes for him to stop caring about the job, but it still happens. And the fact that it happens makes his and Erin’s entire eighth season arc feel hollow. Not only do Erin and Andy not end up together, we don’t even feel slightly bad about that fact. So thanks for spending three seasons trying to invest us in them as a couple, jerks.

So why does this happen? Why did they spend season eight selling us on Andy as manager and finally get him and Erin back together only to chuck all of it in season nine? Well, I think there are two reasons, and neither of them are Greg Daniels taking the reins back.

Number one, as I said, Ed Helms only came back for part of the season. He disappears for eight episodes right in the middle, as Andy decides to sail his family yacht to the Caribbean before it’s sold (Andy’s family goes broke after his father blows the family fortune, it’s a whole thing). So maybe they felt that if Andy was going to go AWOL for a third of the season, maybe it was okay for the staff/audience to resent him a little for it. But I lean towards a second theory.

When the teasers for the documentary begin to be released, Andy becomes convinced that his star is about to rise in a big way. And so he begins pursuing stardom, first through a dicey local talent agent (played by Roseanne Barr, yes that Roseanne Barr), and later by quitting Dunder Mifflin and putting all of his hope in an a cappella knockoff of American Idol (featuring American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken, Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, and some people I in no way recognise).

And when all of this happened, I couldn’t help but think that aside from the a cappella angle, which is pure Andy, this is exactly the sort of final arc Greg Daniels might have had in mind for Michael Scott seven years earlier. The belief that a few positive comments on YouTube would translate to superstardom? Doubling down on that belief despite all advice to the contrary? That is textbook Michael Scott. So it really feels like Daniels had been sitting on this endgame plot since they got picked up for a second season, and since Michael had left two years earlier, decided to hand it to Andy.

Whether or not that’s true, the fact remains that Andy was being set up for an end-of-series fall. Andy fails at his reality TV audition, has a breakdown in front of the cameras (and weren’t the producers of The Next Great A Cappella Sensation peaches for letting the Documentarians use that footage), and ends up finding fame in the worst way: his breakdown goes viral, and Andy becomes infamous worldwide as Baby Wa-wa (including an unflattering impression by Bill Hader on Saturday Night Live). He ultimately ends up working for the admissions department of Cornell, which is a decent enough turn, but still a fall.

Of all the leads, which is to say “people in the primary opening credits,” it’s the least happy ending handed out. Robert California makes out better than Andy. So maybe they felt that they had to manoeuvre Andy into a place where the audience would be on board with him getting an ending that is bittersweet at best. And if that meant turning their backs on Andy being a good manager or good boyfriend to Erin, so be it.

Next time we’ll put this series to bed by looking at the other endgames the final season presented. And then I’ll go back to ranting about Oscar nominees and geek stuff for a bit.

Overthinking the Office Part 8: Robert Californication

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

Meet the New Boss

When we last left the drones of Dunder Mifflin, there was some uncertainly, before and behind the cameras, as to who would be taking over as the new manager with Michael Scott having departed.

The producers of MASH did kind of an interesting thing every time a cast member left. They would bring in a new character to fill the same basic role (Hawkeye’s pal, the CO, Hawkeye’s rival), but would reverse some aspect of their predecessor. Trapper John was as much of a womanizer as Hawkeye, BJ was devoted to his wife; Colonel Blake didn’t take the army seriously, Colonel Potter was career military; Frank Burns was enthusiastic about the military but only competent as a surgeon, Charles Winchester was apathetic about the army and Hawkeye’s superior as a surgeon. So did The Office go this route in season eight?

Yes and no.

The new regional manager of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch is Andy Bernard. And as I said back in part three, Andy is a cypher. He’s whatever the show needs him to be, which is why early season three Andy is barely recognizable as the same character compared to later seasons. And what they needed him to be in season eight was basically “Michael lite.” He keeps Michael’s need for acceptance, the need to be liked, but it’s toned down and its origins are made more clear. After a few seasons of hearing about how much more his parents loved his brother than him, we come face-to-face with it in Garden Party, as Andy’s family make their proper on-screen debut. To us, and to the other characters. This makes the redemptive moments when they reach out to and support Andy a little warmer, and rarely as unearned as some of Michael’s. On the flip side, however, Andy never really goes to the levels of cringe and idiocy that Michael did, meaning that while there’s no Scott’s Tots, the ceiling for his comedy is lower.

They do find some Andy-specific things to play with, though. For instance, a cold open which reveals that every day at 5:00 Andy signals the end of the work day by trying to lead the staff in a rendition of Closing Time by Third Eye Blind Semisonic. Andy doesn’t have the same relationship with Dwight that Michael did, but has a much closer relationship to Darryl than Michael ever could have had. And there is still the lingering “When will these two nuts get back together” plot with Erin, whose ending should have been triumphant but is just kind of… there. Overall, however, promoting Andy meant they didn’t have to worry too much about creating a new manager-staff dynamic, as Andy slid into Michael plots pretty easily. Especially towards the end of the series, when… next time, next time.

They did go a whole new direction, however, with Andy’s boss.

Reign of California

You know what the dumbest part of the season seven cliffhanger is? The fact that we have to be told who the new manager is at the start of season eight means that the Documentarians took their annual vacation while the new manager was being picked. Jim said “We’re going into this room and we’re not coming out until we pick a new manager,” and the Documentarians looked at the clock and said “Ah, geez, our flight’s in two hours, just catch us up in September.” Just… I know the Documentarians haven’t really been a big part of the story lately, but narratively that’s just weird.

Anyway, as Jim explains in the obligatory “How we spent our summer” catch-up talking head, James Spader’s Robert California was hired as the new manager, but after taking one look around at his new employees, he got back in his car, drove to Florida, and convinced Jo Bennett to give him her job as CEO of Sabre. It’s an entertaining build on the hypnotic quality he brought to his two scenes in Search Committee. But since The Scranton Branch Is Special (and because Robert owns a house there, and dislikes Florida), he spends half of his time working out of the Scranton conference room. Thus does James Spader not only join the ensemble, but he becomes the second of only two people to be added to the main opening credits (the first being Ed Helms, who was promoted to the opening credits… let me see… why, just after The Hangover came out, fancy that).

He’s not an obvious fit to the cast. Spader brings a very different energy than we were used to, and that’s precisely why he works. Robert California is unlike any VP, CFO, or CEO the Dunder Mifflin staff has ever dealt with, and he throws every person he interacts with delightfully off balance (save maybe Kevin). Spader’s gift for speech-making (wonderfully familiar to fans of Boston Legal) means he easily commands any scene he appears in, and the writers play into that. This is established right away, as Jim explains that when he’s in the office, he picks one staff member to lock in on for an “intense small talk.” As Jim puts it, “You just hope it’s not you. And yet, you hope it is you, too. It’s very strange.”

Andy spends the first half of the season desperately trying to curry favour. Jim is more intimidated by him than any boss or executive he’s had save for Charles Miner, the only one to actively dislike him. Dwight’s usual toadying tactics and Number Two self-importance are swatted away like biplanes circling the mighty Kong. When the show was struggling to adapt to a post-Steve Carell reality, Robert California kept things lively.

And then in the back half he disappears for six episodes, and everything begins to go wrong.

Dual Pregnancies

Another revelation in the “How we spent our summer” section? Both Pam and Angela are pregnant. And Angela’s “Senator’s Wife” smugness is cranked up to 11 as she notes how much bigger Pam’s become, calling them “Big Pregs and Little Pregs.”

And here’s what’s messed up about that.

Pam’s first pregnancy was a plot choice. Her second pregnancy was the producers writing actress Jenna Fischer’s real-life pregnancy into the show. Whereas Angela Kinsey (who plays Angela Martin/Martin-Lipton… they weren’t always super clever in devising character names) is wearing a prosthesis. So Angela spends the season passive-aggressively pointing out how much less weight she’s put on, and how much faster she loses it, and how much faster she’s back at work, and in doing so she’s making fun of Jenna Fischer’s real life pregnancy weight and maternity leave.

It just seems kind of mean. I’m sure Jenna Fischer signed off on it and everything, but still. Throw in the fact that Darryl’s plot in several episodes revolves around being attracted to Val, the new warehouse foreman, but is self-conscious about how much weight he’s put on in the last couple of years (rehab is a bitch on the ol’ waistline), season eight is a weird year for fat-shaming the cast.

When Angela’s baby is born “prematurely,” but comes out huge, it reveals that Angela got pregnant before her wedding to (State) Senator Lipton, and makes Dwight begin to suspect that Angela’s baby is a Schrute. I know what you’re thinking. Well, no. No I don’t. WordPress is not currently able to sense readers’ thoughts and email me a notification. I just know what I’m thinking, which is “What a great opportunity for Pam to shove some of Angela’s moralistic judgements about multiple lovers and getting pregnant out of wedlock” right down Angela’s throat. And you’re right, me, it would have been a great opportunity for that. But it doesn’t happen. At the very least, though, when Pam and Angela find out that they’re both planning to name their babies Phillip (Pam after her grandfather, Angela after her favourite cat, no she does not see the difference), Pam does not back down. Anyway, only Dwight and Angela (and the Documentarians) know there’s cause to think baby Phillip might be Dwight’s. The fact that the cameras are present when Dwight confronts Angela is played as a factor in her doubling down on denying the possibility.

Pam’s pregnancy leads to a new character being introduced: Cathy, Pam’s maternity replacement, who somehow sticks around after Pam’s back to work. Cathy… the second time I watched season eight (which took a while), I’d actually forgotten about Cathy. I don’t have the DVDs past season five, so I can’t be sure, but I have a suspicion that like Creed in season two, most of her material was cut for time. There may be all kinds of Cathy material in the deleted scenes. It might be funny. I don’t know. What I do know is that she’s in half of the season, but after her introduction in Pam’s Replacement, she fades mostly into the background for six episodes.

There’s a half-hearted at best romantic triangle plot going on, as her early appearances indicate she’s a little into Jim (paranoid and insecure, Pam allies with Dwight in an attempt to coerce Jim into admitting he thinks she’s attractive as well… it’s… awkward), and in the season’s major plotline, she starts making a play for him, but just like Pam and Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, it’s never presented as a major threat. Jim’s devotion to Pam is unshakeable, so Cathy’s seductions fall flat.

Let’s talk about that major plotline, now that I’ve brought it up.

Tallahassee

As the Michael Scott Paper Company was the centrepiece of season five (well, sort of, it did happen towards the end, not in the middle), the centrepiece of season eight is Tallahassee. Dwight, who had been after Robert California for a promotion, gets an opportunity… he is tasked to head to Florida to create and possibly run a chain of Sabre stores. To do so, he’s asked to build a team to bring with him. Dwight assembles his dream team of Darryl, Oscar, Angela, Phyllis, and Toby… only to be given the team of Stanley, Ryan, Erin, Cathy, and (due to gently demanding texts from Robert) Jim. Openly angered at first, Dwight comes to see this team’s potential to help make this project his path to greatness, but a couple of unexpected reunions are awaiting them in Florida.

The Sabre Store is being overseen by Sabre’s new president of special projects, Catherine Tate’s Nellie Bertram, back for the long haul after having been rejected for the manager position. Catherine Tate wasn’t available for the start of the season, but once her Shakespeare run in London was done, the producers snapped her up. Dwight’s mission is to impress Nellie in order to be made head of the Sabre Store chain, but he has competition in a returning Todd Packer, last seen heading for Florida due to a prank Jim and Dwight pulled in an attempt to get him fired.

Nobody really expected Todd Packer to outlast Michael Scott. Or at least I didn’t. But he makes a good nemesis for Dwight. Cunning, vindictive, and super easy to root against. It certainly seems like the producers felt we would all be generally on-side with Dwight by now, but hey, every little bit helps.

There are… there are strong points to the Tallahassee arc. Stanley embracing Florida life is reliably amusing. (He drinks and parties hard enough that Jim comments “I’ve spent so much of my life telling myself ‘Please, don’t end up like Stanley,’ and now I’m wondering if I even have what it takes.”) Erin’s plan to never return to Scranton, due to heartbreak over Andy’s commitment to his new love Jessica, doesn’t seem like much on paper, but Ellie Kemper doesn’t know how not to be funny. Well she probably does, she could likely manage a dramatic role, I’m just saying she’s damn funny. The test launch of the store is a solidly funny episode, filled with references to a show I dearly loved, Chuck. (Chuck is the official sponsor of Sabre’s triangle-shaped tablet, the Pyramid.) When Jim learns that Robert California plans to scuttle the Sabre store (explaining to Jim that Sabre printers are too cheap and unreliable to sell to people in person), and that Dwight will go down with it, Pam guilts Jim into doing whatever is necessary to save an incredibly smug Dwight’s job… leading to a mighty amusing fight as Jim is forced to physically block Dwight from attending the pitch to the board, allowing Todd Packer to fall in his place. (The highlight? Dwight shouting “Jackie Chan,” attempting to run up a wall, and collapsing to the ground.) But there are problems.

First of all, the bulk of the Tallahassee arc falls during Robert California’s six episode absence. He only turns up in the last chapter, just in time to scuttle the store. And the quality of season eight is often directly linked to the amount of Robert California in the episode. And touching on his absence… this is only the second time the show ever visited Sabre’s seat of power (the first being earlier in the season), and the lack of Sabre management present feels like a wasted opportunity. Robert isn’t around, Jo Bennett is mentioned (primarily as Nellie’s patron and endorsement in this project) but due to Kathy Bates having her own show at that point is never seen. Even Gabe is missing more often than not, and season eight has enough problems without sidelining Zach Woods. The face of Sabre is Nellie, and she’s great because Catherine Tate has some game, but it would have been nice to get a better look at Dunder Mifflin’s soon-to-fall overlords (yeah, Sabre leaves with Robert California at the end of the season).

Second of all… I mentioned back in part three that when the office staff is split between two locations it’s a dicey prospect for the portion that’s getting the B-plots. In the Time of Two Offices, the Stamford gang did well with the B-plots. During the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, the Dunder Mifflin loyalist stories were hit and miss. During Tallahassee… I’ve seen this arc two, maybe three times… no, only twice… and I can remember exactly one Scranton plot off the top of my head. And the best I can say is “It had its moments.”

It’s not like Scranton is devoid of talent. Darryl, Pam, Andy, Kelly, and Creed are all still there. It’s just that they’re not getting much to work with. Because this point in season eight is when the writing begins to suffer.

Stray Thoughts

  • Season eight isn’t anywhere near season two or three’s level. It just isn’t. But it’s not without highlights. Erin snapping at Kevin in the episode Lotto, for one… Dwight and Jim try to put it gently that an idea he’s pitching isn’t going to work, but when he doesn’t get it, she grabs him, and with more venom than we’d ever seen from her, hisses “You need to drop it, OK? They hate it. I like it a lot but they hate it so drop it!” and it is hysterical.
  • Season eight ends (over the course of several episodes) with Andy driving to Florida to win back Erin (Hey Andy, planes called to say “We exist, dummy”), Nellie usurping his job while he’s gone, Andy being fired/quitting as a result, and convincing a returning and newly rich David Wallace to buy the company from Sabre, which is circling the drain. Once David buys the company, Andy is reinstalled, but Nellie stays in Scranton as the head of special projects. I was going to make a longer section about this, but… this is the point when I actually stopped watching the show during its original broadcast. There’s really just not much more to say about it.
  • Sorry to keep harping on this, but Ellie Kemper even makes sadly pining for Andy funny. She’s not just gifted, she’s a gift.
  • Early in the season, Andy takes the staff (the willing ones, anyway) to Gettysburg, and tall, lanky Gabe is mistaken for an official Abraham Lincoln impersonator (despite lack of beard). Turns out this happens often enough that he has an audience-pleasing Abe Lincoln routine ready to go. It’s scenes like this that made me miss Gabe when he was absent for chunks of the back half. That and chiding himself for getting out-shmoozed at Andy’s garden party… “I can’t believe I didn’t think of toasting Robert. Get in the game, Gabriel! Why aren’t you talking to Stanley’s mistress?”
  • Nate transitions from Dwight’s lackey to warehouse staff. He remains reliably funny.

Key Episodes

I’m-a mostly stick to big Robert California episodes here, since he is far and above the best part of this season. The List, the season premiere, is the best for establishing Robert and his impact on the office. Garden Party not only shows us why Andy is the way he is, but is one of the year’s funniest, thanks in large part to Dwight buying a book on how to throw garden parties that turns out to have been written by Jim. In Spooked, the final Halloween episode, Robert tries to learn the staff’s greatest fears in order to form the perfect scary story. And Mrs. California brings us farcical Robert, as Robert’s wife decides she might like a job at Dunder Mifflin, which Andy learns when Robert informs him she must not receive one, only to pressure him to hire her while she’s in the room. It involves a truly funny chase sequence when Andy tries to drag Jim into his tough spot, and Jim frantically tries to escape being involved.

Skippables

<Heaves a sigh>

Not gonna lie to you, peeps. When I’m doing a rewatch, which happens a lot (as I write this I’m in late season three, it’s a sickness), when I hit Goodbye Michael I have to make a choice. Sometimes I stop there. Sometimes I power on. And sometimes I just skip to season nine.

Because there is, I promise you, there is worthwhile stuff in season nine, and I’ll make my case next time, but sometimes season eight can be a drag. So you can, if you want, skip the whole the whole damn year. The ninth season premiere will brief you on Dwight and Angela (in short, as of the premiere, he no longer believes himself to be young Phillip’s father), Andy’s dislike of Nellie might be a touch confusing but you’ll catch up. And Andy and Erin will be back together, but the sad thing is, for all he risked and lost to get her, that stops being a relationship we root for almost instantly, making the end arc of Andy, Erin, and Nellie feel kinda… irrelevant. Pointless. Andy making a grand gesture that is ultimately futile and self-destructive.

Guess he is the new Michael Scott.

Notable Guest Stars?

We have our third and final veteran of The Wire in Turf War, as Chris Bauer appears as a salesman from the Syracuse branch who quarrels with Dwight and Jim (and ultimately the recently fired Andy) over a big client of the Binghamton branch, which Robert closed while on a bender. The client? He’s played by the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta.

Robert California’s son is played by future Kid Bruce Wayne David Mazouz, for anyone who still cares about Gotham. And his soon-to-be-ex-wife is played by Maura Tierney, from one of TV’s greatest comedy casts, Newsradio. They set up a possible and wonderfully awkward romance between her and Andy, but since she never makes a second appearance, it doesn’t go anywhere.

Josh Groban makes his first of two appearances as Andy’s younger and far more beloved brother, Walter Bernard Jr. After all, if Andy’s going to have a younger brother his parents would see as his better in every way, he’d better be a damn fine singer.

Not only is Jack Coleman back as (State) Senator Lipton, post-Tallahassee his fellow Heroes vet Sendhil Ramamurthy turns up as Kelly’s new paediatrician boyfriend, who Pam actively encourages her to choose over Ryan. 

Wow. For the closest thing The Office has to Community’s infamous “gas leak year,” (when series creator Dan Harmon was off the show and the quality noticeably dropped) I sure had a lot to say about it.

Next time… how does it all end? Might need to cover the wrap up in a few goes…

Overthinking the Office Part Seven: Goodbye, Michael

 When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Road to Farewell

The one, true, key episode of season seven is Goodbye Michael. A year after announcing that the show’s one main star and central character, Steve Carell, would be moving on, the staff of Dunder Mifflin said an emotional farewell to their insensitive, loving, sometimes awful, sometimes pretty OK boss Michael Scott, as Michael left Dunder Mifflin and Scranton to move to Colorado with his one great love, Holly Flax.

Much like the Michael Scott Paper Company arc two seasons back, it would be easy to think Michael’s departure arc started when Michael announced his intention to move away three episodes earlier. And again, you’d be wrong. There’s a lot of ground to cover before Michael’s ready to jet off to his own blue heaven.

Now we’re not going to get into whether or not Michael deserves a happy ever after. It’s been seven years, at this point you’ve either learned to see past Michael’s faults or you haven’t. And if you haven’t you might not have made it this far. So no, we’re just looking at what needed to happen to get Michael to a point where he was ready to leave the company that was his home and that staff that were his family behind. The path begins in the season premiere, and runs right up until Garage Sale, when Michael makes his choice.

In the season premiere, “Nepotism,” the annual “how was your summer montage” reveals that the new and inept intern everyone hates is Michael’s nephew, who he has hired in an attempt to reconnect with his half-sister and her family.

Notice how this is the first time we’ve ever heard of Michael having a half-sister? Or a nephew? Or relatives other than his mom and step-dad (his father having walked out a long-ass time ago)? Notice how other than two phone calls to his mother and a failed attempt to get his grandmother to invest in his paper company, he seems to have no interaction with his family at all? That’s the key. That is why he is. Michael tries to force Dunder Mifflin into being a family because most of his own flesh-and-blood family rejected him.

Other key steps… in “Sex Ed,” an ingrown hair that an easily swayed Michael gets convinced is herpes causes him to revisit all of his relationships from the past six seasons. Encouraged by Dwight to inform all of his lovers that he may have given them herpes, he calls Holly. But after an actually sweet moment, she claims that they never had the deep, pure love he thought (I mean, you can see where she’s coming from, she and Michael dated for a week whereas she and her new boyfriend AJ have been together for two years), and he tends to over-romantacize. This causes Michael to use the herpes informing quest as an excuse to reexamine his relationships with Jan, Carol, and Helene to see if he really does blow these things out of proportion. And in so doing, he sees his past loves for the dysfunctional messes they were, and realizes he does, in fact, over-romanticize his relationships… but not Holly. Never Holly. The exercise only reinforces his belief that she’s the one great love of his life.

In similar terms, Christening brings Michael face to face with another unpleasant reality: that for all of his attempts to make Jim and Pam part of his family, he still isn’t part of theirs. Much like their wedding last year, Michael ensures that the entire staff turns up for baby Cece’s christening, only to be a) told he can’t sit in the family section, and b) made to say out loud that he understands that he is not, in any way, Cece’s godfather. (Pam tries to be as kind and apologetic about it as she can, but will settle for nothing less than hearing him say the words “I am not the godfather…” also, they met Cece’s actual godparents at a Mommy and Me class? Do Jim and Pam not have friends and siblings?) Being faced with this cuts deep enough that when the people of… whoever’s church this is… Jim? Pam? Is Pam Catholic? Neither of them strike me as Catholic… Anyway, Michael gets caught up in the church community spirit enough that he briefly joins a youth mission heading for Mexico (as does Andy, in an attempt to impress Erin, I’ll come back to that), which goes about as well as you’d expect.

As to more minor stuff. In Counselling, Michael and Toby finally go 12 rounds. Costume Contest allows Darryl to sound off about how poorly Michael’s treated him. Viewing Party challenges his view of himself as the office father figure when everyone starts deferring to Gabe (of all people) over him… only to see that lifetime foster kid Erin legitimately sees him as a surrogate father. In WUPHF.com, Michael comes to terms with his relationship with Ryan being more one-way than he believed.

And then in Classy Christmas, Toby leaving to serve on the Scranton Strangler jury (told you he had a role to play) brings Holly back. Once they get back together, Threat Level Midnight lets him see that Holly is more important than his dreams of making movies (and that the movie he’s been filming with his coworkers and other associates… a wonderful parade of past characters… is actually really, really bad), and Todd Packer provides the final “Michael sees a relationship for what it is” plot, as Holly opens his eyes to the fact that Todd Packer is not the friend or comic genius Michael thinks.

And then there’s nothing left but the farewells. Some are funny, some are incredibly touching, and one is silent, as Pam says her goodbye right after the Documentarians said theirs, reclaiming Michael’s mic pack. (Leading to a silent, goodbye “That’s what she said.”) And when we’re done… well, there’s a bit of a hiccup.

When We Fail to Plan

There isn’t really a concrete succession plan for Michael Scott. Story-wise, there kind of is, as Training Day introduces us to Will Ferrell as Deangelo Vickers, Michael’s impending Sabre-appointed replacement, but one episode after Michael leaves, a head injury sends him packing. Dwight gets appointed acting manager when Jim turns the job down, Creed of all people takes his place when he bungles it. But as for a long-term replacement? Nobody knew.

And I am including the producers in this.

The two-part season finale, Search Committee, ends with the titular committee (Jim, Toby, and Gabe) still not having chosen a new manager. It’s kind of a weak-sauce cliffhanger, because the only reason it’s happening is that the producers hadn’t picked one yet. And really, there is just no excuse for that. Steve Carell announced he was leaving a year earlier, so that the impending return of Holly was teased in the season six finale. So how is it possible that by the end of the season, four episodes after Michael left, nobody knows who the new boss is?

The way it certainly appears, and the way it’s often been reported, is that the producers used Search Committee as a kind of audition. It was filled with big name guest stars, some of which were just there as a lark, some of which were serious candidates to replace Steve Carell. So the producers used this episode, and fan reaction to it, to test-run some potential new managers.

The problem with this is that actors of the caliber they were looking for tend to make other plans if you don’t act fast.

Will Arnett was said to be the first choice, and why wouldn’t he be. His character claims to have a three part plan to rebuild the company, but refuses to share anything more than one small subsection of part two (“Colour code said documents”) until he’s hired. But by the time the producers decided they wanted to hire him, a pilot he’d shot got picked up for that fall (an utterly forgettable show called “Running Wilde,” only occasionally elevated by genuinely funny performances by Arnett, Peter Serafinowicz, Mel Rodriguez, and recurring guest star David Cross), so he was out.

Second pick was British comedian and former Doctor Who companion Catherine Tate as Nelly Bertram, a friend of Jo Bennet whose interview was as filled with confidence as it was devoid of meaningful content. Tate was already booked to do Much Ado About Nothing in London with David Tennant, from before season eight was supposed to start filming until a week before my visit to London that year. God DAMN it. So she was out… for a while. Stick around and she’ll be back.

There were also three internal candidates: Dwight, Andy, and Darryl. Dwight’s desperate attempts to get back in consideration after being removed from the position in the previous episode are mostly played for laughs, but… there was (to me) a confusing amount of support for the idea. Reviewers, some fans, even Mindy Kaling backed Dwight. And I was just… forget how bad he was at this job in season three, we just did an episode proving he is still utterly, laughably unsuited to any amount of legitimate authority. It’s especially weird to hear writer/producer/cast member Mindy Kaling in support. I mean, was she just not on set that week? Did she miss the writers’ room saying “Let’s do an episode proving that Dwight is still bad at management?”

But the one to watch is James Spader as Robert California. His scary, almost cult-like confidence won more discerning minds over pretty quickly.

Relationship Dramas

Everything is hunky-dory for Jim and Pam this season. Pam secures herself a new job basically by inventing it and claiming she’s had it for months now. And Jim… is present? I don’t think they actually have any major arcs this season.

Angela and Dwight, on the other hand. At the end of season six, Dwight decided he wanted a child, and recruited Angela to mother it. With a contract and everything. But having decided that Pam’s friend Isabel, who he’d hooked up with at the wedding, is a superior specimen, he tries to back out of the deal. Leading to the most Dwight and Angela reunion possible… a legal dispute over their contract ends in them agreeing to have sex to completion on five occasions (an agreement the arbitrator desperately tries not to be present for). As the season opens, Angela is trying to leverage their contractually mandated intercourse to rekindle romantic feelings, as any normal person would in this very common scenario. But eventually Dwight’s disinterest takes a toll, just in time for a new player to arrive… Heroes’ Jack Coleman as The Senator, aka State Senator Rob Lipton.

On the one hand, Angela’s new romance with The Senator (as she insists on calling him at all times) makes her more insufferable than ever, as she is absurdly tacky in her eagerness to throw around her new life as a politician’s girlfriend/fiance, despite Oscar’s habit of swiftly pointing out he’s only a state senator, which is far less impressive. For a time (before Oscar gives up on it), “State Senator” is the new “Assistant to the regional manager.” But on the other hand, Angela’s comeuppance is swiftly written into the arc… upon actually meeting him, Oscar notices that The Senator is secretly gay. (Something Ryan is swift to back up, citing “He liked my Facebook photos at 3 AM.”)

So basically, Angela becomes a monster of smugness and condescension unlike ever before, but at least her amazing new life is a sham, and you know it’s going to blow up in her face eventually. The only issue is that the fuse is pretty long.

Meanwhile… Andy and Erin hit a road bump when Erin found out about him and Angela. And I guess she never got over it, because when the season kicks off, she’s with Gabe.

Erin and Gabe. What can a person say about Erin and Gabe, other than you have to wonder if the writers looked at Erin and Andy, asked why they weren’t on the level of, say, Jim and Pam, and decided the answer was “They never had a Roy.” Erin and Gabe don’t make a lot of sense as a couple. Or any sense. They don’t have chemistry, their interests don’t really overlap, they’re never super believable, their first date story is a textbook case of sexual harassment. “Thank god he’s my boss,” says Erin, “Because I wouldn’t have said yes to dating him if I didn’t think I had to.” How little are we supposed to be invested in them as a couple? Look to one of Gabe’s talking heads: “Yes, we are still together. Why do you always ask me that?” Or when Jim and Pam catch Erin eating lunch in her car to avoid spending time with her boyfriend, and Jim taps out, leaving Pam to deal with Erin. “You’ve got this,” he says to Pam, before telling the cameras “I’m sorry, that… just wasn’t interesting to me.” You speak for us all, Jim.

No, Gabe and Erin… while nowhere near as toxic a couple as Angela and Andy, because no couple could be this side of Jessica Jones and Kilgrave (and I had to think about that one, that’s how messed up Angela and Andy were)… are not a couple you root for, sympathise with, or even understand. They exist so that Andy can try to win her back. Only to give Andy his own Karen Filipelli in his new girlfriend (thanks to a party invite from Darryl), so that when Erin decides it’s Andy she loves, they still don’t get together.

Works on paper, right? Worked for Jim and Pam, could work again? Sure, except no. No it doesn’t. Because I’m just going to warn you, this isn’t going anywhere worth reaching. Erin and Andy aren’t a perfect couple, or even a good one. Their relationship is a time-filler, a B-plot the writers will eventually lose interest in.

But that’s a ways away yet.

Key episdoes

I mentioned the key episodes of the Goodbye Michael long game. Andy’s Play is a fun one for musical fans. Skip nothing between Classy Christmas and Goodbye Michael, because you can’t afford to miss a Holly episode.

Michael’s Last Dundies is a great one. There are a lot of annual events at Dunder Mifflin that the Documentarians only bother to capture once. We see all but one Christmas party, and a handful of Halloweens, but we only see one company picnic, one beach day, one birthday party for Michael, one inventory, and until now, only one Dundie Awards. But for Michael’s penultimate episode, we take our second and final trip to the Dundies, as Michael tries to coach Deangelo on how to run the event in his absence. That his approach is lifted from The King’s Speech, one of the decade’s more forgettable best picture winners, does not age super well, but other than that, killer episode with a surprisingly emotional conclusion.

Skippables?

I’m not crazy about China, in which Michael successfully proves Oscar wrong about the Chinese economy, leading to a political knowledge showdown, and Pam (as office administrator) and Dwight (as the new owner of the building) clash over Dwight’s draconian money saving policies. Which… can we add this episode to the list of “episodes that prove Dwight was in no way capable of being the new manager, Mindy Kaling?” Dude goes mad with even a small amount of power, why would anyone… but I repeat myself. Anyway. Not crazy about that one.

Notable guest stars?

In addition to Will Arnett, Catherine Tate, and James Spader, Ray Romano, Jim Carrey, and Warren Buffett turn up as applicants for Michael’s job.

When Ricky Gervais, creator and star of the British original, was in town to host the Golden Globes, the producers saw an opening, and filmed a cold open crossover, in which Michael Scott meets David Brent. David Brent returned in Search Committee, having filmed an application for Michael’s job. They make for two cute homage cameos.

Kathy Bates makes her final appearances as Jo Bennett this year. She was missed. That makes it sound like she died… she didn’t. She didn’t die. She’s just busy and expensive.

In addition to Melora Hardin and Nancy Carell returning as Jan and Carol in Sex Ed, Rashida Jones (Karen), David Denman (Roy), David Koechner (Todd Packer) Melora Hardin, and others all return for Threat Level Midnight, to reflect the fact that Michael’s been filming this on and off for five years.

And Timothy Olyphant makes two appearances as Danny Cordray, a rival salesman who also has a history with Pam.

New characters

Robert California and Nellie Bertram are introduced in season eight, and we’ll be seeing more of them, but more significant to this season is Dwight’s new handyman, Nate. With Michael Schur busy running Parks and Recreation, Dwight’s cousin Mose couldn’t be his inept right hand very often, so a new henchman was required. Nate is somewhat clueless, but endearingly earnest and affectionate, making him a perfect henchman for Dwight without also making him one of Dwight’s equally crazy and aggressive friends. He never makes it into the full ensemble, but he’s reliably funny when he does turn up.

Overthinking the Office Part 6: Dawn of Sabre

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Unbreakable Erin Hannon

The Michael Scott Paper Company arc accomplished a few key things. Not so much for Michael Scott, he ended up right back where he started. Sure there were some ruffled feathers to smooth over in Casual Friday, but by Café Disco all is back to normal. (Leading to one of his more depressing lines as he eats lunch in his office… “I guess they got what they want. I am eating alone. Might as well be dinner.”) No, it was important for other reasons… with his post-Basterds return to the series, BJ Novak properly debuted trend-chasing, phone-addicted, Silicon Valley-wannabe Douche Ryan, and Pam finally escaped the receptionist desk to become a salesperson. And in so doing, she opened the door for the new receptionist, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon.

I mentioned this last time, but in season five she’s basically “the new receptionist” and “the girl Andy likes.” Season six is when the writers began to fully realize what a weapon they had in Ellie Kemper. And they found the perfect way to carve her out a new and fresh role in the ensemble… enthusiasm. Sheer, unbridled, enthusiasm. When we meet the bulk of the cast, they’ve already endured up to four years of Michael’s cringe-inducing management style and Dwight as authoritarian second banana. It’s mostly just sighs, eye rolls, and the occasional “Excuse me?” from Stanley when we join in. Erin? She buys into it. Into all of it. In her eyes, Michael is the greatest boss she’s ever had or could have, and all of Dwight’s demands make total sense.

We get the first taste of this in Café Disco, when Dwight gets suspicious about a map to a courthouse he finds, and in the process of leaping to conclusions demands to see Erin’s birth certificate. Whereas Pam or Meredith would have just given him a bemused or irritated look and ignored the demand, Erin says “Sure!” and practically dives for her purse. In season six, she truly believes that spinning Michael in his chair until he’s dizzy is an important and valuable creative exercise. With a frequent beaming smile and an unabashed glee, she greets every scheme and encounter with sheer enthusiasm that the more wearied staff could never manage. (Well, except Creed.)

And she nails it. Ellie Kemper is the poster child and greatest argument for the broader, less grounded show The Office became after season three. Erin wouldn’t have really worked in the gloomier, more cringe-driven Office of season two, with its failed Secret Santas and constant threat of downsizing. In season six, she thrives. Even if she does still have to serve as romantic interest for Andy. But as her character grew and developed, she made that work as well.

That said… if she’s not enough of a breath of fresh air for you, there is another option early in the season.

The First Off-ramp

A lot of shows would end with an episode like the two-part Niagara. (And it is/was designed as a two-parter, not an hour-long.) Jim and a pregnant Pam decide to get married at Niagara Falls, in the hopes that a destination wedding would scare away some of their co-workers. Hopes that Michael dashes by giving the entire office a long weekend to make the trip.

Not every wedding on this show gets the level of reverence that Jim and Pam’s does. Phyllis’ Wedding may have gotten an entire episode devoted to it, but it ultimately wasn’t even about Phyllis, it was about Jim and Pam and Roy and Karen, and Michael’s need to remain central to the attention. Jim and Pam’s wedding, though… yes, there are shenanigans. Michael fails to book a room, assuming he was so vital to the process that would be taken care of; Dwight successfully hooks up with a bridesmaid, triggering a triangle with Angela late in the season; Kevin leaves his shoes out to be polished only to have them destroyed by the hotel (“It became a safety issue,” explains the manager); Andy tears his scrotum trying to dance his way into Erin’s heart (or other regions). Jim and Pam are hell of late for the ceremony (for surprisingly adorable reasons) and Michael shanghais it to recreate a viral video, but…

If the end result doesn’t make you tear up a little you’re a robot. It’s a little cheesy but a lot touching and would have been a perfect “Happy ever after” for Jim and Pam if this is where the show ended.

But it didn’t. Stick around for the rest of the season for the birth of their first child. And to see Pam’s reaction when she finds out Michael hooked up with her mother after the wedding.

See, what’s weird is that his courtship of the recently divorced Helene Beesly is almost Michael’s second healthiest relationship… they actually get along, Helene seems very smitten, and the birthday lunch he plans for her could sway the strongest objections to them as a couple. But the silver medal still goes to Carol in season three, because all that seems to go wrong there is Michael getting way too excited and way too serious way too fast and in all the wrong ways, whereas here… he legit thinks this is his path to officially becoming a part of Pam’s family the way he pictures her as part of his, to the point where he’s stunned that this actually damages their relatrionship. And given the hints we’ve seen over the years, it’s clear Michael has a bit of a crush on Pam, and maybe getting with a relative is his “next best thing.”

So it doesn’t start in the best place and it ends a little ugly, but it’s worth watching to see Pam hit the moment where no power in the ‘verse can conceal her contempt for Michael.

Also you are going to want to stick around for season seven, and our first big farewell. I don’t super advise taking this particular off-ramp.

The Rise of Sabre and of Darryl

Dunder Mifflin as an overall company has been circling the drain since we met them. At least two branches have closed in the last three years, maybe more. Dunder Mifflin Infinity was a full blown boondoggle. Scranton only kept the lights on in the early seasons because Dwight and Michael have “Sales skills” written into the parts of their brains where normal people have “empathy” and “knowledge of appropriate interpersonal behaviour.” This was bound to catch up to the company eventually, and in season six, it does. After a few episodes of mounting tension surrounding Dunder Mifflin’s failing fortunes, the annual Christmas episode ends with the revelation that while the corporate office are all imminently out of work, the regional branches have been saved from the bankruptcy ax by a buyout from Florida printer company Sabre. And thus as David Wallace fades into the background (he takes season seven off, but isn’t gone for good), two new faces come to Scranton.

Kathy Bates is the showy one, arriving in the back half of the year as Sabre founder/CEO Jo Bennett, flanked by her giant dogs. Jo is the perfect antidote to the reluctant laissez-faire attitude David Wallace brought as Michael’s boss, yet without the humourless sternness of Charles Miner or the rage and self-destruction of Jan. What Kathy Bates brings to the role is a fun Florida charm blended with a steely disposition. Jo Bennett is not a boss Michael can charm, fool, or intimidate. And there’s no “over her head” to go to. He tries to resist Sabre’s policies at first, but Jo is unflinching, and after a look at how unemployment is treating David Wallace, rebellion against the new owners exits his mind.

(Side note… I mentioned last time how “Scranton is special” was important to upcoming arcs. This is one of them. Scranton had to be the top branch in the company, or else why would the new CEO visit so often?)

Our second new arrival, and ultimately the more significant one, is Zach Woods as Gabe Lewis, branch liaison to corporate. While Jo is an occasional Special Guest Star, Gabe swiftly becomes a full part of the ensemble. Gabe… Gabe is fun in a few familiar ways. In theory they report to him, as he’s the voice of corporate, but his attempts to wield authority don’t exactly go well. He commands slightly less respect than Dwight and has about as much confidence as Toby. He’s a new form of twitchy awkward, but a fun one.

And at the same time that Gabe joins the ensemble, something clicked in the writers’ room, and they asked themselves… why isn’t Darryl in every episode? Okay, sure, drug problems last year, but he’s doing better, so why isn’t there more Darryl? Let’s have more Darryl. A promotion from Jo brings Darryl out of the warehouse and into the new office that had been built for Jim (I’ll get back to that), and from there, he’s more of a constant… and delightful… presence.

Flipping the Wrong Dynamic

Prior to Sabre’s arrival, The Office tried something out. We’d seen Jim go from not caring about his job at all to taking being second-in-command surprisingly seriously, and at the start of the year, he makes a move second season Jim could never have expected… he lobbies for his own command. Jim seems to have liked being the boss a little, because he suggests to David that Michael be promoted to New York and Jim take over the Scranton branch. Michael, not knowing the plan, manages to compromise it, and to avoid losing Jim entirely, the two of them end up as co-managers. And sure that’s weird and it causes a few clashes as Michael’s management style finds itself at odds with Jim’s deliberate and ongoing attempts to move the office past it, but that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.

I want to talk about what this does to Jim’s dynamic with Dwight.

Back in season three we saw how Jim’s eagerness to prank Dwight goes down the more seriously he takes his job. As fellow salesmen, blowing off work to prank Dwight was Jim’s greatest non-Pam-related joy. As official assistant manager, he felt the urge to prank was something he should rise above. As co-manager, it’s gone completely. Jim’s new responsibilities make him attempt to live in peace with his former nemesis.

Dwight, on the other hand, sees Jim’s promotion as Jim stealing what should rightfully be Dwight’s, and is not prepared to take his enemy’s ascension lying down.

And it’s… it’s not great.

See, Jim’s pranks are certainly mean (all pranks are at least a little mean, save for “guten pranks,” which are years away), but they’re also slightly playful. As worst he’s trying to annoy Dwight a little. When Dwight schemes against Jim, it’s beyond mean. It’s cruel and sometimes uncomfortably violent (not this year but it’s coming). He wants to destroy Jim. And when he comes close to succeeding, sorry, I do not see the comedy.

At first Dwight’s plots are fun and largely inept. Which makes sense. I mean, Dwight didn’t fall for all of Jim’s pranks over the years because he’s actually good at this stuff, so it makes sense that one of his opening gambits is to buy everyone bagels so that they’ll owe him a favour, which he will cash in to get Jim fired. It’s the exact sort of sinister but critically flawed scheme I’d expect from Dwight, one that can be undone by Andy’s stubborn refusal to let a favour go unrepaid. But in one episode, Dwight hatches a scheme that manages to turn most of the staff against Jim and comes within a hair’s breadth of hitting the target. If not for David Wallace’s fondness for Jim and Dunder Mifflin’s bigger problems, he might have pulled it off, ousted Jim, and then no doubt learned that corporate had no interest in giving Dwight the co-manager position instead. But that last part never occurred to him, because of course it didn’t.

That episode, by the way? Oh, it is notorious. But not because of Dwight nearly getting Jim fired. I’ll elaborate.

Scott’s Tots

I would just tackle this under “Skippables” but this one is special.

Damn near everything out there has an internet fandom, but I discovered a special branch for Office fans: the subreddit CannotWatchScottsTots. An online forum for people who habitually rewatch The Office (like myself) but skip Scott’s Tots every time (like myself in most cases). Nearly three and a half thousand people subscribe to it. Over three thousand habitual Office binge-watchers who can’t bring themselves to rewatch this one episode. (There is a counter-group, r/CanWatchScottsTots, but there’s only nine of them.)

It’s not Dwight, though. That’s mostly just me. Hell, maybe some people enjoy his surprisingly spot-on impersonations of certain co-workers in the final stages of his sinister plot.

No, it’s Michael. The title of Scott’s Tots refers to a group of black students he made a promise to ten years ago. When they were in grade two, he visited their class, and said that if they graduated from high school, he would pay their way through college.

It is, without question, the worst thing he’s ever done. And this is only a handful of episodes after he told everyone in the office that Stanley was having an affair just because spreading rumours got him attention.

It’s also a very Michael thing to do, because it was based on the idea that any day now Michael would sell his screenplay for Threat Level Midnight or get noticed by Drew Carey at improv class or something that was going to bring him the fame, fortune, and love that he was sure was right around the corner. But now graduation’s coming, and instead of a millionaire he’s a middle manager with a debilitating spending problem (Probably? We haven’t checked in on that since season four…). So while Dwight’s plot to get Jim fired reaches its climax, Michael is across town slowly, painfully informing a class of inner city youths that they are not getting free rides to college.

So the question is, why is this worse than the level of cringe this show is famous for? One of the cringiest episodes they’ve done, Dinner Party, is also known as one of the best, so why is this one so hated? Again, I feel the answer should be Dwight’s evil plot against Jim suddenly becoming impossibly, uncharacteristically successful, but no, that’s somehow not it. It’s the fact that this cringe is aimed at innocent school kids. They didn’t do anything wrong, and Michael’s need to be adored has actually damaged their lives.

And to make things worse, they couldn’t even just let him stew in this one. Like most “Michael acts poorly” episodes, they had to throw in the last-minute redemptive moment. In this case, Erin (because of course he brought Erin, no other staffer would have his back right now) tells him that thanks to his empty promise, the graduation rate for Scott’s Tots is up from the average. Sure, all those graduates have massively uncertain futures since they now have no idea where their tuition is coming from, but heaven forbid Michael end the episode feeling bad.

Lord. This one is just a slog.

Stray Thoughts

  • Yes, Andy is an underperforming salesman crushing on the receptionist. But they are not the new Jim and Pam. Nobody can be Jim and Pam, not even Angela and Dwight. But more to the point, while they do kind of work, their primary obstacle to getting together this season is mutual incompetence at hooking up, and their frequent mishaps are played for comedy as often as pathos. Also, Andy, come on… you got her the 12 Days of Christmas for Secret Santa? As some of us have tried to make clear, those gifts are monster behaviour.
  • I really didn’t spend much time on the co-manager plot. It was fun watching Jim be an authority for a while, and his attempts to normalize branch management against Michael’s wishes, but I was fine with Jo resetting the status quo after the Sabre buy-out. Especially since Dwight’s evil plan wore thin after Scott’s Tots.
  • The birth of baby Cece Halpert also brought us what I believe to be the first reference to the Scranton Strangler. Don’t worry, the show doesn’t become a crime procedural, but the Scranton Strangler has a key background role to play in the coming season.
  • Also getting its first reference? Ryan’s new venture, WUPHF, a mass-messaging system that, depending on your perspective, is either somewhat useful or hugely invasive.

Key Episodes

“The Meeting” kicks off the co-manager arc, and “Manager and Salemen” brings it to a close with a wonderful appearance by Jo.

Obviously don’t skip Niagara. We talked about this.

The Lover, for Jim and Pam’s priceless reactions to Michael’s new girlfriend.

And plotwise, certainly Secret Santa, Sabre, The Delivery, St. Patrick’s Day, Happy Hour, The Cover-up, and Whistleblower.

Skippables

Believe it or not, there is an episode more skippable than Scott’s Tots. I know, I’m surprised to be saying it. But there is, and it’s The Banker. Scott’s Tots is unpleasant, but The Banker is worse in a key way. See, Sabre has sent a banker to look over the company pre-takeover, which the staff uses as an excuse to look back at past shenanigans.

So it’s a clip show.

And there ain’t nothing more skippable than a clip show.

Notable Guest Stars?

We covered Kathy Bates. Todd Packer makes a return appearance after three seasons away in St. Patrick’s Day. Anna Camp is one of Pam’s bridesmaids. Mike Starr is an insurance salesman mistaken for a mobster by the office’s… less rational employees in Mafia. Nelson Franklin is the new IT guy, having previously appeared as a recruiter for a graphic design company, the guy who gets Pam thinking about art school in New York. You might not know who that is, but to me, he’s Comeau, the Guy Who Knows Everyone from Scott Pilgrim Vs the World.

And most significant, Christian Slater hosts Sabre’s confusing orientation video.

Next time… get ready to say a big, tearful goodbye.

Overthinking the Office Part 5: Love and Betrayal

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

Outgrowing Your Premise

PREMISE!
Haven’t broken these guys out in a while.

Not every aspect of a show’s premise is designed to last if the show keeps going. For instance, Jeff Winger was always going to graduate from Greendale after season four of Community. The interns on Scrubs couldn’t stay interns forever. In fact, not even for two seasons. “High school is Hell” is the central premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they still had to find a way to move past it (we can argue how successfully they managed that another time). In the case of The Office, it’s the threat of downsizing.

From the pilot until Branch Closing, the staff of Dunder Mifflin lived under the constant threat of downsizing. It’s established in the very first episode that the corporate office is planning to merge Scranton and Stamford, and only a last second betrayal from Stamford’s Josh Porter saves the Scranton people. And while Dunder Mifflin’s financial woes are far from over, as we’ll learn down the road, something changes for Scranton in season five. Suddenly, instead of being the second lowest performing branch under Jan’s control (as mentioned in Casino Night), Scranton is the most profitable branch Dunder Mifflin has.

It makes sense… they absorbed Stamford, Dwight is the company’s top salesman (even beating the website), they couldn’t possibly stay the low sellers forever. But it creates a whole new power dynamic. One that is entirely necessary for where they want to push the show. Everything that happens in future seasons hinges on the idea that this branch is special, this is the branch worth following, worth being close to. I mean, one could argue that the writers just occasionally forget that there are other branches, but I think higher of them than that. No, I think it’s that the stories they start telling require this new dynamic. Starting with…

The Big Break-up

No, it’s not Jim and Pam. In fact, by the end of the first episode (hour-long, yet again), they’re engaged. Sure, they open the season by sending Pam to New York for art school, and sure, Mad Men’s Rich Sommer is there and has a bit of a thing for her, but as I said last time… now that they’re together, the producers are unwilling to fully commit to actually threatening their relationship. So Rich Sommer never has a chance. Pam was always going to come home to Scranton, despite a last-second twist of her failing one of her courses. So no, they don’t break up Pam and Jim, not even a little. They go for the other relationship that seems too strong to fail.

Michael and Dunder Mifflin itself.

Late in the season, events conspire to make Michael quit his job and found the Michael Scott Paper Company. To a casual observer, it might seem that it’s all about Michael’s new boss (introduced, fittingly, in New Boss), Charles Miner, played by the great Idris Elba, our second veteran of The Wire. But no, the seeds were planted much, much earlier. Charles plays a role, but it’s mostly about Holly Flax and David Wallace.

We talked about Holly last time. How she was, and remains, Michael’s perfect match. The first woman Michael dates where it actually goes well. How clear is it that Holly is something special? For the first and only time, the Documentarians don’t take the summer off.

Yes, sure, the real reason for the Documentarians almost never filming between June and August is the standard network television hiatus, but nearly every season premiere involves talking head interviews where the characters catch the Documentarians (and through them, us) up on what’s been happening, so in-universe they clearly take the summer off. They wouldn’t need Michael, Pam, Oscar, or Toby to fill them in on what’s been going on the last three months if they had footage. But in Weight Loss, they’re in for the long haul, as the episode takes place over two months.

Are we to believe that they stick around for the summer because they’re really interested in the Dunder Mifflin– you know what, I’m going to start writing DM and y’all are just going to get what I’m saying. Where was I? Right. Are they really that interested in the DM weight loss challenge? More than being present for Jim’s last days in Scranton, Ryan’s ascent to VP, or Jim and Pam starting to date? When those things happened, the crew took their scheduled break. And they weren’t missing something that big again. So they make sure they’re around at least once per week for the whole summer because they don’t want to miss anything between Michael and Holly.

Now let’s talk about David Wallace. Michael’s boss’ boss when we meet him, David Wallace must be everyone’s dream boss. He’s pleasant, friendly, generous, and so, so forgiving. Even before we find out DM Scranton is head of the pack, he seems to ultimately forgive all the ridiculous behaviour he witnesses from Michael and Dwight. Not always easily… there are some angry talks in Stress Relief, but Dwight doesn’t get fired, and man did they have cause. And in The Deposition, when the DM attorneys tried to make him say Michael wasn’t a serious candidate for Jan’s job, he resisted as long as he could before only replying “What do you want me to say, he’s a nice guy.” But he does have a limit.

Michael and Holly hadn’t been together long when David found out about their relationship. They’d known each other for months, Michael was already deeply in love, and Holly was seriously twitterpated, but it they’d only gone on three actual dates. But when David finds out one of his managers is in a relationship with the branch HR rep, he swiftly transfers Holly to Nashua, New Hampshire. And there our troubles begin.

David tries to make things better. He sends Michael on a business trip to exotic Winnipeg (in Ca-NAH-dah, as Michael pronounces it, trying to make everything seem as cool, fancy, and exotic as he can). But when the trip doesn’t go well (the sale works out fine, but Michael has a less-than-great hookup with a concierge, which he mistakes for concubine, since big words are not his strong suit), Michael ends up lashing out about Holly. And from there, David begins to feel the strain of managing Michael directly. A series of ridiculous incidents test David’s patience, and he erects a wall between himself and Michael: a wall named Charles Miner.

It would be easy to assume that it’s Charles’ management style, with his austerity measures and mirthless attitude (Charles is surprisingly similar to Elba’s Wire character, business-minded drug dealer Stringer Bell). One could easily jump to the conclusion that Charles cancelling Michael’s 15th anniversary party was what drove Michael away from the company he loves. But no. Pay attention, and you see that the fuse was lit the second Holly was transferred. David took Michael’s true love away, handed the reigns to a steel executive (“You’re not from paper!?” asks an incredulous Michael), and stopped taking Michael’s calls, all on the eve of Michael’s 15th anniversary serving the company. Fifteen years of service, only to have the company break his heart and treat him like an inconvenience. You need all of that together to make Michael declare war on his family.

When the Illusion of Change Fails

The first third of season five also heavily features the escalation of the Dwight-Angela-Andy love triangle. Angela and Andy’s wedding is looming, but in the fourth season finale, hours after accepting his proposal, she started banging Dwight again. Andy eventually finds out, he and Dwight have a duel in the parking lot, but partway through realise they’re fighting over a woman who betrayed them both, and both leave her.

Here’s my problem with this turn of events. And it’s not Angela and Dwight being broken up again.

Angela defines herself as the hyper-Christian moral center of the office. And I know, self-deception, I knowI’m the one who keeps bringing it up, so if she was simply judging others while secretly failing to live by her own morals, that would be fine. But as soon as the entire office learns that she’s been banging Dwight literally the entire time she’s been engaged to Andy, there should be no going back from that. Her every single attempt to judge people for acting “loose” or “whorish” should be crushed by the reminder that she cheated on Andy with Dwight.

Angela’s main target is Pam (well, also Meredith, but Meredith is basically immune to criticism). How she dresses, being “nosy,” how she’s the “office mattress” for dating both Roy and Jim, and down the road, getting pregnant outside of wedlock. Other than the dress code thing, Angela has done or will do all of those things, only worse. But Pam never once calls her out on it. Not one “You’re right, Angela, I did date Roy before Jim. Was that wrong? Should I have been sleeping with both of them at the same time like you were with Dwight and Andy? Is that the Christian way?” Is Pam just too nice? She’s certainly willing to call Ryan out on his shit this season. Does she consider Angela too close a friend? For the love of Buddha and all his wacky nephews, how could that be true?

No. Angela cheats on one co-worker with another, and it should destroy her reputation forever, and it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. She goes back to same old Angela, and over five years, exactly four people call her out on it… the Documentarians, in an early season talking head; Kevin, the episode after everyone finds out; Dwight’s best friend Rolf in the season finale; and then not again until season nine, almost four years later. I just can’t, for the life of me, understand why anyone (least of all Pam) lets her get away with being judgmental when she can be shut down with one “Try not to secretly screw Dwight on your way back to your desk.”

Ugh. Stupid.

Perpetually Cut

Let’s talk about Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. They’d been playing recurring characters Gino and Leo, grunt workers for Vance Refrigeration, since season two. They jumped in Michael’s elevator and tried to take over the shot (Leo just yelling “Ass” over and over). They got in a fight in the bullpen while delivering Phyllis’ many, many Valentine’s Day presents from Bob Vance. When Dwight interrogated the entire office about a joint he found in the parking lot, it turned out to be Gino and Leo’s. But if you’re only watching on Netflix, or if you only watched the show when it aired, you’d never know any of that. Because their scenes were habitually cut for time.

So it was a little strange when I realized that these characters, who almost exclusively existed in deleted scenes, were suddenly back in season five, like they’d always been there, in scenes that actually made it to air. Okay, sure, it turns out that Eisenberg and Stupinsky were both producers (like Ryan, Kelly, Toby, and Cousin Mose), so they weren’t hard to track down. But it’s still odd, and slightly miraculous, that they finally got their days in the sun three years later.

Stray thoughts

Ryan vanishes for a while mid-season, as BJ Novak had to go film Inglourious Basterds. He wins Kelly back before he leaves, though, and Craig Robinson proves how under-used he’s been so far in Darryl’s reaction to Kelly breaking up with him (via Ryan writing a text on her phone): a reply of “Cool” followed by a jaunty stroll to his truck with a spring in his step and a silent but obvious song in his heart.

Darryl is also missing for a lot of season five, because Craig Robinson had some drug charges right before the season started filming. Sad. But he’s doing better now.

Steve Carell makes Michael’s reaction to Toby’s return priceless.

Key Episodes

The entire Holly arc, from Weight Loss through to Employee Transfer. Never skip a Holly Flax episode.

The entire Michael Scott Paper Company arc, from Charles’ arrival in New Boss through to its epilogue in Casual Day. First of all, it’s the keynote arc of the whole season, and signals a new stage in Pam’s career. Second, it debuts a new character who becomes not only vitally important to the back half of the series, but a sheer delight: Kimmy Schmidt herself, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon. We’ll talk about her more next time, because it takes them a little while to realize what a powerful comic weapon they’ve acquired and how best to use it. Like how it took the Community writers a half dozen episodes to figure out how best to write for Donald Glover.

Stress Relief. In their hour-long (they got better at these after early season four) post-Superbowl episode, Michael decides to throw the Roast of Michael Scott to cheer up the office, and you don’t want to miss that.

Skippables

I’m not crazy about the “Charles doesn’t care for Jim” subplot during the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, but I already named that whole thing as key episodes, so…

Notable Guest Stars?

I mentioned Rich Sommer, Amy Ryan, and Idris Elba already. Two veterans of The Wire: one as Michael’s greatest love, one as his newest nemesis. That’s neat.

For the post-Superbowl episode, Jack Black and Cloris Leachman play themselves playing the lead roles in a movie about a man’s affair with his fiancee’s grandmother. (As Andy explains, it was supposed to be the fiancee’s mother, but when Nicole Kidman dropped out they rewrote the part for Cloris Leachman). Jessica Alba is also there as the jilted fiancee, but don’t blink, you’ll miss her.

David Denman makes his first of three return appearances as Roy, following his exit mid-season three, when Jim goes for a drink with the warehouse staff. Rashida Jones makes her second of three returns as Karen Filippelli when Michael, as head of the newly crowned most profitable branch, goes on the road to share his management secrets. It goes about as well as you’d expect. And Melora Hardin makes an appearance as Jan before quietly shuffling out of the ensemble after Michael realizes he feels no connection to her sperm bank baby.

Dwight’s best friend Rolf is also the voice of Dr. Venture on Venture Brothers, if that’s something you care about.

Next time… Scranton’s success does not mean all is well at Dunder Mifflin, Jim steps up, and the episode hard core fans avoid the most.

Overthinking the Office Part 4: Love is a Battlefield

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

Supersized, strike-shortened

In season four, The Office gave in to one of the pit traps of success: overindulgence. After two exceptional seasons of comedy and heartache, they came out of the gate with a series of hour-long episodes, each meant to be split into two halves for syndication purposes. The problem was, not all of them had quite enough story to fill two chapters. Some work out okay: Fun Run, in which Michael organizes a charity run to cure rabies so that people will stop mocking him for running over Meredith with his car (it only makes sense to him and justifying it ruins the fun), only drags when Michael spends two minutes trying to invent a god to pray to in order to lift the curse he’s decided to blame for the whole “running over Meredith” thing. “Dunder Mifflin Infinity,” in which Michael acts out against changes to the company, is less successful. “Launch Party” and “Money” feel the most like separate episodes wedged together, but their individual halves work okay.

What makes this wave of double-sized episodes even more awkward, though, is that thanks to the 2007 Writers’ Strike (scourge of drama and comedy alike, killer of the incredible Pushing Daisies), these four episodes make up nearly half of season four’s runtime. That’s a lot of space taken up by four stories that have good bits (including our first visit to Schrute Farms) but sometimes struggle to stretch their A-plots out to 40 minutes.

The strike also means this is the second season with no Christmas episode. Which is a shame, since it was last year’s Christmas episode, Benihana Christmas, that made them think hour long episodes were a good idea.

The Rise and Fall of Ryan Howard

Season three ended with a three-way battle between Michael, Jim, and Karen for what turned out to be Jan’s job. Jim turned it down to return to Scranton for Pam. Karen doesn’t get it, but disappears shortly after (then turns up shortly after the hour-longs as the new branch manager in Utica). Michael was turned down, but upon hearing he wasn’t getting the job, asks to be withdrawn from consideration, because being turned down wouldn’t fit in his personal narrative. So who’s Michael’s new boss? Former temp Ryan Howard.

Ryan started as the rational outsider, the newcomer who, being less acclimated, could be tormented by the peculiarities of his new co-workers. As a temp in seasons one and two, as a salesman in season three, and as Kelly’s boyfriend, his sole bit was being trapped in a weird situation and trying to find an exit. But that bit has an expiration date. So it was time to try something new with Ryan: a complete power flip.

In season four Ryan goes from the lowest rung on the ladder to vice-president, and boss of the man who used him as a lackey for three years. Michael does some mystifying mental gymnastics to convince himself that the best pals/mentor-mentee relationship he’s always imagined still exists (or ever did), but Ryan fights him on it. It begins with simple power plays like making him sit with the other employees during a meeting, but hits its peak in Survivor Man, when Ryan invites every branch manager on a wilderness retreat, but not only doesn’t invite Michael… he invites Toby.

You can’t tell me he didn’t know what he was doing there.

Ryan’s big project, his vice-presidential baby, is Dunder Mifflin Infinity, the new sales website. It’s a good idea to begin with, despite Michael’s initial protests against Ryan changing the way business was done. It does pose some problems for the sales staff, though, as easy on-line ordering threatens their commissions (and usefulness), leading to Dwight having an entertaining man-vs-machine sales duel against the website. But when Ryan tries to turn it into the next Facebook, it becomes infested with child predators (somehow?) and identity thieves, and his desperate measures to save his baby and prove he deserves his Wunderkind label bring his meteoric rise to a shattering thud.

Does that track? Rise and thud? I mean the “fall” is kind of implied by the “thud,” isn’t it?

Along the way Ryan acquires an entourage of people shorter than him, gets hooked on drugs, tries to push Jim out of the company for speaking ill of DM:I to David Wallace, and finds the new Ryan Howard we’ll be spending seasons five to eight with. Ryan becomes determined to recapture his glory months as Dunder Mifflin’s youngest VP. He truly believes that he has the potential to become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but his season four failure makes him extremely anxious under any sort of pressure, and the nature of DM:I’s problems (thinking a paper company could be the new, cool social network) show that his ideas are often beyond the reach of his actual talents, whatever those may be. Beyond season four, he’s always searching for a new look, a new hook, a new way to prove to the world and himself that he is the bleeding-edge tech visionary he sees himself as.

Self-delusion, remember? Always comes back to that.

Coming together, falling apart

As I implied earlier, the big-cheer moment of season three’s finale was Jim coming back to Scranton and asking Pam out on their first real date. The first half of Fun Run keeps us in suspense as to how it went, or tries to… they each claim to be single (both to their co-workers and to the Documentarians, fresh off their summer break), but Kevin for one is not buying it, and is determined to prove that they are totally hooking up. Which the Documentarians swiftly do at the halfway point.

Producers from The Office went on to create and write for Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99, equally-if-not-more funny comedies that share a few common traits, but the relevant one just now is how they treat their most adorable couples. Leslie and Ben, Peralta and Santiago, Jim and Pam… they never get together easily, there are always obstacles, but when they have a couple that they and we know work, once they’re together, they stay together. See, when you’re good at your sitcom-writing job, you can make a power couple work just as well as a will-they-won’t-they maybe-couple. Even better, because they don’t wear thin as easily. So instead of going Ross-Rachel (a cautionary tale/definition of “diminishing returns”) and trying in vain to recapture the earlier magic by splitting them up and teasing a reunion, they find a new magic in letting us actually enjoy Jim and Pam’s love.

Besides, why split those two up when they have so many other couples to mess with for relationship drama?

Kelly and Ryan: The first thing Ryan did after accepting his promotion was break up with Kelly, moving their relationship from “She’s clingy, he’s awkward about it” to the first stage of the beautiful, horrible, addictive train wreck that could only blossom once Ryan began his journey from everyman to hipster douche. In the wake of being dumped, Kelly pulls out all of her “love is a battlefield” tricks on him, from “coincidentally” wearing something low-cut and lots of make-up for his first post-promotion visit to Scranton, to lying about being pregnant to score a date, to starting a relationship with Darrel and making sure to flaunt it in front of him.

“It’s like she only wants to hook up when Ryan comes around,” he later explains. “It’s gotten to the point where I get excited every time I see that little dude walk through the door.”

There’s not much to say about that couple, save for pointing out that Kelly’s drama queen games and attitude don’t work on Darrel, who’s built up a thick skin for upstairs-worker nonsense in his years of dealing with Michael. Also, while the writers were beginning to understand what a comedy weapon they had in Craig Robinson, Darrel doesn’t become a full member of the main ensemble until season six, so we don’t see him and Kelly together that often. As a couple, they really only exist as a plot point for the ongoing Ryan/Kelly drama.

Michael and Jan: Jan’s meltdown at the end of season three has not made for a happy relationship with Michael, not that either of them will admit it at first. Jan’s self-destructive spiral is far from over, and things come to an explosive end in Dinner Party. But that’s okay, because Michael has better things on the horizon. We’ll come back to that.

But first, let’s look at the worst relationship The Office ever produced.

Beyond toxic

Dwight and Angela work as a couple because they share the same unflinching sternness, the uncompromising commitment to repression as a lifestyle. But where “D” and “Monkey” go wrong is in another trait they share… see, they’re not cold and robotic about everything. They have their interests. But if something falls outside their narrow range of passions, their lack of interest or empathy borders on a psychopathy. Dwight is deeply passionate about beets, Battlestar Galactica, and bear safety, to name examples, and Angela’s lack of interest in any of that doesn’t cause problems, but Angela loves her cats. Her many, many cats. And Dwight, being a farmer and also being Dwight, has no use for any animal that doesn’t provide some form of utility. So when Angela asks Dwight to give the oldest of her cats, Sprinkles, her many, many medications, Dwight does the only thing that makes sense to him. He attempts to humanely put Sprinkles to sleep, but since this has nothing to do with farming or paper sales (his only true talents, whatever he believes), he bungles it and Sprinkles dies a slower, more agonizing death than he planned.

Of course Angela can’t forgive this. She loves her cats more than any human she has ever known, and Dwight murdered one of them. It can’t erase her love for “D” (oh dear lord that’s way too sexual I regret typing that so much), nothing can, but nor can she be with him. So their weirdly adorable, highly secretive love suffers a blow it will take most of the season to recover from. Worse, it opens the door for the least healthy, most toxic relationship the show ever produced.

Sure, Pam and Roy were less of a romance than Pam surrendering to convenience over passion, and sure, Michael and Jan’s relationship is a slow-motion train crash of emotional abuse fueled by delusion and self-destruction, but they’re both fairy tale romances next to Angela and Andy.

In an attempt to make it clear that Dwight’s attempts at reconciliation are unwelcome and futile, Angela publicly lets Pam know that she is both single and prepared to mingle, something Andy takes as an invitation to swoop in. His first attempts fail, but between a kind of adorable acapella rendition of “Take a Chance On Me” with help from his old college buddies on three speaker phones and a gift of a cat (the exact same cat Dwight tried to give her to make up for destroying Sprinkles, which is salt in Dwight’s wounds… also how is “destroy” the word we use for cat euthanasia, that is dark), Andy wins a date with her.

Seriously, that song move was pretty baller. If life hadn’t beaten the notion of using sitcom shenanigans as dating strategies out of me at a young age, I’d have considered using it myself. Andy has some game when he puts his mind to it. But that is the last moment in which there is anything sweet, romantic, or remotely healthy about these two.

But why? Why, though? Why does any of it happen? There is never a moment in their entire relationship when Angela demonstrates any sort of affection for Andy. His every romantic or playful gesture simply revolts her. And she’s suddenly way more repressed and Christian about, shall we say, physical intimacy than she ever was with Dwight. They never really explain why that is, why she was super fine with premarital sex when Dwight was involved but won’t even kiss Andy for the first few months. Because she’s actually dating him publicly, maybe? And so the relationship has to match to the morality standards she pretends to live by and attempts to inflict on everyone around her? Or maybe just because she simply isn’t actually into Andy at all and it takes a few months of dating before being kissed by him becomes tolerable.

Honestly that Andy and Angela become a couple at all is confusing, and the fact that they stay a couple as long as they do is beyond baffling, because the genesis of their relationship comes down to one thing. Andy admits in season seven that he’s bad at meeting people. His passion for yachting, acapella, and casually mentioning he attended Cornell don’t open a lot of dating doors, I guess. He dates three women in his seven years on the show, and two of them are co-workers (the third was a probable fix-up by Darrel). So it seems to me that Andy only went after Angela because she’s the most attractive single woman in his eyeline 40 hours per week. If Kelly didn’t work in the annex, he’d probably have gone after her instead, and he’d have been better off for it.

From there it can only be stubbornness. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what either of them could possibly be getting out of this relationship, but Andy has been somehow conditioned to never give up or admit defeat (“Andy Bernard doesn’t lose contests. He wins them. Or quits them because they’re unfair.”), and breaking up with Angela because they’re an awful, awful match would be conceding that he made a mistake. So when Jim orchestrates a perfectly romantic moment in the season finale in order to propose to Pam, Andy ends up stealing his thunder by publicly proposing to Angela on a complete whim. Which she accepts to avoid awkwardness, I suppose. But then demonstrates her true feelings by immediately starting to bang Dwight again.

It always comes back to self-delusion. In this case, Andy’s delusion that if he keeps acting the part of someone in a blissful, fairy tale romance, it might eventually become one, despite the total lack of spark. Frankly, it’s clear that the writers had no interest in selling this relationship, because it wasn’t supposed to work. You’re not supposed to root for them to succeed or even care about Andy. From a story perspective, this relationship wasn’t even about Andy. Andy was only there to be a roadblock for Dwight and Angela. Hence Andy unknowingly twisting the screws by making Dwight his confidant for how the relationship is going, thinking that they’ve gone from rivals to friends, unaware that the rivarly has entered a whole new level.

We’ll come back to this arc and its failure as character growth next time.

Key Episodes

The Deposition and Dinner Party. Jan’s lawsuit against Dunder Mifflin was supposed to turn hers and Michael’s teetering-on-bankruptcy lives around, but when Michael is deposed, Dunder Mifflin fights back, and Michael and Jan’s every secret gets dragged out into the light. And worse for Michael, Toby’s there. This paves the way for The Office’s very own Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Dinner Party. After months of effort, Michael finally manages to hoodwink Jim and Pam into coming over for dinner, along with Angela and Andy. Which gives all four of them, plus party crashers Dwight and his former babysitter, front row seats to the detonation of Michael and Jan’s relationship.

And “Goodbye Toby,” for reasons I’ll get into below.

Skippables

“Dunder Mifflin Infinity” does kick off Ryan’s plotline for the year, but it’s the weakest hourlong by far. And has one of Michael’s least-earned feelings of triumph.

Notable Guest Stars?

When Toby decides to move to Costa Rica after getting slightly too friendly with Pam (on whom he’s had a crush for, I don’t even know, at least a year and a half), corporate sends a new HR rep… our first veteran of The Wire, Amy Ryan as Holly Flax.

Holly Flax is, in simple terms, Michael’s dream girl. He falls for her the minute he speaks to her, she actually finds him funny, they are a perfect match. The day where Andy and Angela’s hopelessly terrible relationship unaccountably reaches the next level also put the pieces in play for one of the show’s best love stories… But well, that’s next season.

Overthinking the Office Part 3: Enter The Nard-dog

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Time of Two Offices

The last two episodes of season two, Conflict Resolution and Casino Night, were game-changers. When Michael decides he can do a better job of conflict resolution than Toby (how can he not, in Michael’s mind, given that Toby is… gasp, shudder… divorced), he sets off a chain of events that brings Dwight and Jim’s rivalry to a boil, and begins to expose Jim’s feelings about Pam’s impending wedding. In the chaos, Dwight pushes Jim to transfer to Stamford. By Casino Night, everything seems back to normal… but Jim’s been offered the Stamford position. The episode ends with a kiss between Jim and Pam, and uncertainty as to what would happen…

A lot happened. But it all comes back to the same place. The Office’s third season begins by running to stand still.

Season three opens, and we find that Jim has, in fact, taken the promotion and moved to Stamford, while Pam called off the engagement at the last minute. Why? In Jim’s case because Pam turned him down twice, once before the kiss and once after. In Pam’s case… We don’t see the moment Pam leaves Roy, or the decision that prompts it (it happened during The Documentarians’ annual three-month break… with one exception, they never film over the summer), but the clues are there. Jim declared his love, then left for Connecticut, and in the wake of all that, there must have been a realization that Roy had never, in the last decade, loved Pam the way Jim did. And without Jim’s friendship to fall back on, the hollowness of her relationship with Roy couldn’t be ignored any longer.

So. Stamford.

The Time of Two Offices, Stamford and Scranton, dominates the first act of the third season, until an attempt to shut Scranton backfires, and Stamford comes to Scranton (as we all knew it must, Jim couldn’t stay in Connecticut forever). This won’t be the last time The Office finds its characters split between two locations, and it’s always a tricky prospect. One location tends to get the A-plots, and how well the second location deals with the B-plots kind of depends on who they’re left with. Now, during The Time of Two Offices, Scranton gets the A-plots fairly consistently (save for the Convention, in which a sales convention reunites Jim and his new boss Josh with Michael and Dwight), and they’re all pretty strong. Jim’s left to carry Stamford, but fortunately, he doesn’t have to do it alone… two new coworkers prove more than up to the task. Rashida Jones arrives as Karen Filippelli, who when he first arrives, manages to out-Jim Jim, and they develop a fun rapport that Jim and Katy never really had. Karen, as a match for Jim, has only one flaw… she just isn’t quite Pam.

As for the other.

Meet Andy

Andy Bernard, aka the Nard-dog, played by Ed Helms, the fifth Daily Show veteran to turn up on The Office, and the second most important. Andy wasn’t meant to be a long-term addition to the cast. None of the Stamford staff were. Hell, of the five (six including Jim) who transfer to Scranton, three barely existed as characters before The Merger, save for some deleted scenes, so they couldn’t help but seem expendable. In the beginning, Andy was the new office foil for Jim, a kiss-up with an anger issue that became an irritant to Jim’s new life. Upon arriving in Scranton, his quest to climb the ladder immediately puts him at odds with Dwight, a rivalry that climaxes in Dwight briefly leaving Dunder Mifflin and Andy being sent to anger management.

The question for the producers was… what’s to be done with Andy Bernard? Ed Helms is definitely funny. And there was a sense that he could be an asset to the cast. But how would anger management treat him? Would he fake his way through, relying on his standard tricks of personality mirroring, name repetition, and never breaking a handshake? Would he still be his former, obnoxious self? Or would he return a changed man, having truly learned a lesson? Wisely, they chose the second path, and Andy becomes a permanent and welcome part of the ensemble.

But therein lies the problem with Andy Bernard.

Andy’s a cypher. His core is fluid. His character shifts depending on who the show needs him to be from season to season. The rest of the cast may grow more broad, more extreme over the years, but they’re still basically the same people. But Andy… Andy of season three is barely the same person as Andy in season nine. Or four. Or the end of three. Only three things about Andy are consistent over the years… he comes from wealthy parents that demonstrably loved his little brother more (like, aggressively more at times), he never misses an opportunity to remind people that he attended Cornell, and he loves acapella. Compulsively. Andy’s urge to sing, whether he knows the lyrics or has to resort to his signature “Roota-doo-da-doo,” has a hair trigger.

He’s also super bad at nicknames, but super committed to them once he’s assigned one. Jim eats a tuna sandwich on his first day in Stamford, and based on that alone Andy calls him Big Tuna for seven years. But only one other staffer has to deal with that, despite an attempt to name Ryan “Big Turkey.”

Fortunately, Ed Helms has the charm to carry Andy through the twists and bends. Even through his more abrasive period this year. But sadly for Andy the character, his days of being Dwight’s rival are not done. Season two featured a steady stream of Jim pulling pranks on Dwight, but Conflict Resolution brought that to a breaking point, and from here on in Jim pranks are saved for special occasions, or at the very least until they have something good. Also, Dwight was becoming more popular, so he needed a new nemesis… one he could beat from time to time. And on the rare occasions when Dwight gets a leg up on Jim, I at least find it awkward and unpleasant (Dwight pranks being crueler and more Machiavellian), so despite his efforts to the contrary, Andy was the better fit, and stayed in that role for a few more years.

Jim and Pam: The Illusion of Change

Will they/won’t they has a deadline. No way around it. If you pull the trigger too late, people lose interest (that’s what really happened to Moonlighting, whatever else you heard). Pull it too early, and you risk having too little payoff. That’s why it’s for the best that Daredevil hasn’t shown up in any other Marvel Netflix series… if they all meet too early, it won’t be a Big Moment when they come together in The Defenders. That’s… not entirely relevant to romance discussions, but it’s a shorter road to my point than starting a nine-part blog series breaking down Ted and Robin on How I Met Your Mother.

For Jim and Pam, there was no going back from Casino Night. Jim declaring his feelings permanently altered their relationship, for better (later) or worse (now). Even once Jim’s time at Stamford came to a close, there was no going back to Jim pining for Pam. Jim had moved to a new state to get away from that, and couldn’t let himself go backwards. But they weren’t ready to get those crazy kids together just yet. And so how do you move things forward without actually moving things forward? You flip the bitch.

Jim comes back to Scranton, and Pam’s surely super excited to see him… but he comes back already dating Karen Filippelli. Season three’s Jim/Pam plotline becomes a mirror image of season two’s: Pam pines over Jim, while being forced to watch him date another co-worker. And she even has, in a way, her own Katy: someone she ends up with when watching the one she actually loves dating someone else.

Love is a battlefield

A reviewer for the AV Club hit on a key theme for season three: an infestation of couples that shouldn’t be. Not all of them, of course. Dwight and Angela remain deeply in super-secret weirdly perfect love. Ryan and Kelly remain where we left them, with Kelly getting as attached as possible, while Ryan is simultaneously searching for the exit and pathologically drawn to Kelly. So… they kind of fit the profile.

Everyone else… Hoo boy.

Jim and Karen: Jim and Karen are the best bad match. Karen’s charming, they get along, they have decent chemistry. But Jim doesn’t love her. He still loves Pam. And before long, she knows it, which just makes her dig in harder, while trying to isolate Jim from Pam. I mean, I never found it easy to root against them… for some people, a relationship that 80-90% works is enough. But when the 100% match is right there, a few feet from your desk… being mostly good together just isn’t enough.

Pam and Roy: Jim ran from Pam and Roy by moving forward, taking a promotion and dating Karen. Pam runs from Jim and Karen by running backwards. At Phyllis and Bob Vance’s wedding, she finally gives into Roy’s attempts to win her back. Roy thinks he’s trying harder. He thinks he’s not taking her for granted. He thinks he’s paying attention to her art and other interests. But he falls short, time and time again. Sure, in Business School, he’s one of the only Dunder Mifflinites to come to her art show, and Oscar and his boyfriend didn’t exactly set a high bar, calling her work “motel art” because she lacks courage, which… yeah. It wasn’t bravery or tolerance for risk that made her stay with Roy or keeps her at Dunder Mifflin for over a decade. But when Michael shows up at the last minute, his genuine enthusiasm for her painting of their office building makes it clear how hollow Roy’s comments of “I looked at all of them” and “Your art was the prettiest of the all of the art” are. There is genuine support, which is what she gets from Jim, and finds from Michael at the art show, and then there is lip service, which is Roy’s attempts to play the part of dutiful boyfriend.

Also he brought his brother. How, Roy, how after ten years do you still think that Pam considers bringing your lummox of a brother along on dates is a value add? On their first date he did this. At the art show he did this. And when she wants Roy to accompany her on a group outing to Poor Richard’s (Dunder Mifflin’s go-to pub), he brings his brother. That’s… that’s not why that particular outing is a disaster that ends Pam and Roy as a couple forever and always (and not in a small way: Roy was an upper tier ensemble member, but basically leaves the show after the next episode), but it surely didn’t help.

Michael and Jan: No, you’re not remembering it wrong. Michael started dating his realtor Carol during Casino Night. Something Jan does not take well at all. She’d never admit to being jealous of Michael, or upset about being jilted by him, but there’s no denying that she takes a harsher management style with him at the start of the season. She’s demanding hour-by-hour accounting of how he spends his time, belittling him at every opportunity, and her friendlier interactions with Stamford’s Josh Porter show that it’s not just the way she operates.

Which is not to say that she operates sanely the rest of the time, as her attempt to lure Josh back to her hotel room in The Convention show.

No, all is not well with Jan. All has not been well for a while. If you read the signs, watch her progression from cold but professional in the first years to completely unhinged at the end of season three, it seems clear to me that Jan’s been in a downward spiral since her divorce. Her dalliance with Michael in The Client and his inability to let go of that certainly contribute, but there’s a lot of pain and anger driving her. And when she and Michael finally do get together after Michael’s off-putting over-enthusiasm tanks his relationship with Carol, leading to Jan taking her place on a trip to Sandals Jamaica, it is not a turning point. It is merely another stop on her journey to rock bottom. How do I know this? Her exact words. When she’s explaining why she’s decided to be with him post-Jamaica, she says her therapist has advised her to give in to her self-destructive tendencies. Exact words, self-destructive tendencies. And when they reveal their relationship to corporate in Cocktails, she sums it up as “Cons… I date Michael publicly and collapse into myself like a dying star.” For Michael, showing off their relationship at the CFO’s party is a moment of romantic triumph. For Jan, it’s an acquiescence to her fall from grace, as her dirty little self-indulgence has simply become her life.

On the more comedic side, the moments where she realizes Michael’s habits are becoming infectious are all funny, such as saying Michael’s signature “That’s what she said” during a talking head interview, only to get a haunted look in her eyes and mutter “Oh god.”

Like I said last time… Michael’s pursuit of Jan in season two was unhealthy at best, but his punishment is to finally win her as her downward spiral goes critical. Sure he tries to break up with her, but afterwards she does the one thing that is guaranteed to win him back. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the one thing she does is something incredibly superficial, and not “self-improvement” or “becoming sensitive to Michael’s needs.” But it does mean that when Jan hits bottom in the season finale, Michael “gets” to be there to catch her. His consolation after losing a major promotion is to have his incredibly toxic relationship move to the next step.

General Thoughts

So really, that’s the theme for the whole season. Things that don’t mix being forced together, whether it’s exes who were better off split up, a relationship based on convenience over passion (for one of them, anyway), or two branches of a company that just don’t blend. Because sometimes you need to see what’s wrong in order to realize what’s truly right. And for our central couple, things are about to go very, very right.

For everyone else, season four’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Another notable twist of season three: Jim the authority figure. Post-merger, Jim is made the office’s second in command in a far more real way than Dwight ever was. And Jim has an interesting reaction to authority… turns out he actually takes it a little seriously. Which gives a character reason for the diminishment of his pranks against Dwight. They don’t vanish, because birds gotta fly and Jim’s gotta prank people when they’re obnoxious, but he does do his best to cut back.

Key Episodes

Branch Closing and The Merger, obviously. The fall of Stamford and Jim’s return to Scranton. Dwight and Andy’s first, most intentional rivalry peaks in Traveling Salesmen and The Return. Cocktails provides multiple turning points: Michael and Jan’s relationship turns sour, Pam and Roy’s reunion explodes, and Jim makes friends with CFO David Wallace. That one’s more of a subtle development, and causes less property damage than Pam and Roy’s, but it has an impact just the same. The Negotiation begins Darrel’s ascension as a more central character, as Roy makes his exit from the show. And of course Beach Games and The Job, in which someone is getting a promotion to corporate, and someone gets to be manager at Scranton.

Skippables

Not a one. Yes, season three is broader than season two. Things are getting bigger. They have to, in order to accommodate Jan’s breakdown, Andy’s buffoonery, and Michael’s beach day contest to be his successor. But we’re still in the golden years here. The jokes are all landing, the chemistry and timing is into a good rhythm, and you shouldn’t miss out on Karen Filippelli. You’ll miss her a little when Rashida Jones leaves Scranton for Pawnee, Indiana.

Okay, maybe, maybe The Convict, when the staff learns one of the Stamford transfers is an ex-con, and things get awkward in a hurry. It’s the closest season three gets to season one cringe levels, and it isn’t my favourite. Also, it’s focused on a guy we met last week, so it’s hard to get too invested in why he leaves.

Notable Guest Stars?

If Andy Daly is someone you’ve heard of, and people who’s TV comedy tastes are a little more cutting edge than mine tend to have, he turns up as a Benjamin Franklin impersonator/educator Jim hires for Phyllis’ stagette instead of a stripper.

I feel I should talk about writer/producer Michael Schur as Dwight’s cousin Mose, but what can you say about that neckbearded oddball expect that he somehow manages to make Dwight’s life more surreal than it was, while still proving he’s the sane one in the house? Well, I suppose I could decry his cowardice for using a prosthetic neck beard in all but his first appearance, instead of growing it out like Community’s writer/producer Dino “Starburns” Stamatopoulos did, but come on, the man’s responsible for some of the funniest network comedies of the last decade. He didn’t want to have a ridiculous neckbeard for his handful of appearances. (Of the four writer/producers in the cast, Schur was the least fond of screentime, after Mindy Kaling/Kelly, BJ Novak/Ryan, and Paul Lieberstein/Toby in approximately that order.)

When we discuss season four, we’ll look at how a season shortened by a writers’ strike still manages to teach a lesson about “too much of a good thing.”