Friday, May 16, 2008

Keeping It Real

Over at The House earlier this week, a brief discussion followed over which sitcom viewers preferred, The Office or 30 Rock. Count me in with those who believe it's not an either-or proposition, but it was interesting to read the arguments favoring one or the other. Some love 30 Rock for its anything-for-a-punchline surrealism; others love The Office for the emotional gravity beneath the gags. Of course neither world is that clear-cut: 30 Rock can seamlessly venture into touching territory now and then, as per the final few scenes between Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey last week; whereas The Office tends to have more difficulty maintaining a delicate balance between the unforced naturalism of most of the ensemble and the cartoonish antics of manager Michael Scott.

During last night's season finale, "Goodbye, Toby," Steve Carell kept Michael largely believable within the character's own paradigm. Alan Sepinwall has noted that episodes written or co-written by Paul Lieberstein do a better job at keeping Michael grounded, even giving him saving graces. The casting of Amy Ryan (the potty-mouthed mother of the kidnap victim in Gone Baby Gone) as Holly, the new, quirky Human Resources rep also paid off. Ryan and Carell previously worked together in Dan in Real Life, which I haven't seen, but their chemistry here was terrific. I second Bruce Reid's comment over at Sepinwall's that "....given Hollywood's propensity for typecasting and Ryan's acclaim for playing bitter harridans, it's doubly nice to see her playing such an open charmer here." The running gag, initiated by Dwight tricking Holly into thinking the slow-of-manner Kevin retarded was not only funny but highlighted the character's decency. I hope she comes back in at least a semi-regular capacity.

"Goodbye, Toby," however well-done, also underlined another problem The Office has with keeping its naturalistic tone, and that lies in the show's ability to navigate sitcom contrivances. On one hand, the script shrewdly played up the expectation that Jim's vituperative voicemail to Ryan would lead to the former's termination, only to resolve this at the halfway point with Ryan's arrest (a scene reminiscent of Wall Street). Yet having neatly sidestepped one cliche, the episode fell right into another with Andy's proposal interruptus on Jim and Pam. It was a jarringly contrived moment made worse by Pam's deflated reaction. If the character is perspicacious enough to anticipate Jim's marriage proposal, wouldn't she have guessed that he wouldn't have wanted to go through with it on the heels of Andy and Angela? Moreover, why would she have wanted him to do it immediately after that?

There is quite a bit that didn't track this season, much of it likely due to a strike-shortened year. Normally, TV series have the opposite problem -- padding and delaying to the point of wearing out viewer patience -- so if plot developments like Pam's sudden acceptance into graphic design school and the Jim-Ryan rivalry weren't fleshed out as well as they could have been, at least they were dealt with fairly quickly. I suspect the original 30-plus episode plan for The Office this season would have been A Bad Thing; here's hoping that next season avoids the precipice of anything-goes comedy and keeps the characters real.

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