Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sweetheart of Scranton

It's official: My vote for the year's smartest career move goes to Amy Ryan for her current supporting role on The Office (which just started its new season Thursday nights at 9 EST on NBC). It was only last year, you may recall, that Ryan finally broke through in movies with her performance as the mindboggingly irresponsible mother of a kidnap victim in Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone (a film that grows even stronger in my memory). It's not often that Oscar-nominated actors immediately move to TV; and when they do, it's usually in a smug, winky, meta look-at-me-I'm-slumming-on-Friends kind of way. Not Amy Ryan. She shows total commitment to her character, Holly Flax, the new HR rep at Dunder-Mifflin's surprisingly resilient Scranton, PA branch. At the end of last season, Holly came aboard and, with her dorky insecurities, immediately won the heart of the quixotic Michael Scott (as well as Kevin, whom, in a funny running gag, she was duped into thinking was mentally challenged). This season's premiere, "Weight Loss," traced their blossoming relationship over this past summer -- sharing a passion for lame jokes, beatboxing, and Counting Crows --right up to Michael, as usual, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

On "Weight Loss," the tragicomic Michael and Holly denouement was offset by Jim and Pam, whose three-month separation due to the latter's acceptance to an out-of-town design school was capped by the former's proposal. (In the rain, no less, but kudos to John Krasinski and director Paul Feig for taking a potentially corny Hollywood moment and making it work.) On the more satirical scale are other Office dynamics: the sure-to-be-doomed engagement between Andy and Angela; Angela's trysts with the increasingly unhinged Dwight; Michael's man-crush on B.J. Novak's Ryan the temp (returning following his humiliating arrest for corporate fraud).

"Weight Loss" wasn't gutbustingly funny, but I can't recall a more pleasurable hour of television this year -- all the more surprising for a series frequently bent on making its viewers squirm. From top to bottom, the cast of The Office has become perhaps the best ensemble on TV. It's not a stretch to say that, in their own indelibly minimalist way, they are achieving what was David Milch's goal on Deadwood: "to become "a single organism....having a somewhat more confident sense of their identity over the course of time." How wonderful that Ryan's Holly -- a character obviously searching for her own self -- should occupy their center.

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