Sunday, February 8, 2009
A Home in the World
Watching the elating special episode of The Office late Sunday night following the Super Bowl -- seeming to build on the momentum of the end of that game -- I thought about, of all things, David Milch's observation about his watershed series Deadwood. "[I]t's a single organism," Milch said about his show, "and....in a lot of ways it's about the different parts of the body having a somewhat more confident sense of their identity over the course of time." The ebullient confidence of The Office's ensemble was so apparent throughout the hour that it's difficult to cite just one instance of this: the opening fire-drill mass panic? the climactic "roast" of boss Michael Scott? the disastrous CPR seminar, which devolves into a giddy rendition of "Stayin' Alive"? The joy in watching these scenes comes from each member of the cast doing his or her thing, such as Ed Helms's energetic falsetto and Mindy Kahling's impromptu airhead dance in the last example. There's room for both close-ups of the characters -- namely in the talking-head interviews -- as well as wide frames that pack too many details for the eye to catch. Now in their fifth season, each actor has become uniquely individualized yet almost psychically in synch.
It didn't start this way. The Office, of course, was/is an import of an acclaimed British series that was (deliberately) brutally unfunny. Its painful humor derived from the horrific silence of depersonalized working drones to David Brent's antics. I've endured horror movies less terrifying than the scene where Brent welcomes a new group of employees from a corporate merger with a comedy routine that's like plummeting into an abyss in slow motion. A sweet, sad non-romance between two of Brent's employees -- Tim and Dawn -- couldn't quite offset the discomfort.
The Americanized Office -- the paper company now called Dunder-Mifflin and residing in Scranton, PA -- survived its early growing pangs mainly due to the casting of Steve Carell in the lead. Carell is a fine comic actor who can play pathos without degenerating into Robin Williams desperation: his character, Michael Scott, is needy but the actor isn't. As he demonstrated in the not-bad update of Get Smart, Carell can put his own stamp on iconic roles; and on The Office he doesn't mimic Ricky Gervais; he makes Michael (the David Brent update) his own creation, a savvy salesman clueless about real human interaction. For the first year or two, the focus was on not only Michael's antics but also the slowly requited romance between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). Yet over time the show has become increasingly democratic, going broader and deeper with its sterling supporting cast.
As Brian Doan pointed out, "Stress Relief" (the title of the post-Super Bowl eppy) was both a "big" episode and a parody of one, keeping special guest stars Jack Black and Jessica Alba along the fringes (in a fictional movie illegally downloaded by Andy) rather than awkwardly injecting them into the narrative. Even in its broadest moments, The Office maintains a naturalism that is very delicate to sustain. Last season, I complained that Michael was becoming too outlandish; bringing in Amy Ryan for a handful of episodes as his HR soul-mate Holly appears to have toned him down (and left him with an undercurrent of rue following her departure). This year it's office sycophant Dwight (Rainn Wilson) who has gone disturbingly over the edge, to the point where you wonder why he hasn't been fired. Still, it's hard to quibble when the character crosses the line as hilariously as he did in "Stress Relief," starting the fire-drill chaos and then disemboweling the CPR dummy.
If Michael or Dwight's behavior filled a vacuum, as often felt like the case with Gervais on the British Office, the show would be deadly. Fortunately, Brian Baumgartner (Kevin), Angela Kinsey (Angela), Phyllis Smith (Phyllis), Kate Flannery (Meredith), Creed Bratton (Creed), Paul Lieberstein (Toby), Oscar Nunez (Oscar), Craig Robinson (Darrell), and Leslie David Baker (Stanley) do more than supply reaction shots; they give the main characters something to push against.
This push-pull of office tension was at the heart of "Stress Relief," culminating in a celebrity-style "roast" of Michael (at his own invitation) that challenged his ideal that they're all a "family." We've all heard this axiom enough times in the real world to know it's bullshit; but Michael, for all his overbearing impropriety, genuinely believes this, complicating his employees' (and our own) responses to him. Stanley, the surly, older African-American salesman, has often been Michael's biggest obstacle, withholding the approval that Michael craves. Following the roast, Michael returns to the office and proceeds to single out each character in his own inimitable way. ("Dwight, you're a kiss-ass -- boom, roasted!....Pam, you failed art school -- boom, roasted!") The scene is tense until Stanley, recovering from a heart attack, responds with a slowly escalating hearty chuckle that spreads to Michael and the rest of the characters, until soon everyone is laughing. The only thing harder than telling a funny joke is telling a lame joke and making it funny. That the writers and actors of The Office (many of whom are one and the same) pull this off so well and so often shows their own confident sense of identity.