Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Art of the Deal

"Heart-pounding" is not normally a word I would use to describe The Office, yet by the time Thursday night's episode reached its climax, my adrenaline was in overdrive. The premise: Michael (Steve Carell) and Dwight (Rainn Wilson) engaging in a farcical yet deadly serious battle royale over the latter's top client, a publisher in the general Scranton, PA area. The Office has always made a point (with varying degrees of success) of showing how both characters, despite skirting caricature, are top-notch salesmen; and this was never better orchestrated than the final scene in the publisher's office, where Michael's laid-back schmooziness was matched by Dwight's bursting-through-the-door combativeness. "I burst because I care!" he bellowed.

It's evident from this season -- the show's fifth and best to date -- that the writers care too. "Heavy Competition" was, self-contained, a solid episode. What made it resonate as strongly as other episodes of late was how deftly it wove together several plot strands from earlier in the year. Season 5 began with Michael finding and losing the love of his life, HR rep Holly (Amy Ryan),  who was transferred to another branch after Dunder-Mifflin boss David Wallace (Andy Buckley) discovered their relationship. In addition to a broken heart, Michael then had his conscience quashed after Wallace (with Dwight's urging) talked him into conning a competitor --a local family-run paper business -- into handing over a list of their clients. (A moment in a recent episode where Michael learned of the family business's demise was both funny and heartbreaking.) All this led to the tipping-point, when new hard-ass supervisor Charles Minor (Idris Elba) interfered with Michael's free-wheeling managerial style and pulled the plug on his 15th anniversary party. Michael abruptly quit and, joined by the equally disillusioned-for-different-reasons Pam (Jenna Fischer), founded the "Michael Scott Paper Company," currently residing in the basement of the same office building, directly beneath Dunder-Mifflin's men's room.

What makes The Office so gratifying is its shunning of melodramatics. Momentous changes happen, but they're internal shifts of character, and Michael's have been all of a piece this season (and beautifully played by Steve Carell), leading up to a storyline where he's forced to temper his least appealing qualities (namely laziness and a needy desperation to be loved) and show us the cunning salesman within. For most the year, Pam was the muted half of her relationship with Jim (John Krasinski), until her ballsy-foolhardy decision to leave with Michael (seemingly spontaneous but also prepared for by her flunking out of art school at the season's start) suddenly made her more interesting. It's been fun watching Pam continue to serve as his-girl-Friday to Michael while still negotiating conditions of employment (she wants to be in sales) and dueling with the prodigal Ryan (B.J. Novak) in a kind of micro-office politics. "Once I make that first photocopy," she astutely observed, "then I'm the secretary again."

"Heavy Competition" was deeply pleasurable despite being one of the few episodes this year to make little use of the show's splendid ensemble. The only subplot, a prank involving Jim tricking the recently cuckolded, misogynistic Andy (Ed Helms) into thinking his engagement with Pam was on the rocks, was relatively uninteresting until the payoff with Jim dialing down the smugness and assuring Andy that he'll find somebody someday. (Most people I know would have stopped with "Pam and I are very happy together.") And the Michael v. Dwight slugfest was a joy to behold, a great showcase not only for Carell but Rainn Wilson, whose overheated Dwight, a friend noted, boils down every situation to a black-and-white medieval battle. (My friend then pointedly paused and deadpanned, "Why does that sound familiar?") It's to the writers' ingenuity (this script credited to Ryan Koh, though the whole team presumably chips in) that they made Dwight's closing sales-pitch to the publisher sound intelligent and persuasive, and then let him hang himself anyway, with an inspired twist involving a set of stolen color-coded Rolodex cards that revealed the fine line between Michael's brilliance and stupidity.

With Season 5's homestretch in sight, most of The Office's viewership assumes that the upstart Michael Scott Paper Company will return to the Dunder-Mifflin fold. Enduring television shows always flirt with change only to revert to the comforting familiarity of the status-quo. Yet I'm not so sure there's not another destiny in mind, with Michael doing something we've rarely seen before: He's winning.

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