Friday, March 13, 2009

Last night's episode of The Office was pretty good

Back in it's second and third seasons, when The Office was underperforming, it was clever and heartbreaking in well-measured doses. Since it's become a bigger deal, the comedy has gotten broader. The tipping point, for me, was early in season four when Dwight killed Angela's ill cat. It was funny when the situation was ambiguous (was it a well-meaning accident? Was it a mercy-killing meant to prtect Angela's feelings?). It, and Dwight, ceased to be funny for me when we learned that Dwight had killed it by leaving it in the freezer.

The strength of this version of The Office, which it shares with its British source material, has been its familiarity; the degree to which we identify with the neuroses, longings and triumphs of uncelebrated people working in an uncelebrated field. At the beginning of the fourth season, aside from not finding animal torture very hilarious, I just didn't buy Dwight anymore; he had gone from off-beat eccentric to comedy-killing cartoonishness.

Last night's episode, "Golden Ticket," was one of the stronger entries lately. Michael, taking inspiration from Willy Wonka (though not Roald Dahl, an author he's never heard of), inserts five golden tickets into random boxes of paper, each ticket entitling the recipient to 10% off their orders for a year. The promotion becomes a disaster when Dunder-Mifflin's biggest client gets all five surprise discounts. Michael, in a panic, tries convincing Dwight to take the fall (and the pink slip) for him. Michael and Dwight then compete for the credit when their big customer, so happily surprised by the golden tickets, commits to several more, larger orders.

For me, the show has always been more effective when it's sad than when it's funny. For the last two seasons, I've preferred the more serious tone, perhaps because I have a hard time laughing at some of the broader stuff; in addition to killing a cat, Dwight also went through a phase where he thought the internet was alive and talking to him. I was also disappointed by what a monster Jan turned into, though it beget some great Steve Carell scenes and that entire, amazing dinner party episode in season 4.

This episode was very funny, though. I also appreciated it for both delving into Michael's insecurities (always, uh, golden) while for the first time in a long time, making me feel for Dwight. The scene where the office rallies around Dwight-the-marketing-hero was funny and also kind-of sweet.

I think my appreciation of the show, for the rest of its run, will be proportionate to the degree of humanity I see in Dwight. This episode may be an outlier that way, but last night I remembered what I used to find special about the show.

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