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"Wanted: Middle Aged Black Man with Sass": Branch Wars on "The Office"

I'll admit that while I've been unhappy with The Office this season, last night's episode ("Branch Wars"), while far from perfect, was at least a step in the right direction, thanks to a punchy script (if a little too unrealistic) from Mindy Kaling (writer of my all-time fave Office episode, "The Injury") and dynamic direction from Joss Whedon.

There were a few things that went a little too into the dark territory of the dubious: Michael's Ferris Bueller-inspired attempted cover-up of his truancy, which could have been more effective had someone discovered the dummy and audio cassette of Michael snoring in flagrante delicto as were; the overt sting of product placement in replacing Michael's oh-so fitting Sebring with a PT Cruiser, which is so vanilla and unspecific that it goes against everything the writers were attempting to do with his car in the first place; and the fact that Pam would organize and participate in an elitist club celebrating the Finer Things in Life (rather than, say, Angela, from whom this behavior would only be fitting); the mustaches and warehouse uniforms that Michael, Dwight, and Jim don as part of their pranking the Utica branch in retaliation for Karen poaching sassy black man Stanley.

It's the latter that I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt. After all, the visual reveal of this troika clad in over the top mustache-twirling villain-style, er, mustaches more than made up for my incredulity at seeing this in the first place. Pranks have always been an integral part of The Office since the UK original, but they've tended to be more of the stapler-in-Jello variety than an all-out assault on another branch, complete with Molotov cocktails and potential eye-gouging. It's a little too far out there but Kaling manages to ground what could have been an over the top paroxysm by having the action--in which Dwight and Michael slip into the Utica warehouse and attempt to steal their industrial copier, only to have it go horribly, horribly wrong--play out, not on-screen, but via walkie-talkies. The result is hysterical without being hammy.

It was wonderful to see Karen (Rashida Jones) again, though I am not totally sold on the fact that she would relocate to Utica rather than, say, getting a job at Dunder-Mifflin's corporate offices in Manhattan. But that's quibbling. I am happy that the writers decided to force Jim to confront what he did to Karen sooner rather than later by having the former lovers face one another in the most humiliating, awkward way possible. (Really, wouldn't it just be rewarding to find your ex outside your office building, in a fake mustache and women's warehouse uniform?) The scene between the two in which Jim callously mentioned how happy he and Pam were in their new relationship and Karen goes out of her way to make Jim feel as uncomfortable as possible was brilliant and squirm-inducing, things that The Office used to be in abundance.

I don't really buy the notion that Pam would start a club about the Finer Things in Life, but I did think that Andy attempting to worm his way into the most exclusive club at Dunder-Mifflin Scranton (with the Party Planning Committee a distant second and Kevin's band Scrantonicity II a safety) definitely fitting, considering the character. Having them wear silly hats and eat finger sandwiches in the break room pushed the level of disbelief a little too much. It's one thing to get together after work or off-site but dressing up (Toby in a bowtie? Pam in a headkerchief to discuss "Angela's Ashes"?) was a little too OTT for my liking.

Angela was conspicuously absent in this week's episode (except for a few shots of her as part of the room), but I'm okay with that after we've focused on her character for the last few weeks. It's always good to take a breather and have some of the other characters, like Stanley, come into sharp focus for a change.

Speaking of Stanley, I did love the scene in which Michael tearfully tried to compose a help wanted ad to literally replace Stanley with a virtual clone, in terms of body type and personality. Oh, Michael, will you never learn? And nice touch of continuity when Michael tried to steal Karen's best salesman only be asked if he was the guy who ran over the woman.

Not a perfect Office episode but a vast improvement over the dreaded one-hour installments. I'm hoping that the path back to creative solvency begins here and that before long we're on the road back to the stylistic and narrative virtues of this series. Let's just hope that the dreaded writers strike doesn't derail those plans.

Next week on The Office ("Survivor Man"), Michael goes into the woods for his own survival adventure when he's excluded from Ryan's mancation while Jim, left in charge of the office, attempts to transform the humble office birthday party, in this episode written by Steve Carell!


Jennifer said…
I thought the Finer Things Club was a bit out of nowhere too. I don't think it's really like Pam to be that exclusive. And I mean, not to knock receptionists or anything but it seems like we're constantly being shown how smart Pam is...why doesn't she have a better job??

I too liked Jim's discomfort over having to see Karen. He hasn't really talked about that much and I'm glad they're not glossing over the fact that as much as we like Jim and Pam together, he did do a pretty cruddy thing.
Anonymous said…

They've made a point in the past of showing how unmotivated Pam is. Especially when she was in that dead end relationship with Roy. Pam is smart but, for a long time, she was scared to try for better things. (Something which is changing now.) I wasn't a huge fan of the Finer Things Club storyline but I do like that Pam is intelligent but has this crappy job. Like Pam, I know tons of brilliant people stuck in lame jobs and that makes me appreciate her all the more.
Unknown said…
Much better than the one-hour stretch-fests!

Jim did do an awful thing to Karen: leaving her crying at a fountain in New York when he was her ride. But. I found it hard to believe she wouldn't already be dating. Even if she wasn't, would she really stoop to Jim's level?

I would've liked to see Karen and Jim resolve the circumstances surrounding their break-up. (Dare I say "closure"?) But, I suppose, it doesn't always go that way.

Exactly right, bella spruce. jennifer, are you saying that receptionists aren't capable of enjoying Frank McCourt and participating in a book club? Why couldn't Pam do those things? I know people with so-called "better" jobs than that who can't.
Anonymous said…
Wow, you'll find anything to criticize, huh? Nothing is ever going to be perfect, including you, so get over yourself. The office is hilarious and you need to let go of the fact that not every little part of it goes exactly the way you think it should.

-randomly stumbled upon your blog looking for office quotes
Anonymous said…
Anon: you're funny. if you're looking for an Office fan site that blindly never sees anything wrong with the show, look elsewhere. It's clear Jace likes the show but can also be critical about it. This isn't a site that glowingly praises every show but offers intelligent criticism.The Office is still one of the best comedies on TV but it's far from perfect, especially this season and his review/criticism was not only apt but pretty gentle. Go stumble somewhere else if you're going to be nasty.

Jennifer: I think that Pam isn't usually elitist but in today's economy, many people (most of my friends in fact) are definitely underemployed for their skill set, intelligence level, and education. There's nothing wrong with Pam looking to improve herself or further her education by reading E.M. Forster or Frank McCourt.

Bella: Completely agree especially about Roy.

skst: Did Karen stoop to Jim's level? I don't think so. She was definitely right to be pissed about the way he dumped her and about showing up in Utica. He done her wrong.
Unknown said…
wes, no question Jim did Karen wrong. I thought the more mature way to handle it (which wouldn't have been as funny) would've been for Karen to tell Jim that he treated her poorly, especially considering what they meant to each other. (Or words to that effect.) Of course, it was incredibly tactless for Jim to say how happy he is with Pam, but for Karen to rub his face ... hmm, well, no, that was justified. :)

Is this the "new" Jim? Tactless? Selfish? Unconcerned with the feelings of others? Or is it just people he perceives as being between him and Pam? If Toby asks her out, will Jim boil his rabbit?
RA said…
I thought it was perfectly approprite for Michael to have a PT Cruiser: That car is sooo four years ago.
Anonymous said…
re: anonymous - hmmmm...seems someone doesn't understand that taste is subjective. The Office is YOU. To us (me), it's been a really lacklster season w/very few laughs.

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