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Officewatch: A Work of Art

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Has there been a better episode of The Office this year than last night’s? (I’d ask if there had been a better episode of any sitcom this year, but that would be redundant.) The show worked on so many levels, used so many characters well, hit so many different notes of comedy and pathos that it’s almost as if it were showing off.

There’s too much to list. Meredith trapped under a garbage bag with the bat. Jim subtly convincing Dwight that he’s becoming a vampire. (Episode directed, natch, by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon.) Creed just happening to have the tools to whittle a stake. Ryan getting outed for dissecting Dunder-Mifflin’s flaws and Michael dissecting Ryan with surpising, if non sequitur, perceptiveness: “Everybody thinks he’s a tease!” (I love, by the way, how this season has pointed out that put-upon, sympathetic former temp Ryan is actually kind of a cold jerk.) Every supporting player reacting in perfect character pitch to the bat invasion. (Loved Angela’s improvised plastic pilgrim bonnet, and Stanley’s irritated “GOOD-bye.”) And Toby–remember his crush on Pam?–offering to skip his daughter’s play to go to Pam’s art show. “What they do–it’s not art.”

[One nitpick: the driving scenes always break the illusion for me. I pity the location scout who has to decide which street in L.A. looks most like Scranton.]

But you can see nearly everything that makes The Office a great comedy in the embrace between Michael and Pam at her gallery show:

- This is the first time we saw Pam’s art. The easy, expected thing for a sitcom like this would be to make Pam an underappreciated talent. It turns out she’s actually not that good. Yet this makes her, if anything, more sympathetic and real. The fact that she’s not likely to realize her artistic dreams even if she finds her gumption and quits Dunder-Mifflin doesn’t make you admire her less for having dreams. And to have her overhear the scathing knock on her work from Oscar and his partner–Oscar being possibly the one man in her office who’s not hot for her in some way–was a good choice.

- Michael’s reaction to her painting of the Dunder-Mifflin building, after having his faith in his work crushed by Ryan and his smart-ass fellow students, was believable, ridiculous and moving, all at once. The typical vanity–that’s my car in the parking lot!–and the unaffected sentimentality: pure Michael Scott.

- Pam and Michael are natural antagonists: he loves his job, she hates hers; he’s a boor, she’s sensitive. And yet, the scene reminds us, in some ways, they are the most strangely simpatico pair on the show, both wanting more than they can have, both victims of their own character, both of them, at heart, hometown Scranton people, as much as they may dream big.

- And then the payoff. Pam [suddenly uncomfortable]: “Do you have something in your pocket?” Michael: “A Chunky.” In a flash, it recalls–as Pam would–Michael’s history of making awkward moves on her. It introduces an new euphemism that I plan on using in conversation from now on. It pays off on Michael’s corny gimmick of throwing candy bars at his lecture students. And it uses the funniest candy bar in existence. Did you even know they still made Chunky bars?

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