Tuned In

The Morning After: Skyrockets in Flight

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Out(?) with the old: Lieberstein and Ryan. / NBC Photo: Chris Haston

Journey back with me to fall 2007. Miley Cyrus was innocent; Hillary and Rudy were shoo-ins to win their parties’ nominations; and The Office was kicking off its season with several hourlong episodes that were bloated, slack and not up to the show’s standard.

It’s May 2008, and how much has changed! Namely: The Office sent off its abbreviated season 4 with an hourlong episode that also happened to be the best of the season. Spoilers and a few impressions after the jump:

“Goodbye, Toby” was nearly flawless, showcasing every element that makes this a great and affecting sitcom when it’s at its best. Starting with the pre-title sequence, a classic Jim-on-Dwight prank that recalled the show’s early episodes. (“Oh, hello, Mother! Good news! I’ve married!”) The Kevin subplot was perfect—I literally clapped in my chair more than once—perhaps the funniest thing the show has done since Meredith’s bat attack. The beauty of it was that it took nothing more than a character doing what he always does (Kevin speaking in his exaggeratedly emphatic style and agonizing over little things like his snack machine choices), put a slight spin on it (Holly being told that he was a “special” employee) and made you see it in an entirely different way. (Likewise, Kevin’s perception of the same situation was totally in character: “I’m totally going to bang Holly!”)

Much credit for that, and for a lot of the episode’s success, has to go to Amy Ryan, in one of the best guest turns I’ve seen on TV in a while. You might assume that if an award-winning dramatic actor or actress does a sitcom, they’ll kill, easily. It’s comedy! How hard can it be? Answer: very hard—Edie Falco is a great actress, for instance, but she’s always seemed distracting, out of sync and out of place to me on 30 Rock. But Ryan—I don’t know what sort of prep she must have done, but she had the tone of The Office down cold, and her interchanges with Michael as well as Kevin (“That’s a button”) were hilarious but realistically human, which is where The Office is at its best.

Especially with Michael, she had a tall order: convincing the viewer that a sane, smart, confident woman could actually develop a crush on him in the space of a work day. It’s easy—too easy sometimes—for The Office to make Michael ridiculous. And it’s not hard to make him sympathetic, even pitiable (as when he discovers that Jan had artificial insemination when she was still with him, rejecting him at the genetic level). But showing that, for all his desperation and overexcitement, he’s a human being that someone else could like and value—that takes work, and both Ryan and the script sold it. She sketched Holly as the kind of woman who could appreciate Michael (at least on his best behavior)—sharp, unflappable, kind of a nerd, appreciative of Yoda impressions and the work of Jon Lovitz. It looks like we’ll be seeing more of Holly next season; here’s hoping it’s a lot more.

I said “nearly flawless” above, and over at Sepinwall’s blog there’s already been some argument over whether the Pam and Jim storyline is falling into contrived conflict (i.e., over Jim waiting to pop the question, for what should have been reasons obvious to Pam). I’m not bothered, not yet, anyway. For one thing because the American Office has never lived and died for me on the Pam and Jim storyline the way the British version did on Tim and Dawn (and I mean that as a compliment to the American version).

But also, I think it’s a mistake to focus on the engagement as their primary issue. It’s not; it’s a symptom. Their problem—their potential problem, anyway—is that they may be growing in opposite directions. Don’t forget Pam’s getting into Pratt’s design school, which was early in the episode but I don’t think was meant to be a throwaway. The writers have never forgotten that Pam has dreams beyond getting a rock on her finger, and the show circled back to them when she returned to her high school for the career fair. More than once, she’s been told—by Jan, by the guy at the job fair—that if she has a future in the field she wants to pursue, it’s probably outside Scranton. Now she’s waking up to this—as she admits, it may be the last moment she really has time to—just as Jim, of all people, is becoming more devoted to his job and more committed in putting down roots in Scranton. He’s getting ready to embrace, however ironically, everything he’s spent his adult life smirking at. And both of them are getting pushed in this direction by the looming engagement: Pam realizes that she needs to prepare for a career change before she has kids, Jim decides that he needs to become a stable career man, to impress Pam’s parents if nothing else.

I’m not saying this is going to break them up. I am saying that this is the sort of thing that breaks real people up—not peripheral issues like delayed proposals. And after “Goodbye, Toby” I trust that The Office knows its characters are real people.

Last hail of bullets for season 4:

* One of many good supporting-player moments: Phyllis’ enraptured “Yes” when Michael asks her if she can plan Toby’s going-away party, as well as the cold war that breaks out between her and Angela. I always like when we see Phyllis’ secret power-hungry side. Also: “I don’t want your foot money.”

* Speaking of which, I do hope Toby isn’t gone for good. (I’d settle for keeping Paul Lieberstein as a writer—he co-penned this episode—but the fact that it’s hard to imagine Amy Ryan joining the show permanently argues for Toby coming back at some point.) Though it would be pretty awesome if they set that Office spinoff in Costa Rica. Also: “Don’t tell him I said this, but I always thought he was kind of cute.” I half expected Toby to get wind of that line and cancel his flight—but it’s just his luck that he would never learn about this.

* Conversely, I can’t imagine we’ve seen the last of Ryan, but as a free man? Loved, by the way, Kelly’s fantasy about visiting him in prison in her “hottest track suit” and getting the coveted two-syllable-damn (a la HIMYM) from the other inmates.

* Mose running. Always funny. Never not funny.

* Andy’s proposal concentrated so much about his character into a minute or so: his preppy background, his latent flashes of anger, his gift for inappropriate displays, his egocentrism and his complete, self-protective obliviousness—both to how Angela accepts his proposal like a hostage at gunpoint and to how the perfect backdrop for his proposal was meant to be a setup for someone else’s. “Mr. Andrew Bernard. It’s got a nice ring to it.” And a nice, sweet react by Dwight to the engagement, when he blamed himself. That’s what you get for sticking a cat in a freezer.

* I totally want an antigravity machine for my birthday. Or at least antidepresssants.