Tuned In

Office (et al.) Watch: Let the Kid Drive

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Spoilers for The Office, Parks and Recreation (left) and 30 Rock coming up after the jump:

Ah, I’m going to miss The Michael Scott Paper Company. Mind you, I don’t blame The Office for wrapping up this arc before it got played out. But throwing Michael, Pam and Ryan into their claustrophobic parallel universe in the bowels of Dunder-Mifflin’s office park threw the show into an entirely new gear. After these last few episodes, I am convinced The Office is the best sitcom currently on TV. While we’re at it, it’s also one of the better dramas. 

First the comedy: last night had to be one of the best pre-credits sequences The Office has ever done, from Michael’s prank-driving of a painfully sleepy Ryan (to whom sobriety is not being kind) to “Boner Patrol! Arrest that man!” to the cherry on top, the Korean-church-van scene, which set up a great running gag. (One small but perfect example of how The Office’s documentary editing helps the show: It’s funny when Pam politely tries to chase away the Korean lady from the paper van. But it’s even funnier when the scene runs for a split-second longer, and you see that the Korean lady is not going to leave.) 

The drama, meanwhile, was not simply limited to Michael Scott. When Michael, Pam and Ryan hit bottom and were swapping stories, and Pam confessed to looking for a weekend job—and not getting a callback even from Wal-Mart—that was some stark stuff. As the show has done earlier in the arc, it reminded us that all this was playing out in the very real world of our terrible economy, and that the stakes involved in this gamble are real and scary.

The climactic showdown played up both Michael’s strengths and weaknesses. Michael seems like a classic sitcom idiot, but his real liability is that he’s an emotional idiot: it’s not that he doesn’t know anything, but that he lacks certain filters and connections to reality that allow most adults to function in the world.

Thus it’s entirely plausible that he would become a wreck at the thought of having to avoid blurting that his company is broke: he can’t be trusted, but he knows well enough to know that he can’t trust himself. (Much as, when Holly broke up with him, his first fear was, “I’ll go back to Jan!”—he knows enough to know his weaknesses but not to overcome them.) It’s entirely plausible that he would launch a business on price-cutting without realizing that it’s unsustainable, because he has a childlike ability to force himself to believe in fantasies (the peanut butter-tuna sandwich, e.g.) But he also really knows his business, which allows him to completely own David Wallace with his threat about the shareholder meeting. 

Now in most real-world situations, Michael’s character liabilities would trump his strengths. In the small, enabling world of Dunder-Mifflin, he’s found a place where he can function, party because he has people like Jim to invisibly step in and save him, as when Jim sabotages Dwight’s discovery by making Dwight look crazy in front of Charles. (Another brilliant scene growing out of character: Dwight’s buttons are so easily found and pushed they may as well be labeled with fluorescent tape.) 

In other words, Pam is right when she says that if Michael is the child driving a van, she is “the 30 year old woman who got in the passenger seat and said ‘Drive, kid. I trust you.'” But the kid made it back home. 

Parks and Recreation, meanwhile, continued to advance—even if slowly, and even if it inevitably suffers from the comparison of running next to The Office. Maybe it’s because I grew up a small-town Midwesterner, but my favorite character in this show is quickly becoming Pawnee, Indiana itself. My favorite moments are the small throwaway glimpses of town life, like the split-second flash we got of the local newspaper: (“SPRING ARRIVES! Most residents welcome the season”).

Browsing some blog and Twitter comments on the first two episodes, I was surprised at the number of remarks I found from people who had actually worked in small-town government who said that the show got that atmosphere right. I can’t vouch for that, but having spent some time working at small-town newspapers, I thought last night’s episode got that aspect right. Well, not that I ever managed to sleep with a government official in the process of doing a story, but it was dead-on about the intense worry people will focus on what will inevitably end up as an innocuous story with a bad photo of a woman standing by a pit. Parks and Rec is a show about the tremendous importance people and communities attach to little things, and I hope we get to see where it goes in a second season. As the article said: “We’ll see.” 

As for 30 Rock, I’m cutting that review short because, ahem, my laptop battery ran out while I was taking notes and I was too lazy to get the power cord. Feel free to get quote-happy in the comments. But a pretty satisfying episode all around—even Salma Hayek’s storyline, which has been my least favorite part of this season—and I thought that Jane Krakowski had some standout moments in her subplot, maybe because Jenna’s craziness seems less ludicrous when she and Tracy are being crazy separately rather than together. The way she dropped Kenneth and ran to the phone to announce—flushed and delighted—”We have an emergency!” was an Emmy clip. 

And I can’t hate a 30 Rock episode that has callouts to both Mad Men (“My real name is Dick Whitman!”) and BSG (“What the frak?!”). They really know how to cater to the TV critics, they do.