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Office Watch: Special Delivery

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NBC

Spoilers for the one-hour Office special coming up after the jump:

There seems to be a fair consensus out there that, with a couple exceptions (e.g., the wedding), this has been a weak season of The Office. But I’m not sure there’s consensus as to why. I’ve heard people complain that Michael’s character has become tiresome, that a wedding and a baby equal shark-jumping or that the show became too depressing, especially as Jim moved (temporarily) from sales into management. (I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons.)

For me, the problem has been that this season hasn’t been depressing enough. Let me explain. Yes, The Office is a comedy. At it’s best, it’s very, very funny—but it’s very, very funny about things that are real, that are bittersweet, or sad, or, when you think about them, depressing. The Michael Scott Paper Company, say, or Michael’s breakup with Holly, or his abusive relationship with Jan.The plots are funny, sometimes awkward-funny, sometimes slapstick-hilarious, but they always worked on a bigger level because there were real stakes and change.

This season, we had the scenario that Jim Halpert—always the jokester to whom Dunder-Mifflin was just a job and not the sum total of his career—now had responsibilities and a mortgage and decided to go all in and become management. Or did, until the writers seemed to call a do-over and quickly restore him and Michael to the status quo ante. It seemed like they had gotten close to something serious, and real—something that happens to viewers in their own lives—and decided they didn’t want to go there. So instead, this season of The Office has been more like a series of feints, each of which, despite the sale of D-M, returned us to the same situation with which we were already comfortable.

I think that’s a mistake. It may have been too dark for some fans, but The Office at heart is comedy and drama, and it’s been funniest when it’s pushed itself and us out of our comfort zones. So maybe last night’s two-parter, “Delivery,” was just a funny, sweet hour and a welcome break in the season. Or maybe—I hope—it was a sign that, for central characters Jim and Pam, things are inevitably and productively going to get real.

I’ve seen other critics comment that the first half of the episode was excellent and the second was flat. And, yeah, I agree that the first episode was funnier, with brilliant gags like Andy’s being forced to change the commemorative newspaper from “SPRING HAS SPRUNG” to “SCRANTON STRANGLER STRIKES AGAIN” and the running tension of Pam aiming to get to the hospital after midnight. And it was as sweet as you’d expect, as with Jim’s tearing up when Pam accidentally blurted out that the baby was a girl.

But in a way, the second half of the hour was the one that interests me, going ahead—and not just because my favorite couple, Andy and Erin, are finally going out. While that half dithered for a while with Michael’s time-filling matchmaking schemes (“You will learn to love me”) and Dwight’s home renovations, it also showed us Jim and Pam for the first time as parents. That not only set up the male lactation consultant and—for my money the funniest gag in the hour—Pam’s breastfeeding the wrong baby, it also, with Pam’s attempt to get the baby to latch, showed that the stakes for them have been raised, as they encountered the responsibility of keeping another human being alive.

(Incidentally, the episode nailed the modern maternity-nurse / parent conflict. It’s a hallmark of yuppie first-time parents today, myself included, to go into the hospital worked up about “breast is best” and nipple confusion, and to see the hospital nurses as childnabber ready to sweep your infant off to the nursery and jam a glucose water bottle in her mouth. Thus that line, “Oh, good. You know everything” was perfect.)

I don’t know where The Office will take things from here. Maybe we just get this one sweet interlude, Pam takes a maternity leave and we’re back again to the familiar Michael-does-something-crazy situations. But I hope it’ll mean the show will break out of its rut, by looking at how Jim and Pam’s work lives and career crises are now complicated by responsibility for a third party.

It could be depressing, yes. But on The Office, depressing can be a wonderful thing.

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