Tuned In

Office Watch: Spank You Very Much

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NBC

Spoilers for last night’s season premiere of The Office following:

How you viewed the opening scene of The Office may say something about how you view The Office as a series right now. If you loved last season and saw nothing wrong with it—as apparently the producers did not—then maybe it was a delight to see the Dunder-Mifflin gang making a YouTube video for the Isley Brothers’ “Nobody But Me.” [Update: The Human Beinz’s version, I believe.] Erin’s on roller skates! Kevin’s carrying Marilyn! Creed’s playing guitar! Aw, dude, Creed. Man, I love that guy!

If you thought the last season was lacking and directionless, on the other hand, the whole thing might have seemed self-congratulatory, awkward even—an unearned curtain call.

You’ve probably guessed which camp I fall in. Look, I don’t have a heart of stone—it was cute, captured the characters’ personalities and had funny moments (“I said I don’t want to be on the Internet!”). In another context might have been a real moment. (Think the re-enactment of the viral wedding video at Pam and Jim’s nuptials.) Also, the scene came near the end of a Premiere Week of self-aware, look-the-gang’s-back season-opening scenes (Glee, Community, 30 Rock), which probably sensitized me to this a bit. As it was, it skated the line between being a vignette about Michael trying too hard (in his dream of becoming a viral sensation) and actual trying too hard.

It was intriguing that the first return episode was structured around documentary interviews asking each employee what they did over the summer, because what The Office’s makers had to do over the summer was process the official news that Steve Carell is leaving and work up a plan for the transition. Judging by this episode—a fine but unremarkable, meat-and-potatoes Office about a Michael screw-up—they hadn’t entirely figured that out* by the time they came up with this script, which reintroduced the ensemble but didn’t move things forward much on the Michael front.

* It’s possible, I’ll admit that the episode could have some role in the master plan producers described to The Hollywood Reporter’s James Hibberd, which involves devoting each episode the first half of the season to a specific character, and replacing Michael in the second half, as well as, somehow, separating the roles of “boss of Dunder-Mifflin” and “star of the show.” But honestly the plan as described still boggles me, no matter how many times I look at it.

There was some movement in the episode, though, and there were laughs. I’m very intrigued by the new Executive Edition Kelly Kapoor, who seems to be taking her role in the office very seriously now, or at least dressing that way. (The moment of her stopping conversation in the meeting to deliver a puzzling platitude she must have heard in a seminar somewhere was genius.) Dwight has shown signs for a while of becoming a complete cartoon, but honestly, “establishing a pee corner” within 30 seconds of an elevator stall is exactly something he would do. And my heart broke a little for Andy seeing Erin kiss Gabe—Gabe! Seriously? Dude, I haven’t had anger management—let me punch a wall for you!

And while the A story with Luke may have been slight, it did lead to an excellent bit of physical comedy, with a frustrated Michael bending him over a desk and spanking him (an extreme, but fitting, example of Michael’s going from overindulgence to overreaction)—winning the admiration of the office and leading to a weirdly sweet closing scene of the gang spanking each other to blow off steam. (Also, though we’ve seen dozens of staff meetings, I love how they allow various combinations of characters to strike sparks off each other; Michael’s misinterpretation of Oscar’s nepotism charge—”Thank you, that’s a very nice way of putting it”—was brilliant.)

It’s for the sake of the enjoyable stuff like that that I’ll look at this premiere as a getting-reacquainted episode for now, and hope the larger story movement comes soon. Because when The Office is truly on, and has real stakes to deal with, nobody can do the shingaling like it does.

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