This is a little bit of a tortured analogy, but bear with me. The Office so far this season has reminded me a little of a band that late in its career, after becoming known for a string of ambitious, baroque albums, decides to take a step backward stylistically, get back to basics and release a low-fi album of songs with simple chord structures.
This is not to say that The Office is TV’s Beatles, or that season 7 is The Office’s Let It Be in terms of quality, exactly. It’s just that, with Steve Carell readying to leave the show, it’s stepped back (for how long I don’t know) from its bigger story arcs and done a set of episodes that tell relatively small, simple stories. Some, like “WHUPF.com,” haven’t been so great. But last night’s, “China,” worked this keep-it-simple approach very well.
Taken story by story, really, “China” was pretty much entirely a collection of subplots: Michael becomes fixated on the threat of China; people get tired of Oscar’s pedantry; Pam butts heads with Dwight over building management; Darryl is getting annoyed with Andy’s texts. But in practice, each was simple, tight and effective, while recalling larger themes of the show and its characters’ history.
The China plot, which thankfully focused less on Michael’s craziness than his (and his coworkers’) relationship with Oscar, demonstrated how well-drawn the show has been even when it comes to its more peripheral characters. Oscar doesn’t carry a lot of episodes, but he’s actually been made quite complex and surprising, as Jim alludes to with his crack about “that old stereotype of the smug gay Mexican.” He’s soft-spoken, he’s a bit shy, he’s rational, but he’s also condescending and can be a bit of a jerk. (Sometimes in a way that’s refreshing; he was one of the first characters to throw cold water on the everybody-loves-Pam-and-Jim vibe.)
It’s galling to Oscar that Michael, of all people, should show him up in a contest of facts, but it’s doubly galling that Michael best him in the end, after his knowledge has failed him, by an off-topic, crowd-pleasing speech full of platitudes about the American spirit. It’s perfect, as is the fact that Oscar tries to stammer out the fact that Michael is entirely avoiding the topic of the debate, to a crowd of coworkers who don’t want to listen. (And really, what is more American than winning a debate by avoiding the facts and giving a content-free speech that tells your audience exactly what they want to hear about themselves?)
The Dwight and Pam plot, meanwhile, finally gave Pam some office-managing to do after she’s finagled her way into becoming the office manager, and it ended up being both very funny and very real. Pam’s confrontation with Dwight was a great setpiece start to finish, from their moving in unison to set off the motion-detector lights (while continuing to stare each other down) to Pam’s answering Dwight’s vision of Cece ending up a stripper with Cece dancing on his grave, “fully clothed.”
But, like The Office’s best plots, it’s more than funny. Pam can be the show’s sunny, resilient center, but as “China” reminded us, she’s become the way she is in response to a string of disappointments. Her character is maybe the show’s best example of its bittersweet premise: that sometimes life and work are about making the best of disappointing situations. And while it doesn’t lead into a larger arc—no one is going back to school or changing jobs—her admission that she’s tired of failing and Jim’s reassurance that she hasn’t failed (sweet, heartfelt and transparently unconvincing) was vintage Office.
Now I realize that I’m praising The Office here pretty much for something I criticized it for most of last season—stepping away from its darker, more ambitious story arcs. It’s possible my viewing now is colored sentimentally by knowing that Steve Carell is leaving—but I also think that that’s a legitimate reason that the approach makes more sense this season.
Last season felt as if it walked up to an arc that was risky but full of potential—Jim struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood, leadership and realizing that the job he smirked at was now a serious career—then got cold feet and ditched it, leaving the rest of the season feeling purposeless and playing for time. This year, the knowledge that Carell and Michael will be leaving us gives the show a reason to get back to its roots, showing its characters in the small, recognizable conflicts of office life, and reminding us—and maybe itself—of what made us connect with them in the first place.
I don’t know that keeping the show on the air post-Carell will prove to be a good idea, but as it prepares to move ahead, it’s been a good idea to re-examine the show by stripping it down to three chords—or three plots—and a lot of energy.
Brief hail of bullets:
* The texting subplot was the slightest of things, but I love that the show is giving more focus to Craig Robinson, who has become one of my favorite reasons to watch the show with his deadpan delivery: “You need to change the standard of what is worth a text. Ask yourself: Is this something Darryl needs to know? The answer is almost always no.” Might the up-and-coming Darryl be the best choice to replace Michael Scott?
* Watching the episode a second time, there was some nice foreshadowing of Pam’s lie about the new office space in the way she quickly came up with answers to Kelly’s questions about the neighbor businesses: “Is the nail place Koreans or whites?” “Korean.” “Good. And the
nail place dry cleaners?” “White.” “Good.”
* As soon as I saw the sight gag of the toilet paper being separated by ply (or technically, into half-plys), I knew I’d seen it somewhere; big thanks to critic Alan Sepinwall for immediately reminding me that it was in last year’s The Goode Family. Other followers on Twitter thought they might have seen it in other sitcoms as well (Everybody Hates Chris came up more than once), so if you have other sightings of the two-ply gag, let us know. As well as your feelings about the coddling of the modern anus.