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Office Watch: Kirk Meets Picard

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Though I had read long in advance that David Brent (Ricky Gervais) would be making a cameo appearance on last night’s The Office, I expected it to be a quick hoot of an encounter without much significance. Which in a way it was—but it was also, in miniature, a statement on how each version of the show evolved, how Gervais and Steve Carell have made their characters their own and, in Carell’s last season, a little salute to the way he has developed Michael Scott.

It’s been a few years since I’ve watched any episodes of the U.K. Office, and I’d forgotten that—though I tend to think of Ricky Gervais characters as simply sounding like Ricky Gervais—Brent had a distinct register of speech and manner of carrying himself. The second I saw his hunched posture and husky, giggling-schoolboy voice, though, I was instantly carried back to the U.K. Office.

The conception of the set piece—Michael and David meet by chance, and have a quick exchange about their “characters” and philosophies of comedy—was both obvious and ingenious. In barely over a minute, it showed us the commonalities between the two characters: how they’ve each created a world in which they are “performers” whose cutting-edge comedy is often unappreciated (as opposed to bosses with poor senses of boundaries). Carell’s facial reaction when Gervais delivers “That’s what she said”—a flash of amusement, amazement, brotherhood and something like love—is just masterly.

Yet also in very quick strokes, the scene alludes to how Carell’s boss, and by extension the whole U.S. show, has evolved over the years from Gervais’. (Gervais is a producer on the US version but hardly a dominating creative force in it.) With the remakes of Skins, Shameless and Being Human, we’ve had a lot of occasion lately to talk about remakes of British shows, and how it’s necessary to change them here to adapt them—not just to the American culture, but to the American TV reality of long seasons.

Brent, in a show that aired 12 episodes and a special, could be a loathsome, incompetent boss (with a spot of redemption in the end) and a pathetic fame-whore, and nothing more. That would get tiresome and implausible over the course of a hundred-plus episodes, though. So Carell, Greg Daniels and the writers have done something with Michael Scott that is—if not as original as Gervais’ creation—perhaps more difficult: they’ve showed how along with his delusion and boorishness he has genuine competence (that is, in some ways related to his poor qualities).

So Michael and David chat about how “you can’t do” racist Chinese stereotypes anymore because people are too politically correct. But then they part, Michael to do his job, David asking Michael if he’s got a job to offer. (No, the encounter didn’t involve some meta-acknowledgment of Brent’s documentary or the cameras following Michael, but it did, in this way, show that Brent has not entirely got his life back together since we last saw him in Slough.)

And that intro bit ended up playing off the A story of “The Seminar,” when Michael—even as he was in the midst of an absolutely ridiculous “Greek” character stunt—was able to see how Andy was blowing the close of his sale, and get him course-corrected to salvage it. What makes this aspect of Michael plausible is that performance is his blind spot and his strength; the same thing that drives him to outlandish showing off also makes him immune to the kind of jitters and shyness that are holding Andy back.

Beyond that, it was appropriate that “The Seminar”—and its relation to the Michael-Holly plot—should focus on their extended, charming improv act. (“No more brain damage!”) Because watching the episode play out, it occurred to me that that’s really what The Office plays like now, good episodes and bad: “The Seminar” was less like a half-hour TV story and more like a string of related sketches or improv pieces chained together, each showing off the strength of one of its formidable cast members.

Those bits all worked well enough for me in “The Seminar” that I enjoyed the episode overall: Brian Baumgartner giving us Kevin’s nervous collapse in front of the seminar crowd, Kelly’s metamorphosis into “The Business Bitch” (cousin to “The Etiquette Bitch”), Craig Robinson’s ability to wring comedy out of only his eyebrows peering over the edge of a newspaper, Creed Bratton—well, doing anything.

It all, like the high points of this season so far, felt like a really well-executed curtain call for a great cast more than the continuation of a series. I’m still not sure how I feel about The Office going on; a lot will depend on how it deals with the succession issue for Michael. But that minute at the elevator bank, and much of what followed, helped me appreciate where the show has been.

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