Tuned In

Office Watch: A Holly, If Not Jolly, Christmas

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Spoilers for last night’s The Office coming up:

When Holly (Amy Ryan) broke up with Michael Scott, she really broke up with all of us, didn’t she? Ryan’s casting in the show was so right, and her character’s oddball fit with Michael so perfect, that when their relationship failed to survive her move to Nashua, it did what sitcom romances strive for but rarely accomplish: it was a real heartbreaker. Never mind Michael—how could you do that to the rest of us, Holly!

So when Ryan returned for the one-hour “Classy Christmas,” it didn’t just dredge up old feelings and memories of their relationship; it also recalled the days of The Office when the show was funny but was also about larger stories, and when it go to some very dark places without seeming out of character. “Classy Christmas” may not have been one of the show’s most hilarious episodes ever, but it did recall the best era of the show, when it was able to deliver with storylines that were as much drama as comedy.

Judging by the way Holly and Michael reconnected so naturally—falling into that rhythm of Three Stooges / Simpsons impressions—I’d have to guess that Michael’s final season will lead to them getting back together at last. But this episode’s willingness to go for the melancholy shows that that is by no means guaranteed. And what I liked about this reunion is that, for all the show’s wackiness, it took seriously the difficulties that the two will have to get past to make this work: not just the practical obstacle of A.J., but Michael’s impetuousness and immaturity and Holly’s tentativeness about committing to him.

The simple way to describe this style of Office comedy is “dark,” but probably the better word is “real”; The Office is most effective when it shows you that even its most peripheral characters have full personalities and that its silliest subplots can have real grounding and stakes.

This played out in Darryl’s attempt to impress his daughter at the Christmas party, which began with a phone call with his ex that was not funny at all, but that gave him the real emotions of a father and set up the sweet (and funny) payoff of his winning the day over with the help of his coworkers and the magic of vending machines. It played out in the snowball fight storyline, which had plenty of slapstick—and the hilarious payoff of Dwight’s killing field of snowmen—but also showed how Dwight and Jim’s rivalry can come close to and cross the line. (To paraphrase last night’s Community, it got real in that parking lot.) It even played out in the small subplot about Pam’s comic book for Jim, which was a touching gesture but also recalled Pam’s sensitivity about her failed art career.

It’s always risky when The Office goes this route, because this can all become too uncomfortable on the one hand, or clash with the show’s zanier elements (e.g., Dwight) on the other. But it felt like the right way to bring back Holly and (I assume) launch the second half of Michael Scott’s send-off arc. If Michael ends up going off into the sunset—or Nashua—with Holly, it needs to feel earned, and “Classy Christmas” was a good initial payment.

On to the hail of bullets:

* I like how the process of winning over Darryl’s daughter was a group effort, and not a smooth one. Darryl’s well-meaning, but you can tell that—maybe from having been out of his daughter’s life—he’s not sure of the best way to reach her. Childless Andy longs to be a hit with the kids (he’s a lot like Michael in this), but flubs his role with a hilariously age-inappropriate political-trivia challenge. And Michael, who showed his childish side with Holly earlier, uses it to his advantage as Santa.

* Loved the running gag about Erin not seeing the appeal in Holly, which was a nice corrective to the audience’s—or at least my—going ga-ga for her.

* I like that recent seasons of The Office have let Dwight get the upper hand over Jim, as he did here. The early seasons followed the UK version’s Tim-Gareth model of having Jim best Dwight repeatedly in pranks, but in a series that runs for this many seasons, that would get old. (As did, say, Hawkeye’s pranks on Frank Burns and then Maj. Winchester in M*A*S*H.) “In the end, the greatest snowball isn’t a snowball. It’s fear.”

* The other Pam mini-storyline I enjoyed was her disbanding of the party committee: “At its worst it was a toxic political club … at its best, it planned parties.” And I especially liked her little pre-party speech, which essentially described the arcs of many Dunder-Mifflin gatherings in the past: “It’s not a place to get really drunk or confront anyone or have a cathartic experience of any kind.”