Next came a series of sitcom-ish moments that read like the white board from the writers' room.
Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is really a big softie. Beneath the insecure and incompetent exterior, he's actually an award-winning salesman with a very generous heart. He embodies modern business ethics, middle management, and white America in a way that doesn't so much send them up as expose their seams, gently and with compassion.
It's not often you find such charming dichotomy in primetime comedy. In the first minute of the new season of The Office, it was perfectly awful and hilarious that Michael, just then feeling "very blessed," accidentally ran over Meredith (Kate Flannery). Unfortunately, it was also the highlight of the episode.
Next came a series of sitcom-ish moments that read like the white board from the writers' room. What if Michael believes the office is cursed? What if Dwight (Rainn Wilson) kills Angela's (Angela Kinsey) cat? What if Michael organizes a charity run for a pointless cause? I still contend that what past seasons (and the British original) did best was show the banality of office life, decidedly un-punctuated by kooky situations. We laughed because the show was funny and resembled real life. Finding comedy in routine and hopelessness isn't easy -- or easy to laugh at -- and it set The Office apart.
But so far this season, there's slippage. When a series of unfortunate events afflicted his coworkers, Michael began to question the existence of God ("What are all these churches for? And who is Jesus' dad?"). He called a meeting to interrogate his employees on their religious beliefs, as if to out any pagans who were souring the office mojo. When he got to turban-wearing Sadiq (Omi Vaidya), Michael asked, "And what are you?" Annoyed, Sadiq replied, "Well, if you are going to reduce my identity down to my religion, I'm Sikh. But I also enjoy hip-hop, NPR, and I'm restoring a 1967 Mustang in my spare time." Michael responded, "Okay, so you're Sikh."
Up to this point, the exchange typified the top-notch writing and delivery that we've come to expect from The Office. But then -- again -- things got strange. Michael, a white collar manager, began lamenting the fact that there was no God to whom he could offer a sacrifice, perhaps some sort of monster like "a walrus with the body of a sea lion, or the body of an egret with the head of a meerkat, or the head of a monkey with the antlers of a reindeer and the body of a porcupine." All this to repeated cuts of awkward exchanged glances and pregnant pauses. It was like cringe comedy by numbers.
So when newly promoted Ryan (B.J. Novak) returned in Episode Two, "Dunder-Mifflin Infinity," sporting a smarmy George Michael Faith-era beard and a Blackberry, who didn't see the jokes coming? Embarrassed that a former temp beat him out for the swishy job at corporate, Michael made inappropriate comments. Not knowing what "ageism" meant and allowing his GPS to steer him straight into a lake further ate away at his self-image. I get that he's easily rattled and does a nervous talking thing, but to imply that Michael is such a doofus he would drive his car into a lake because a computer told him to is preposterous. By asking the audience to accept a Michael this insipid is to snatch away all the surprisingly smart moments that make him a truly great comedic character.
Luckily, the show has other employees to exploit, namely office darlings Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). Their will-they-or-won't-they subplot has dominated the series since basically the first episode. Recently outed as her boyfriend, he worried, "Now that we're public, is the magic gone?" Even though Pam's yes was facetious, it felt as though Jim might be making a good point: with all their sexual tension deflated, will The Office go the way of Friends or Cheers or, worse, Moonlighting?
Of course it's too soon to say. But with an Emmy tucked under their belt, the writers of The Office may be suffering under the weight of last season's cliffhanger of Jim and Pam's Big First Date, which could explain why they slow-played their relationship in the first episode, relying on the industrious documentary team to catch the two stealing away in Pam's car, while Jim and Pam both lied and denied in their talking head footage. The problem, though, is when you create a cliffhanger, you must address it in some satisfying way. This was a far cry from satisfaction. But it was still oddly fascinating. Since we haven't yet seen them schmoopey or bickering, we can't help but wonder, what is their relationship like, anyway? The mystery of Jim and Pam's romance is equal parts prosaic and inspired. A lot like the old Michael Scott, actually.