Thursday, April 23, 2009

What's wrong with "The Office"

Will the Michael Scott Paper Company be a death blow for one of NBC's best shows?

            There’s been a whirlwind of conflict swirling through NBC’s hit comedy “The Office” in its fifth season.  Between Jim and Pam’s engagement, Dwight and Andy’s duel over Angela, and Michael’s failed relationship with Holly, the show’s writers have had more balls to juggle than ever.

            But in the March 19 episode they pulled the biggest, and strangest, development yet when boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) decided to quit his job after Dunder Mifflin’s new vice president, Charles Minor (guest star Idris Elba), cancelled his fifteenth anniversary party. 

Determined to start his own business, the aptly named Michael Scott Paper Company, Michael dragged Pam and Ryan into a basement supply closet to futilely try and compete against Dunder Mifflin.

Is the Michael Scott Paper Company the show’s brave new direction, or has this workplace comedy actually jumped the shark?
            “The Office” is in a predicament, for if the fledgling company collapses by season’s end and Michael takes back control of the Scranton branch, it would render the so-far uneventful story arc pointless.

But if the new paper company succeeds into the show’s sixth season, it will only be setting up more painfully unfunny antics in this tedious development.  With Michael and Pam out of the office, the balance of humor has shifted in drastically unpleasant directions.

Without Pam to balance him out, Jim’s pranks have grown sour. The recent trend of making Jim the fool is a welcome departure from his routine smugness, but actor John Krasinski has been unable to deliver his material with a hint of charm in weeks.

And Dwight (Rainn Wilson), who usually provides some of the show’s most unexpectedly welcome quirks and moments of surprising professionalism, is slowly devolving into a grab bag of pathetic clichés.

That says nothing of Ryan, whose story arc should have ended with his indictment for fraud at the end of season four.  Instead, he now stumbles around Michael’s new company, with no real justification besides actor/writer B.J. Novak wanting to give himself things to do.

“The Office” lacks a single direction, making its usually brisk comedy feel confused and misguided.  Where the series’ fourth season introduced more realistic, personal issues for the main characters, these recent episodes have become a collection of pointless interaction with no satisfactory catharsis.

The problem with “The Office” is that there’s too much going on.  The humor, instant of feeling streamlined and organic, feels desperate, as if the characters are launching out in all directions, trying to scoop laughs from remote places.

This has been a problem since Jim and Pam’s relationship started, but the increasingly complicated love triangle between Dwight, Angela, and Andy managed to keep the void filled to a certain point.

With little to focus on in the way of interpersonal drama, the show’s producers have punched the conflict to a forced extreme.  The behavior, usually awkward if humorous, now has a callous and uninvolved feel.

The Michael Scott Paper Company has systematically drained one of television’s most consistent comedies of its spark.  It’s as if the writing and producing team has become Michael Scott incarnate, wasting everyone’s time on meaningless things no one cares about.

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