I've been waiting for weeks to see how Joss Whedon would work his mojo on The Office and, I have to say, I wasn't disappointed.
It's worth noting of course that while Whedon is best known for his work as a series creator on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (and directed several episodes of each), he got his start as a writer on a sitcom (that would be Roseanne). So I was definitely intrigued to see what Whedon would do on a comedy series as a journeyman director.
Last night's episode of The Office ("Business School") lived up to every one of my expectations, turning in a dazzling episode consisting of three separate storylines and delivering the show's trademark blend of laughs and tears, sometimes at the same time. Kudos to writer Brent Forrester (who also wrote "The Merger" episode earlier this season) and to Whedon for crafting an episode that stands out as epitomizing the strengths of the series while also being its own memorable entity.
Whedon's episode looked and felt like a quintessential Office episode and that's the best possible compliment you can pay a director-for-hire, especially one whose style is as drastically different from The Office as Whedon's is. But instead, he nailed the talking head format, the documentary style, and, unlike other episodes, the actors seemed completely at ease and in character the entire time. (I use the totally awkward Jim and Pam break room fiasco from "Ben Franklin," directed by The Office's DP Randall Einhorn, as an example to the contrary.)
But enough about the direction and onto the story itself. I have to talk about the bat and that the producers randomly decided that this specific episode, in which Dwight discovers a bat nesting in the ceiling space of the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton offices, would be directed by Whedon, especially given the running gag in which Jim tries to convince Dwight that he is carrying the "vampiric germ." Loved the white-hot garlic bread, the glare off of Angela's crucifix, and the flipped up collar at the end of the episode. Classic, especially given we are in one of the Sylvanias.
The bat was very well handled, a combination of live animal (seen in the close ups) and an animatronic one (in the group scenes), and it was hysterical to see everyone's varying reactions to the vermin: Karen hiding under her desk, Pam shrieking, Stanley putting his coat over his head and walking out, Kevin playing the hero, Creed just calmly sitting there without a care in the world (some really fun Creed bits overall this episode, in fact), and Kelly's horror at hurting the bat (which has a family and feelings) quickly turning to a scream of "kill it! kill it!" once it approaches her. But my absolute favorite has got to be Angela's reaction, as she stopped, dropped, and rolled on the floor (as if in a fire situation) before praying that the bat not come near her. (I also loved her little old lady plastic hair net later on as well.)
Michael was way toned down again after last week's manic energy in "Phyllis' Wedding," a definite plus. He's way more funny when he's a bit less over-the-top insane and just irritating and out of touch with reality. Here, he's asked by Ryan to participate as a guest speaker in his economics class at business school, and Michael, in typical Great Scott fashion, completely misses the point of the exercise and tries to deliver a rousing Dead Poets Society speech to the class in which he rips apart one kid's textbook (worth its weight in gold, apparently) and throws candy bars into the audience, hitting one student in the head. His Q&A is hilariously off the mark and the whole thing shifts uncomfortably once Michael learns just what Ryan was saying in his introduction: that Dunder-Mifflin only has a few years left before it's forced to close its doors forever. Michael is cut to the quick and feels betrayed by "spazzy kid" Ryan, insults the entire "stupid" class and storms out after mentioning that "everyone thinks Ryan is a tease."
Ryan's punishment: he has to give up his big boy desk and move into the annex. Yes, the annex. You know, where they stuck Kelly and sad sack Toby? And that, my friends, is what they call comeuppance, and it couldn't have happened to a better person than Ryan. It's about time the (former) temp got put in his place, especially after he usurped Jim's prime Pam-staring position in the office.
Speaking of Pam, I'm glad that the producers finally tackled the notion of her "art," by arranging an art show for her. I loved the expression on Kelly's face when Pam invited her to attend the show (blank indifference) and how Toby shifted awkwardly as he thought about blowing off his daughter's play ("what they do is not art") to go support Pam and "local art." Pam's art is, as Oscar's boyfriend Gil suggests, "motel art" made without honesty or bravery, which Oscar points out are not Pam's strong points. Instead, they're slightly pathetic amateur sketches and watercolors of found objects, the office building, a lonely mug. And most importantly they point to the fact that Pam is completely out of touch with her inner self: her inner artist, her inner lover, her true self.
It's all underpinned beautifully by Roy's appearance at the art show (he shows up with his brother); he's not there to support Pam ("Your art is the prettiest art of all the art.") but to earn brownie points in his ongoing quest to win her back by becoming something -- and someone -- he's not. In the end, his whole appearance is linked more to the fact that he hopes Pam will stay the night at his place than making up for not appreciating her in the past. This will end badly, all around.
As for Jim not showing up to Pam's show? I'm glad he didn't turn up at the eleventh hour with or without Karen. It was only fitting that he not show up at all or even discuss the art show in one of the talking heads. Pam, after all, is not his priority right now. It shows from his failure to turn up at the show (or even offer apologies) that it's Karen, and not Pam, who is his partner in crime during his ongoing prank on Dwight.
In the end, I was incredibly moved by Michael showing up at the end to support Pam. For all of his faults, Michael really does love these people and wants to be there for them. He's practically glowing with pride about Pam's accomplishments and, in a rare streak of sensitivity, offers to buy her sketch of the Dunder-Mifflin building (complete with Michael's office window and car) for the office. Pam for once is speechless and just hugs Michael and doesn't let go. It's a beautifully real and tender moment in the show and echoes back to the talking head from Season Two in "Boys and Girls," when Pam breaks down after realizing she's never leaving Scranton.
Michael proudly hangs up Pam's picture in the office and everything actually comes together in this episode at this point: Pam's art, Michael's speech to Ryan's business school, etc. It does all come down to paper and people in the end. Wait, Michael's actually right in the end? Stranger things have happened at Dunder-Mifflin, after all. Just ask Dwight.
Next week on The Office ("Cocktails"), it's J.J. Abrams' time to shine as he directs an episode in which Michael and Jan make their ongoing relationship known at a cocktail party thrown at the home of the Dunder-Mifflin CFO, Jim meets Karen's ex-boyfriend, and the rest of the gang head out for some happy hour drinks.
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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions junior exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionary.blogspot.com.