SitCombat: 4/28/11 (Or: On the Narrative Integrity of The Office)

Archer wrapped up last week after nearly winning four straight to end its season. We’re therefore down to two: 30 Rock, and the (crying) elephant in the (melancholy) room—The Office.  I have a feeling picking a victor in tonight’s SitCombat will be easy.  I’m either going to love The Office or pull several orbital muscles thanks to perpetual eye-rolling.

Let’s find out which it was.  This was SitCombat for April 28, 2011:

30 Rock (NBC)

Tonight’s Episode: Having saved TGS by finding Tracy, Liz decides to get her personal life (and her apartment) in order.

Good Stuff: “No, when she’s ready, Dr. Kevorkian says we have to put her down. He’s a very good pediatrician, but that is an unfortunate name” . . . “Conrad Bain once slapped me in a a men’s room” . . . “I’ve taken action…It dries your mouth out, but the sex is amazing” . . . “…I always think of a third thing when I’m listing stuff” . . . The Three Musketeers (and Dot Com) . . . “WE ARE GOING TO RECREATE ALL THE EVENTS SURROUNDING ‘SMOOTH MOVE, FERGUSON’ EXACTLY AS THEY OCCURRED!” . . . The Kim Jong-Il bits were obvious, yet they were very well-executed and worked for me . . . “‘Do you have access to horse semen?’ ‘You know I do.’ ‘Give me three weeks!’” . . . “That’s right—bags have genitals” . . . Jack’s the parrot . . . “TRUMAN!” . . . Kim Jong-Il doing Alec Baldwin’s speech from Glengarry Glen Ross.

Non-good Stuff: Avery as a mom is starting to get on my nerves, although I still enjoy the character otherwise.  The mom role just doesn’t seem to fit . . . I feel like the bag problem would be easily-rectified, although I understand that it was necessary as a plot device . . . Jack’s fingers never changed position on the flute.  Looked like he was playing a big kazoo sideways.  At least fake it.

Line of the Night: “And, in food news—You’ve had enough to eat today” – Avery, anchoring an American-themed North Korea propaganda broadcast.

Overall: This was the first episode after the “Tracy is missing” story arc resolved, and, not surprisingly, I thought it provided the best use of the Tracy Jordan character in many weeks.  His craziness was at just the right level—significant enough to be funny, but not overwhelming to the point of being inane.  I initially wasn’t sold on the other two plotlines, but Avery doing the propaganda news and the talking bag, respectively, turned the tide. 30 Rock continues to churn out very good shows on a routine basis. Even the Condoleeza Rice cameo wasn’t bad.  The worst thing I can say about this show is that, while it was high-quality, it wasn’t particularly memorable.

GRADE: B-plus

The Office (NBC)

Tonight’s Episode: Michael Scott ends a long career at Dunder-Mifflin as Steve Carell leaves The Office after seven-plus seasons.

Good Stuff: “Where did you hear that? Obvious XM Radio?” . . . “Dead Man Walking” . . . “I thought he knew about the baby I gave away” . . . Michael giving his top clients to Andy “I promise you that I will [lose them]” . . . “Was it just me…or did you think we were going to have sex at some point?” . . . Michael lamenting the fact that his improv ‘credits’ won’t transfer . . . Creed in the women’s room . . . “Do you know how to high-five? Now is the time” . . . The position of the sun actually changing during Michael’s repeated over-the-shoulder shot attempts . . . “Time to spin the chamber, Boris” . . . “And…you…why are you still here?” . . . Creed taking the World’s Best Boss mug out of the trash off-camera . . . “Uhhh-ohhh.”

Non-good Stuff: Gabe is not fun like this . . . There was a commercial for this episode of The Office during this episode of The Office (not to mention the ad refers to the episode as “pretty much perfect”) . . . A slow zoom on an emotional Dwight . . . Jim and Michael in Michael’s office.  A little much . . . Pam and Michael at the airport, and with no audio to boot to underscore the emotion and let the audience decide about what was said.  Didn’t we see that gimmick before?

Line of the Night: “Hey, will you guys let me know if this ever airs?” – Michael, with the best (if not the funniest) joke of the show.  The self-referential nature of this one alone probably bumped the show up a partial letter grade for me.

Overall: I have to admit, it wasn’t as sappy as I had feared.  And it wasn’t bad.  The worst was the Pam and Michael “Lost in Translation”-esque scene at the airport.  I know some may interpret that as poignant.  But, again, I feel like this is well-traveled territory.  A cynic might call it lazy writing.  In any event, there were still some good bits sprinkled throughout the show, although Gabe’s nonsense is more mildly-annoying than funny.  He’s best used as a corporate shill, not a pathetic, jilted lover.  I was definitely glad that they didn’t have Stanley and Oscar suddenly treat Michael as if he were a dear friend.  For the record, I still think Andy Bernard will wind up as the new boss next year.


Final Thoughts: If you’ll indulge me a digression on The Office in anticipation of the “core fans” defending tonight’s episode (which, just to reiterate, is an episode I still liked overall) . . . I had a slight problem with the internal logic of the show tonight.  Recall with me a few seasons ago when Michael quit Dunder-Mifflin after many years of service.  He was proud and joyous (and later a bit frightened) about the decision, eventually creating his own Michael Scott Paper Company*.  There was no hint of sappiness to be found.

You may be saying at this point that I’m an idiot for, among other reasons, overlooking the obvious distinction that Steve Carell was not leaving the show then.  That’s exactly my point.  Tonight was less a show about Michael Scott leaving Dunder-Mifflin than it was a show about Steve Carell leaving The Office.

Therein lies the problem.

I’m not suggesting that the program shouldn’t have dealt with Michael’s / Carell’s departure without any sentimentality at all.  Ironically enough, I’m an extremely sentimental person.  However, the integrity of the narrative comes first.  Deviation from that is acceptable if there’s a good reason to do so.  I didn’t find the way this episode unfolded to merit that deviation.

Think about the scenes between Jim / Pam and Michael.  Sure, Michael’s heart was always in the right place, and he was a generally “good guy.”  But he also did a lot of embarrassing things that ruined or almost ruined for Jim, Pam, and other officemates many professional and personal events in their lives.  Maybe Jim (being the lovable, kind-hearted everyman that he is) would offer Michael a handshake and say thanks, and maybe Pam would lament missing him at the office.  But an emotional exchange?  Driving to the airport to catch him after he’s been through security?*  It doesn’t add up . . . unless we’re dropping the pretense that these are characters, and, rather, are actors who care about each other very much (or, at a minimum, are a proxy for audience members).  John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer missing Steve Carell?  I completely understand that.  But, again, that’s not supposed to be what this show is about.

Office apologists will point to Michael’s heavy-handed metamorphosis over the latter part of this season to explain why the character seemed at times almost to be a different character during tonight’s show.  They might also say that I’m overstating the inconsistencies between “this” Michael Scott and the lovable, if sometimes off-putting boss we’ve come to know and love.  As to the former point, I admit there’s something to that. I’ve lauded Michael’s evolution into a fully-formed adult via his relationship with Holly.  But there’s still that nagging feeling that what I watched tonight was more about the actor than it was the character.

Some people may also say that I’m asking for the impossible—that separating the underlying emotionality of the human beings involved from the actions of the characters they play is an unrealistic goal, especially in a situation where the core audience wants to glimpse some of that.  This argument holds that the consistency for which I ask isn’t feasible under the circumstances, and there’s no way to have a contextual emotionality and maintain the integrity of established characters within a sitcom narrative at the same time.

To those people, I say:
(1) You’re wrong, and
(2) I can prove it.

End of rant.  The Office did fine.  I didn’t hate it.  I liked it.

But, as usual, 30 Rock wins.

WINNER: 30 Rock (retains title)

*Someone catching up to a person they care about at an airport just before take-off?  Unprecedented!
**This was one of my favorite story arcs in the history of the show. Perhaps the favorite. I don’t think the average fan of The Office would necessarily agree with that sentiment.
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