So, what did you think about The Office last night? Brilliant spin on the kind of stylized episodes that have been kicking butt on Community every week? Or laugh-free experimental disaster? I hate to say this, as I’m a lifelong Office loyalist, but I’m leaning pretty heavily towards the latter. Dare I say, this might be the Worst. Office. Ever? (Pause to lick Dorito dust off fingers.)
The episode, attributed to B.J. Novak (who also plays Ryan the Intern, but you knew that), revisits Michael’s passion project, an action movie called Threat-Level Midnight whose script was discovered by Pam back in Season Two. They staged a reading of it, it was funny, and that’s really all we needed to see of Threat-Level Midnight for the rest of The Office’s existence, as far as I was concerned. But no, it’s back, apparently, and fully produced, after “three years of writing, one year of shooting, four years of re-shooting and two years of editing.” So the staff gather in the conference room for a premiere screening.
There are multiple hurdles to overcome with this premise. The first, and most crucial, is a stylistic one. In other words, to make this truly funny, then we need to buy the fact that the movie was made by Michael. But from the moment the title card spins into place, you can tell they’ve gotten the tone all wrong. The graphics are too slick, the video is too uniformly high-definition for a decade-old home movie, the cast all looks exactly the way they do now, etc. So what we have is a fake bad homemade movie that looks as if it was made by a crew of pros who failed to approximate what a truly bad homemade movie would look like.
The next hurdle is to not fall into the trap of making Michael seem too cutesy-pathetic -- but the setup did exactly that. Everyone giggles and patronizes him (Jim and Pam, so cute playing drunk last week, are seriously insufferable here), and Michael comes off just so adowwwable playing an action star (just like a grownup!) and delivering cheesy movie lines. The guy is an adult. He’s funny when he’s being completely inappropriate, not when he’s behaving like a creative, 12-year-old self-starter. That’s just weird.
The final hurdle is that the bad movie needs to be, well, good. But the scenes, as written, just kind of crashed and burned. Again, it seems like a premise that’s built to fail, since Michael is so limited creatively that he couldn’t possibly write a good bad movie. (Or is he? Remember the episode where he entered a contest to create a Dunder-Mifflin TV commercial? His entry was really good!) Fine, so he’s a dolt who quotes cliche movie lines and tells terrible jokes. At least his movie didn’t need to be boring and uninspired. And couldn’t they have done more with the premise that this was a movie ten years in the making? Yes, there were cameos from some familiar former girlfriends (and one from Rashida Jones), but wasn’t this a missed opportunity to reward loyal Office fans with some truly obscure Office callbacks?
Oh well. They can’t all be winners. To be honest, when the delivery guy walked into Michael’s office during the cold open and started shooting, I thought they were really going dark with Steve Carell’s exit from the series -- and it excited me. (I’m still holding out a glimmer of hope that Michael is the Scranton Strangler.) But no, it was just a bad movie, in a bad episode. It all just felt like a giant step backwards, in the worst possible way.