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The Office

The Office is a comedy set in a paper sales company Dunder Mifflin. Shot in a mockumentary style the show follows the exploits of regional manager Michael Scott whose excruciating behaviour can make life difficult for his fellow employees. NBC 2005-???

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Episode 13 - Stress Relief

27 March 2012

 

Synopsis: Dwight starts a small fire and locks everyone in the office to test their fire safety awareness. Panic soon sets in with people smashing in doors, windows and the ceiling. Stanley has a heart attack from the scare. Michael and Dwight are summoned to see David Wallace and reprimanded. Michael brings in a CPR instructor to help the office be more prepared. But Dwight thinks he should be teaching this and decides to show everyone how to harvest organs from the corpse of the CPR dummy. Once more summoned to the Corporate office, Michael now realises he needs to reduce the stress levels in the office. Soon it becomes apparent that he causes the stress and so he suggests a comedy roast to reduce the tension. After everyone in the office and warehouse insults him he leaves in tears and takes a personal day. When he returns he manages to make Stanley laugh and everyone decides to forgive and forget. Meanwhile Pam’s parents are separating and she asks Jim to talk to her Dad. When Jim tells him how much he loves Pam, her father leaves her mother because he has never felt like that. Andy mistakes their conversations for commentary on a movie he watched with them starring Jack Black and Jessica Alba.

The Good: The opening scene is a sight to behold (see Comic Highlight). It’s a shock to the system to see the office suddenly turned into a war zone of people running in panic and Dwight’s cocky introduction to the mayhem helps build the sense of impending hilarity. Of course people smashing windows and screaming isn’t funny just because panic can be humorous. It’s funny because the office is firmly set in the real world. This isn’t Scrubs or 30 Rock where insane things can happen and people don’t bat an eyelid or where characters act slightly insane all the time. The Office has worked hard to build a universe which is meant to be real and where normal people do act with incredulity at foolish behaviour. So what makes the office fire so funny is the sense that these actions are real and have real consequences. Stanley’s heart attack is a very real consequence and the meeting with David Wallace which follows makes it clear that this is the real world where this stupidity won’t be ignored.

The follow up incident is almost as good but in a different way. The CPR seminar seems to be following the usual Office format of falling apart owing to Michael’s easily distracted mind but then takes a terrific twist when Dwight guts the dummy and slices its face off to wear like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. It’s again ideally plausible owing to Dwight’s disconnect from sensitivity “I didn’t think it was very realistic in the movie. Turns out – it’s pretty realistic.” Again the jump straight back to David Wallace’s office is both fun comedic repetition and a reminder of the consequence for these actions.

Within the CPR scene we get several nice jokes including Michael describing the Red Cross as running a “racket” for insisting on sending a qualified instructor with their dummy. Then his discussion of why the dummy has no arms and legs is classic Michael misuse of time. Kevin giving up on his dummy because he was too tired to pump anymore. Even Creed chimes in with his bizarre train of thought “You were in the parking lot earlier, that’s how I know you!” he tells the instructor. Once Michael starts singing Staying Alive to keep to one hundred beats per minute, Andy and Kelly join in which fits their characters really well and of course Michael gets distracted by that and leaves the dummy to “die.”

The comedy roast is a situation with huge comic potential and you know it is going to backfire on Michael, so it has that car wreck quality to it. Several of the roasts fit the characters well. Angela lists Michael’s incompetent moments which fits her judgemental side. Jim brings up Michael’s misuse of expressions which is pretty non-confrontational and fits Jim’s pattern of questioning Michael’s bizarre logic and Andy singing is more about him showing off than the roast. Darryl showing up Michael’s claims that the office is a family definitely fits with Darryl’s no nonsense approach to Michael’s hypocrisy (see The Bad for the rest).

Dwight is the character who comes out best from this episode. He is relentlessly consistent and his values are plain to see. His concern for safety is clearly outweighed by his desire to prove his own superior knowledge to everyone else. He can’t see what he did wrong; he can only express his disappointment that no one would listen to his instructions. And he almost has a point. When Phyllis points out that he nearly killed Stanley, Dwight is self righteous and accurate “Yeah right, I filled him full of butter and sugar for fifty years and forced him not to exercise.” He makes it plain that he has no respect for anyone (“Nothing stresses me out, except seeking the approval of my inferiors”) and the only reason he defends Michael is because he respects the chain of command. Once Michael calls him an idiot he savages him “You pathetic, short, little man. You don’t have any friends or any family or any land.” Dwight’s only concern is with single-mindedly pursuing his own goals and his tricks to get people to sign his statement of regret are pretty clever.

Jim and Pam showing how in love they are will please fans of theirs (but see The Bad).

The Bad: I still feel that the double episode length doesn’t suit the way The Office is written. The only episode which has bucked the trend of poor episodes is the season five premier which broke from the standard formula and covered the whole summer of the office. When the show attempts to use its more standard plot structure but stretches it to forty minutes, things don’t flow as well. The problem here is that the focus of the episode is spread around and doesn’t quite land anywhere significantly. Is the episode about Stanley, Michael or Dwight? Stanley returns from hospital far too quickly for my liking. The effects of the heart attack should have been serious and yet they get pushed aside quickly as the story moves toward Dwight and then back toward Michael.

Ditto Jim and Pam. Pam’s parents are having marital troubles and by the end of the episode have split up. It happens way too fast to mean anything and really it should have massive consequences for Pam. Instead the story isn’t about Pam but about Jim and Pam the couple. It seems foolish to waste a divorce storyline on an episode which already had several other plot strands going on. And it just seems to miss the point of what a big deal Pam’s parents breaking up should be for her.

The use of Jack Black and Jessica Alba is a complete waste of time. The intentionally awful movie is something you would find in 30 Rock  and undercuts the sense of reality which the rest of the episode cultivates. It makes Andy look needlessly stupid for getting so emotional over such a terrible spoof.

The big problem here though seems to be the confusing nature of the comedy roast. In a way the roast cuts too close to the bone. The Office is built on the premise that the only way normal people would put up with such poor and inappropriate treatment from another person would be if it were their boss. Because they want to keep their jobs they suffer in silence through his foolishness. This season and very slowly over the previous seasons we have been shown moments when Michael reveals his nicer side and characters come to understand that he loves them all like family even if he is a terrible hypocrite and expresses it in bad ways.

So the comedy roast lets the genie out of the bottle. Suddenly the employees have the chance to let Michael have it and the ways they chose to do so are a mess. Oscar has suffered through some terrible racist and homophobic abuse and claims he is going to make Michael cry. It seems like a recipe for real conflict but instead he says it all in Spanish rather defeating the point of building up what he was going to say. Meredith claims that Michael is the reason why she drinks. Coming on the heels of him seeing her drinking as an addiction (510) it’s a pretty damning statement. It’s almost too real and too hurtful. Because if Michael takes it in and believes it then he would have to understand how badly he has treated her. Pam making fun of Michael’s nude parts is kind of the opposite. She decided to mock things about Michael in a much more impersonal, roast-style silly way. While that may fit her character it underlines the confusion of the roast situation. The assembled audience laugh hard at the silly stuff but react with silence to Meredith’s awkward honesty. What that suggests is that most of them just want to make fun of Michael in a harmless way and when things get personal they sense the need to keep quite. That would all make sense except that they give a hearty round of applause and cheer when Dwight finishes his deeply personal and cold attack on Michael’s life. Those cheer seem completely incongruent with what Dwight said. How can they cheer that Michael has no family, friends or land? Most of them won’t have “land” and as for Michael not having family, who would cheer for that? The roast just doesn’t follow a clear theme, it feels like a confusion on the writers part as to how they wanted it to work.

I wondered if Michael had prepared notes on why he loved everyone in the office. It would seem like a way to avoid stress and make everyone feel better. Had he read something like that out it would have sent a clear message. Everyone would have felt guilty because they would have realised that Michael’s heavy handed approach as a boss comes from a place of real affection for them. After all, his inappropriate attempts to resuscitate Stanley came from a heartfelt desire to save his life. But the writers have to keep in the part of Michael that is mean and dismissive and rude. So instead he has written his own roast notes which make Stanley laugh and the office collectively forgive Michael and things return to normal.

Comic Highlight: Dwight takes the camera aside and explains that no one listened to his fire safety talk. So now he locks the office shut, cuts the phone lines and starts a fire. Once everyone has tried the exits to find them locked, Michael shouts “everyone for himself!”The ensuing chaos is really fun to watch. As Oscar climbs into the ceiling, Angela throws her cat to him and the cat promptly falls back through another panel. Michael tries to smash a window open and we quickly then jump to Kevin smashing in the vending machines and stealing food. Jim and Andy ram the photocopier into one of the doors and Oscar comes falling back through the ceiling. As Dwight announces that it was only a drill Stanley collapses from a heart attack. Michael runs over and screams at him “Barack is President!” in an attempt to revive him.

That’s what I said: In a way the Michael Scott roast is not a good idea. It brings the characters too close to admitting how they really feel about their boss and destroying the dynamic which keeps them together. The writers choose not to go in a radical direction with that idea, but instead return The Office to its status quo afterwards. It may be the best way out of a difficult situation, but they didn’t need to get into that situation in the first place.

Before the roast takes over though this was a really funny episode which exploited the show’s sketch-scene format masterfully with two very creative set piece jokes.

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