Tonight's episode saw the semi-triumphant return of Karen and the introduction of the Finer Things Club, a collection of prance-about girlymen and dainty ladies devoted to the fine art of eating finger sandwiches, wearing effete bow ties (is there any other kind? Does a manly bow tie even exist?), listening to classical music, talking about middlebrow books and other highbrow endeavors. It was a quintessential slobs and snobs episode, with Oscar, Pam and Toby serving as the frou frou snobs with their fancy little exclusionary club. Like most clubs this one seemed to exist largely, if not exclusively, to keep people out (in this case that would be Andy with his fancy Cornell degree). The slobs, meanwhile, were represented by Michael, Dwight and an exceedingly reluctant Jim, who take it upon themselves to deliver a stone-cold pranking on their professional rivals.
Since last season Karen has been promoted to the head of Dunder-Mifflin's Utica branch, where she quickly realized that working at Dunder-Mifflin isn't such a bad gig as long as your boss isn't an idiot and your boyfriend isn't in love with one of your co-workers. Giddy with middle managerial power, Karen tries to lure away Stanley by offering him more money, prompting Michael to drive to Utica with an assortment of hilarious fake mustaches and an extremely fuzzy plan to bombard his rivals with a series of outrageous Animal House style pranks.
Tonight's episode was long on laughs and short on pathos though there was a priceless moment of awkward comedy where Jim tried to maintain at least a modicum of dignity during an unplanned reunion with Karen while wearing a fake mustache. Incidentally, fake mustaches are one of a handful of things that are inherently funny in any context. Is it possible to convey dignity or authority while wearing a fake mustache? I don't think so but I got a big kick out of Dwight trying to seem tough while wearing a Rollie Fingers-style old-timey handlebar mustache.
Like all of Michael's plans this one backfired spectacularly. For me the apex of the episode was when Michael tried to get Jim to distract Karen from catching on to their tomfoolery by trying to convince him to take Karen to a motel and have sex with her. You know, for the team. "Climb on top of her and think of Stanley!" he pleads with Jim though it's safe to say that if he actually did climb on top of her Stanley would be the furthest thing from his mind.
Does this mean Karen is back for good? Is the fierce rivalry between Scranton (which fearless A.V Club correspondent Claire Zulkey reports is really not so bad, having visited during the big Office convention) and Utica a one-off or a taste of things to come? Written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Joss Whedon, "Branch Wars" delivered a steady stream of chuckles and a few big old laughs, as when Dwight asserts that "the eyes are the groin of the face". I also found it intriguing that this Kaling-penned episode featured absolutely zero Kelly Kapour. I'm glad that Stanley's not going anywhere. His beyond-deadpan reaction shots are one of the show's consistent delights. I know I argued during my latest episode review that at this point The Office needs to ache as well as tickle the old funnybone in order to be satisfying but sometimes being funny is enough.
Stray Observations: -Was the crack about having "best prank ever" a Simpsons inside joke from ex-Simpsons writer Greg Daniels? I know on one of the Simpsons audio commentaries they talk about FOX pimping episodes as featuring "Bart's biggest prank ever" being a source of amusement for the writers. -I loved how Michael views Stanley as a zany black cut-up, just like Colin Powell -He's a middle-aged black man with sass, dammit -Is Michael some sort of secret genius, as Stanley cheekily proposes? I'm guessing not -Did I miss any Joss Whedon inside jokes I missed? I hear this Buffy The Vampire Slayer show has a few fans, though I'm sure none of them read the A.V Club