One of the running threads in the comments in recent weeks has been the idea that The Office is being held to expectations that are unreasonable. To put it in the terms of “Christmas Wishes,” there has been the suggestion that I wish the show to be something that it has never been, or something that it will never be according to some of you, which explains why I’ve been so frustrated with the show’s eighth season.
I’m also frustrated with this particular line of discourse, if I’m being honest. Earlier this week, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter wrote a blog post in response to the criticism of the show’s fourth season (criticism that has been largely positive, but has nonetheless pinpointed some areas of concern) that helps justify this discourse, and I want to highlight one passage in particular:
“I think the bigger issue is a lack of understanding of what [Sons of Anarchy] really is. And that isn't to say that critics are stupid. Some are. Most aren't. But a lot of critics don't seem to understand what I'm trying to do season after season. It's like going to see a Summer blockbuster movie and being disappointed because it's not as complex as the Godfather.”
Now, as I was discussing with some of my fellow critics, every showrunner probably wants to write this blog post; for example, I am sure the writers of The Office read reviews—if they read reviews—and say things like, “He just doesn’t get what we’re going for,” or, “What show is she watching?”
While Sutter is often valorized for his honesty, this post isn’t designed to create an honest dialogue with his critics; rather, quite the opposite: It is designed to invalidate the very idea of criticism, suggesting that all criticism should operate with a mutual understanding between creator and critic regarding what the show should be. Sutter might as well have broken into a version of “Critics Just Don’t Understand,” certainly more than implying that “there’s no need to argue” given that he’s right and anyone who doesn’t get that is just banging their head against a brick wall.
The problem with this is that, more often than not, there is very much need to argue when it comes to shows like The Office. We, and I speak here of a collective “we” encompassing all of those watching the show and posting about it online, are not all of the same mind: We come to The Office with different relationships with the previous seasons, different personal backgrounds (whether connected to specific identity categories—race, ethnicity, gender—or specific life experiences), and different subjectivities related to humor, comedy, and television in general. The same goes for every show, of course, but it's especially true with a show that has been on this long.
While some have suggested that my frustration with the show stems from a clear picture of what the show must be, I would argue that my frustration stems from the show’s unwillingness to define what it wants to be. “Christmas Wishes”—and yes, I’m finally getting to tonight’s episode—is not a terrible episode of television, but it’s formless to the point where it avoids having to make any sort of statement. While there is potentially something refreshing about the show avoiding more complicated, wacky scenarios, there is also something ineffectual about this holiday party, which makes it incredibly dull if you don’t have a connection to the storylines that pop up within it. It does nothing to convince skeptics that the show is interested in changing or exploring new territory, and it similarly does nothing to rock the boat for those who are still on board. Instead, it just sits there in the middle, offering an amiable but ultimately facile episode of television.
If I had to make one specific wish connected to “Christmas Wishes,” though, it would be that the show should re-embrace its documentary aesthetics. The simple structure of the episode would be fine, I’d argue, if they were to make a more concerted effort to allow for the sense that we are seeing only one side of this party, and that in the process we’re missing out on entire other narratives (I'm thinking here of something like "Casino Night," although that benefitted from an extended runtime). Here, the story tends to stop and start: When we’re dealing with a Jim and Dwight moment like the discovery of the porcupine, the entire office (including Andy and Erin) crowds around to witness it, while in the next scene, Erin and Andy have their big altercation while everyone (including Dwight and Jim) stands silently without acting as “characters” or suggesting they were doing anything else important.
Similarly, the storylines that are defined in the episode are barely allowed to interact with one another, rarely if ever visible when the show is focusing on another storyline. Remember how Pam spent all of “The Dundies” sneaking drinks subtly in shots focused on other events? By comparison, Erin’s drinking here is an active subject for the cameras, even warranting its own component in the montage in the middle of the episode. None of the storylines are allowed to remain subtle, and none of those storylines remain (even subtly) when the other storylines take over. Darryl’s invitation to Val, in particular, gets three scenes: his invitation, her embarrassed arrival in fancier dress than was expected, and then Darryl’s arrival in a tuxedo. Those three scenes aren’t bad, but their complete absence in any other part of the episode makes the party feel that much more contrived and structured (even though it avoids large-scale plotting in an effort, echoing Stanley’s early concerns over “Moroccan Christmas” and “Mo Rocca Christmas,” to avoid that very problem).
These concerns, which stem in part from Ed Helms’ direction and in part from the way the editors cut the episode down from what I presume is a larger whole, does not discount the storylines within it. The struggle there, at least for me, was a lack of emotional connection to either of the two primary storylines that run through the episode. There’s very little novel about Jim and Dwight in an escalating prank war (although having Cathy request to move was certainly a nice nod to how distracting their behavior would be), and the idea of Erin and Andy as a couple is not only something the show has already done, but it’s also something that has felt forced back into the picture with little motivation from Erin (outside of the external motivation to introduce a love triangle into the series).
“Christmas Wishes” did nothing to convince me that Dwight and Jim have not both stagnated as characters, but it was a bit more successful with Erin and Andy. Now, to be clear, I still think we need to understand Erin’s sober point of view regarding this issue, but Ellie Kemper was incredibly strong here with what was a refreshingly uncompromising storyline that embraced a level of sadness I appreciated. My one point of frustration is that we spent the entire episode seeing her through Andy’s perspective, to the point where he stalks her back to her house to make sure that nothing was happening between her and Robert California (who, of course, spent the episode mourning his off-screen divorce so as to make something happening more plausible). The privileging of Andy’s point of view makes sense in terms of positioning Andy as the new center of the show, but that continues to seem incredibly misguided to me: In the absence of a Michael figure, why not allow the show’s point of view to shift more readily, letting Erin be the star of this episode instead of just the scene-sealing lush? Still, on the whole, I’m more on board with this storyline than I was before the week began, so that’s some decent progress compared to what we’ve seen so far this season.
I do think that “Christmas Wishes” is purposefully positioned as a transition point. We meet Andy’s girlfriend Jessica (Eleanor Seigler), establishing the love triangle that to this point had been problematically hypothetical (given that it’s hard to connect with an imaginary woman), while Robert California’s divorce and “darkly erratic” mood in the aftermath suggest at the least the beginning of an arc structure. On that level, I think there is a decent foundation here for what comes next year, and it seems like something the show could potentially build on. However, at the same time, there wasn’t enough story going into this episode to sustain its moments of generic Christmas celebration: That montage in the middle, set to the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s “Carol of the Bells,” features a bunch of small character moments that mean absolutely nothing, floating out into the holiday ether without connecting… for me. For those who are still fully on board with the show, and who simply want to see this gang hang out, it’s possible that scene was the highlight of the episode.
However, the reason for my extended tangent into the online discussions of the television critic’s relationship with the text is because none of us are right. The show’s intent is part of this discussion, certainly, but our interpretations (with an emphasis on the plural) are what matter most within this space. My Christmas Wish, if spiteful critics are allowed such a thing, is neither that The Office “get better” nor that The Office do what I say. Instead, it is simply that we continue to hold the show to a critical standard, whatever that standard may be, and that we don’t accept the idea that there is only one way to watch this show.
I am curious, though: If you were given one wish, and you were for some reason forced to make that wish about The Office, what would it be? As much as I understand the criticism of “imagining” the show a certain way, we all do it on some level, so what would you change about the series at this complicated stage in its life?
It’s a question that, while I might not necessarily have a non-idealistic bullshit answer of my own, I have to hope that the writers are at least considering (whether minor or major) over the holidays.
- The one scene that did feel as though it successfully merged storylines was Jim and Andy’s moment in the break room, which was also one of the scenes that felt like a stolen moment in the midst of a larger party. I wanted a bit more of that, at the end of the day.
- While I was somewhat dismissive of the Jim and Dwight storyline above, I will say that the porcupine bit got a good chuckle out of me. While everything before that felt a bit hokey, that escalated things to an impressive level, and “It’s a good thing I have my falconing gloves” is something I want to start working into casual conversation. As with last week, some nice moments in scenes like that one.
- Perhaps suggesting that Creed’s star is on the rise, two great moments this week: looking for more information on the relationship status of Andy’s grandmother, and suggesting that a Black Man in a tuxedo reminds him of Clarence Thomas, which is just such a wonderfully specific reference that made me laugh for some reason.
- What do we do with Robert California in this episode? On the one hand, this does suggest more of an arc for the character, but was that all we are getting of Maura Tierney? And, more importantly, does this make the character funnier? I didn’t find him particularly strong in this episode, pinballing from character to character without much rhyme and reason, but it could make the character more sustainable with time.