The Office: "Counseling"
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The Office: "Counseling"

The feud between Michael and Toby has been a centerpiece of The Office over its first six seasons, and what makes it work is that it sort of doesn’t make any sense: the joke isn’t that Michael’s attacks on Toby are clever, but rather that we have no idea why it is that Michael hates Toby quite this much. While we have seen bits and pieces of why Toby, being responsible for upholding morals and ethics in his role as Human Resources rep, would get on Michael’s nerves (especially related to staff meetings), we have never seen enough context to truly understand their feud, which is part of the fun.

“Counseling” offers one of the more concentrated doses of Michael and Toby interacting with one another, and while that part of the storyline ends up being pretty effective the rest of the episode around it is quite uneven. By offering a conflicting characterization of Dwight, and by having Pam transition into a new role in the most ridiculous of ways, the episode loses track of who these characters actually are, which keeps the episode from connecting.

I thought the Michael and Toby stuff worked pretty well, in that it had a clear arc: Michael dislikes Toby, which leads him to act out in therapy until they eventually reach a mutual agreement of sorts by episode’s end. While I thought some of Michael’s behavior was a bit broad, the storyline felt grounded in the fact that Toby did not take advantage of the situation. He looks at this as an opportunity to help someone who Phyllis describes by observing that “he has a lot of issues, and he’s stupid.”

Really, if Toby were as horrible a human being as Michael suggests, he would have snapped by now. That he continues to put up with Michael, even looking at this counseling as an opportunity to help him, says something pretty substantial about his sense of human decency. When the story got to its conclusion, with Michael and Toby bonding over Gabe’s annoying qualities, it didn’t feel like a big moment; instead, it felt like a short glitch in time where the two characters’ usual diametric opposition was replaced with a connection that helps put their battle into perspective. Paul Lieberstein and Steve Carell both did a nice job playing their roles in the tension-filled sequences, and while there wasn’t anything extremely funny I felt that the story came together both comically and dramatically at the end of the day.

The problem with the two other storylines in the episode is that neither began or ended in a logical place. In the case of Dwight, there is a serious disconnect between the Dwight in the cold open (creating the day care from hell, including pee buckets) and the Dwight of the episode proper (who has real emotions, and who almost sheepishly goes along with the group’s plan to get his money back). The first seems incompetent and almost foolish, while the latter actually seems too vulnerable for what we know of the character. I like the idea of Dwight gaining some perspective in theory, as I am almost always a fan of character development in the series, but the huge gap between the day care and the mall incident is jarring. You could argue that perhaps time passed before this event, but with only the credits to differentiate them it made for a bit of character whiplash in the episode proper (if not in the series' world itself).

Dwight’s scenario also wasn’t particular funny, which is perhaps the real problem: the Pretty Woman story never quite connected beyond Dwight’s refusal to believe a working girl was the protagonist, the getup wasn’t nearly as funny or entertaining as the episode seemed to think it was, and the twist (the beet-bloodied hands) wasn’t worth the drawn out development. I chuckled a bit at Dwight still choosing to buy the wizard, and Mose’s return is always welcome, but for the amount of time spent in the episode (which was substantial, perhaps equal to Michael and Toby) it didn’t live up to expectations.

As for Pam’s plot to make herself Office Administrator, I think it was just plain lazy: they clearly wanted to get Pam out of Sales, and into this new position, but did they have to have Pam successfully hoodwink everyone in the process? I liked the brief connection with Michael’s anger (as he signs without looking), but the rest of it stretched the series’ reality. Now, before you jump on me, I am aware that this is not a realistic show: yes, Michael would have been fired ages ago, and chances are Dunder Mifflin would be shut down if it had any real supervision. However, the show is usually more honest to its characters than to “reality,” so to see Pam hoodwink everyone with this ridiculous plan is hard for me to accept.

The story wasn't devoid of humor, as Pam and Gabe's final scene featured some nice moments which allowed Zach Woods a good chance to play with Gabe's lack of backbone when it comes to making important decisions. However, while I laughed during that scene, it wasn’t funny because of Pam: her poker line fell completely flat, and any humor in the story was unrelated to her character. I don’t think this is a problem with Jenna Fischer’s performance – she remains as charming as ever, at least objectively speaking. The problem is that Pam made a rash and ridiculous decision based on a random encounter with a window treatment salesman, and I spent the entire episode wondering why B.J. Novak’s script couldn’t find a better way to get Pam into this role instead of being entertained.

The Michael and Toby stuff was a nice balance of humor and resonance for me, with the former's antics being nicely bolstered by the latter's self-satisfied yet well-meaning therapy efforts, and I think it’s enough to keep the episode from being a complete disaster. However, “Dwight does Pretty Woman” and “Pam becomes Office Administrator” were stories that never provided the kind of content necessary to really bring the episode together. I could deal with the inconsistent and reductive characterizations if the stories were truly funny, but there weren’t enough laughs here to overcome the sense that this was a contrived half-hour of television, and a step back from the solid premiere.

Other Observations

  • Some continued greatness from Mindy Kaling’s Kelly, both in terms of wardrobe and in terms of her new “can-do” attitude (which includes ignoring most of what she says).
  • Nothing particularly superb in Michael’s antics with Toby, but anything relating to ALF gets my vote of approval. I’m still waiting for him to come back, in POG form.
  • Not sure what to make of Dwight and Angela’s punch card – it was a simple little gag, and got a chuckle, but I was confused as to where their relationship stood after the whole baby situation last season.
  • It’s a bit reductive considering that Erin was nicely deepened as a character towards the end of last season, but her misunderstanding of how disposable cameras work still got the biggest laugh of the episode for me.
  • Or maybe it was Creed’s “We should start our own mall.” Which isn’t that funny, I know, but Creed makes everything way funnier than it should be.
  • I drove through Scranton on my way across the country this summer, and was excited to see a sign for the Steamtown Mall: realizing that places which seem fictional are actually real is always fun.

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