The fifth season of The Office presented a master class in how a venerable sitcom can remain lively and relevant without resorting to wedding after wedding after wedding (though I have it on good authority that Meredith will marry the Great Gazoo and/or Troy McClure at some point this season). Jim and Pam’s relationship deepened as it headed inexorably towards the wedding chapel, mean old Charles Miner presided over some of Dunder-Mifflin’s darkest days, Michael Scott went into business for himself and everything went triumphantly back to normal during the season finale.
Tonight our television buddies over at Dunder-Mifflin returned after a Summer hiatus with a premise that’s powered countless Office episodes. Michael Scott, in his tireless bid to be one of the gang, or the head of the gang, commits an incredibly stupid faux pas, then tries to fix the mess in a way that makes everything worse. He's a genius at discovering cures worse than any disease.
In this case, Michael feels left out when everyone knows that two of the Summer interns are dating except him. Information is power and Michael feels awfully powerless so when he stumbles upon an even juicier bit of gossip—Stanley might be cheating on his wife—he decides to disseminate this information far and wide. Never one to let well enough alone, Michael asks Stanley directly if he’s been cheating on his wife.
When Stanley confesses to adultery Michael decides that the only way to atone for his lie and keep Stanley out of trouble is by lying so extensively and spreading so many untruths that the office will assume that everything he’s said is a lie, including his initial revelation about Stanley’s unfaithfulness.
The twist is that some of Michael’s far-flung fibs are true, or at least contain kernels of truth. Some are transparently, hilariously implausible—like his contention that Kevin is actually a curious puppet-creature with a midget inside him controlling the outer shell through a series of pulleys and levers—but some hit uncomfortably close to home, like telling people that Pam is pregnant and Andy is gay.
Hearing through the office grapevine that he’s gay causes Andy to question his sexuality. Andy honestly doesn’t seem to know whether or not he’s gay, though he drops hints that he has far more reason to doubt his heterosexuality than he previously led on. A shadowy figure known only as “Broccoli Rob” seems to have some clues concerning what Encyclopedia Brown might dub The Case of Andy Bernard’s Possible Homosexuality but he’s not available so Andy asks Oscar if he’s gay.
Oscar scores some of the episode’s biggest laughs through his deadpan under reaction to the absurdity of Andy dreaming up a scenario in which Brad Pitt desperately tries to seduce him—Andy’s fantasy, er, theoretical Pitt is not easily discouraged—and Michael spreading the blasphemous rumor that Oscar is actually the voice of the spokesdog for Taco Bell.
Michael’s fiendish plot to cover up an unwisely spilled truth with an avalanche of ridiculous lies predictably spirals out of control. Michael is climactically confronted by his employees, at which point Jim and Pam fall on their collective sword by claiming that the “one truth” Michael has alluded to is Pam's pregnancy rather than Stanley’s infidelity.
Tonight’s episode felt so airy and inconsequential that it was easy to overlook how it advanced the story arcs of Jim/Pam and Andy.
Stanley always struck me as an asexual type who’d rather watch his stories, drink his red wine and soak in the tub after a long day of sitting and glowering than chase women so the infidelity plotline felt unconvincing and some of Michael’s lies veered into sci-fi, like his conception of Kevin as a human Muppet. Tonight’s episode had a casual disregard for verisimilitude but emotionally it felt authentic.
I particularly liked the way the news of Pam’s pregnancy brought out the worst in some of her co-workers. Meredith delights in the idea of cute, cheerful Pam weighed down with babies and responsibilities. “She’s gonna hate being a mom,” Meredith coos happily, not-so-secretly psyched that someone will soon share the unimaginable torment of motherhood while Ryan seems to treasure the toll motherhood will enact on Pam’s body.
Tonight’s episode only felt delightfully inconsequential. From a pitch-perfect cold open rich in physical comedy to an amusing subplot involving the intern’s Sisyphus-like existences, tonight was a breezy, consistently funny return from an old favorite. I remain, uncharacteristically, deeply optimistic.
—Speaking of deadpan under-reaction, I loved Toby’s perplexed response to Michael’s attempts to paint him as a virgin
—It looks like Ellie Kemper (the cute new secretary) is going to be a regular. Neat.
—“I don’t want to walk down the aisle and have people say, ‘there goes the fancy whore’”
—“And that is what makes (Spartacus) such a great whodunit!”
—“There’s nothing that can be done. We just have to tell everyone and hope for the best I guess.”
—“One of you will do quite well in business, just unlimited potential. One of you will make a living and nothing more. And one of you will make a great mother.”
—“You’re gonna regret that when you find yourself between a moose and her cubs at night.”
—“What are you guys talking about? I have a daughter. How can I be a virgin?”
—“Who’s been saying there’s another person inside of me, working me with controls?”
—Welcome back, guys and gals. I look forward to sharing another season of The Office with y’all.