Just as The Office once hinged on the relationship between Michael Scott and his mostly unwilling flock, so it depended deeply on the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Jim and Pam. Now Michael Scott has moved on, his replacement sailed away, and the relationship that the show spent years teasing, prodding, and every so slowly pushing into place is a done deal. Rather than relegate Jim and Pam to the background of this ensemble comedy or give them a series of quotidian issues to deal with, the last season of The Office has been pulling Jim and Pam apart, and much more quickly than it drew them together. Their problems of distance and dissatisfaction are based more in the painfully realistic tone of earlier seasons and, to those of us who’ve grown attached to the idea of their happy connection in a banal world, it is worrying. In “Lice” their issues feel more daunting than ever, and since they are in fact one of those couples that is better together than they are apart, the separation seems to bring out the worst in them.
Pam falls back into her meek, early-series self, refusing to admit to Jim that she is fed up of caring for their two daughters alone while he is off nurturing his new baby, the unfortunately named Athlead. Jenna Fischer does a great job of supporting Jim with her words while conveying bubbling rage and resentment with her eyes. She goes through the motions, claiming Jim is “under a lot of pressure today,” with barely contained sarcasm, the very beginnings of a Liz Lemon, “oh brother,” eye roll just starting to show. Later on, Pam is even afraid to come clean to Meredith that she is the one who infected the office with lice, a confession with even lower stakes than the one she can’t make to her husband. Jim, meanwhile, is giddy with delight at meeting his basketball hero, and has never been less appealing. It is intermittently shown that Jim approaches his job with an ironically arched brow not because he is actually above it all but because his own middling success frustrates him. If, as Erik Adams suggested in his review of “The Boat” Dwight appears ambitious but is really a natural born follower, Jim appears aloof in order to mask the sting of what he considers to be failure, secretly yearning for conventional success. In this episode he is starting to receive some job perks, and man, he could not be more of a smug douche about it, smirking while mouthing the word “limo,” to the camera and going through the motions with Pam as much as she is with him. The Seinfeld-wannabe cold open about how much it sucks to bite your lip and then continue to bite your lip reduces Jim to a jittery, sulking child; no wonder Pam is getting tired of backing him up.
Meanwhile, the same situations that force Jim and Pam to confront their flaws reveal the overlooked strengths of a couple of less prominent characters. Unlikely heroes emerge. It was really gratifying to see the perennially hapless Erin, who has started to stand up for herself a bit in recent episodes, take charge of the lice infestation armed only with the experience of a childhood in foster care and the pluck of lil Orphan Annie. Then there is Meredith, whose promiscuous ways have spawned many hilarious one-liners over the years but never come into focus for an entire episode. Meredith’s coworkers immediately assume she’s the source of the lice because she’s “dirty,”but she couldn't care less about their judgement, owning the sluttery, wearing every criticism hurled at her like a badge of honor, and dispensing with Erin’s four hour mayonnaise application in favor of crushing the lice immediately by shaving her head. Even better, despite Angela’s claim that bald Meredith is a monster, she seems to draw power from her shiny pate, Kate Flannery’s face more expressive and elastic than ever.
Shaking up Jim and Pam’s relationship also gives the show an opportunity to pair them up with buddies they might otherwise have never spent time with. This whole season has been punctuated by unusual, shifting friend configurations, like an extended, slow burn version of that alternate universe arc that long-running shows sometimes do to reward fans with a delicious peek into a collection of their most burning “what ifs.” “What if Felicity had chosen Noel instead of Ben? What if Monica had never lost the weight on Friends?” Without actually creating a dream sequence or some random sci-fi twist, The Office has been asking questions like, what if Jim went out to a lobster lunch with Phyllis and Stanley? What if Pam and Dwight put their energy towards a common goal and realized that they are in fact friends? “Lice” asks, what if Meredith and Pam went out for beers and karaoke? Besides the sheer novelty of this pairing, Meredith noticing that Pam is struggling, and caring despite being made to take the fall for her, then bonding with her over being a mother, is touching. It also proves once more that Meredith, who doesn’t judge and doesn’t hold a grudge, is a badass. That dirty bird has the chutzpah Pam needs at this low point in her confidence, and the two bring the house down singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
The idea of complicating the central romance, of building strange and sudden new friendships, are counterintuitive strategies for a show in its last season, but given the sensitive group dynamic of the Dunder Mifflin team, it makes sense. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t work quite as well as a whole. There are two categories of pan-office disruption scenarios on this show; one in which the gang invents a diversion out of boredom (i.e. caption contest, impromptu pie quest) and one in which they are diverted by an absurd set of circumstances beyond their control (rabid bat, extreme fire drill gone horribly awry). “Lice” is a classic example of the latter, and like others of its ilk produces strong moments of both poignance and humor throughout the episode, not to mention some super one liners (I’m not gonna lie - lye!” Dwight offers as a solution to the pesky critters). For example, the incident becomes a courtship ritual when Erin gets hot and bothered over Pete shaping his mayonnaise-laden hair into an Elvis ‘do, and even more so when he whips off his shirt so he won’t get wet when she washes the lice corpses out of his hair. Or how Angela buddies up with Oscar to scare him, first simply fixing a look of restrained malice on him, then things devolving into a brief moment of light water-boarding.
Unfortunately, however, there are just too many narrative threads. Besides conveying the fact that Jim is beginning to neglect his family, his scenes playing basketball with Julius Erving don’t go anywhere. The storyline of the un-contaminated workers who are banished to the warehouse for safety is infinitely less amusing than that of their mayonnaise-encrusted compatriots. Some odd bits - Darryl trying to convince Val to break up with him without her catching on to the fact, and Dwight’s insane hatred of lice resulting in the accidental deployment of a hallucinogenic insecticide - are fine ideas that get lost in the shuffle. These pieces don't have the emotional or humorous payoff to justify their inclusion. While at times the writers of The Office are at their best when when dealing with the challenge of interweaving the stories of a dozen odd people, here it was the little twosome, the beginning of the beautiful friendship between Pam and Meredith, that carried the day.
- Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of redheads on this show? Half of the women of The Office (Nellie, Erin, Meredith) are now redheads. Or, one third of the women on the show are redheads, given that Meredith is now bald.
- Although Nellie wasn’t given much to do in the grand scheme of “Lice,” she delivered her two comic beats with aplomb. First, she shares her break up strategy with Darryl: “Large amounts of shepherd’s pie and Brandi. The singer, not the drink.” You can just imagine her going through a CD rack and breaking out the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack that everyone else sold to Tower Records ten years ago.Then she pulls of a slightly unhinged mini-monologue on life’s gradual disappointments that starts with advice about not letting a nice guy get away, and ends with her strangling a bird to death while in a state of blacked out depression.
- Darryl’s sudden desire to be done with Val was surprising. Not every romance is meant to last forever and it is good for a pseudo-realistic show to try and reflect that, but considering how Darryl pined for and then pursued this women, breaking up her relationship with a nice man who could bring her some of the best take out in the Scranton area every day - that’s not something you do for just anybody.
- Thanks to Erik Adams for letting me fill in, he'll be back to his old tricks next week!