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The Office: "Money"

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The Office

"Money"

Season 4, Episode 4

Last week, a reader commented that Michael Scott seemed headed for a full-on nervous breakdown this season. After tonight's episode, I'm considering transforming this blog into an unofficial Michael Scott suicide watch. In both its American and British versions, the show has the potential to be both hilariously funny and unrelentingly bleak, sometimes at the same time, but tonight's episode was less funny ha-ha than funny-devastatingly sad.

Written and directed by Paul Lieberstein, the sad-eyed Eeyore of The Office universe, tonight's televisual downer found Michael and Dwight both plunging deep into harrowing downward spirals. A particularly beaten-down Michael–he could barely muster up the energy to make terrible jokes and/or offensive comments–pretended to be going to improv class but was actually engaged in an activity even more soul-crushingly depressing: a second job as a telemarketer.

Dwight, meanwhile is coping with his break-up with Angela in the worst possible way, regularly letting out sorrowful wails that seem to emanate from somewhere deep at the core of his being. The scene where Jim tries to console Dwight with his own history of romantic anguish with Pam was a profoundly touching moment of genuine human connection, uncommon in television in general but especially unexpected in a sitcom. Dwight feels less and less like a caricature–albeit a very funny, clever caricature–with each passing week. Despair is really humanizing Dwight, who tonight played perhaps the most melancholy recorder passage in television history. If The Office keeps going in this lonesome direction, it might as well adopt Zoloft as its sole sponsor.

Michael's story was equally sad and equally touching. The only thing worse than being reduced to telemarketing is failing miserably at a job that's probably beneath your dignity to begin with. By the end of tonight's funeral parade of comic despair, Michael was ready to run away from his mountain of debt and wildly unfulfilling personal and professional life and embrace the carefree vagabond existence of a hobo. It's good to know that I'm not the only person who nurses hobo fantasies and/or fantasies about hobos.

One of the things that makes Michael such a resonant, strangely sympathetic character is that he is in many ways still a child, with a child's myopic, overly dramatic view of a world they don't understand. So while there are moments in every episode that make you think "no sane human being could reasonably say or do that"–like Michael's belief that declaring bankruptcy is simply a matter of saying "bankruptcy" really loud or that he can outrun his creditors as long as he stays "off the grid"–his behavior makes sense if you figure he probably had the emotional maturity of an ADD-addled ten-year-old.

Though short on belly laughs, I thought tonight's episode had the emotional heft of a great short story. It used the time and space of an hour-long episode to explore all sorts of grim little corners of the Office world, from Dwight's beet farm/agro-tourism hot spot to Stanley's home life rocking the sweats, drinking red wine, and watching his "mystery stories." I'm still excited about the return of the half-hour Office, but I'm really enjoying the dark, sad sustained tone of this year's episodes.

Grade: A-

Stray Observations -What woman can resist moonwalking? Certainly not Lisa Marie Presley or any of those women Michael Jackson paid to marry him. -Which is ultimately sadder, Dunder-Mifflin or the telemarketing company? -I liked that Michael imagines that India is some sort of fantastical wonderland where people can adopt and discard new identities at will. -Jenna Fischer has a really nice back. -Is there a sadder parting line than a mechanically delivered "Don't forget to disinfect your headset." -Could Jim and Pam get any happier? I think not. They were just about the only thing keeping this episode from drowning in existential ennui.

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