On the one hand, “Viewing Party” is made for me: As someone who watches (and reviews) Glee and is intrigued by the process of how we watch television, having the entire office get together to watch an episode of the series was like critical catnip. I’d love to spend this entire review theorizing on the ways in which this episode merges reality with the show’s universe (in that the characters’ reaction to the episode fails to match the episode onscreen) and how the show’s cultural cachet matches up with the Office’s general pop-culture-related behavior (like Kelly’s Biggest Loser finale party), but I know that you’re not here to read that.
You’re here to read about “Viewing Party” as an episode of The Office, and on that level it indulges in some of Michael’s most frustrating behavioral traits without any real context or justification. While there are some fun elements relating to the viewing party, and the episode makes decent use of transferring the office community into this different space, Michael’s behavior fits into a pattern which failed to speak to last week’s developments and regressed the character solely for the purpose of exaggerating his episode-ending realization. And so, while I may be the perfect audience for parts of the episode, I’m likely the worst audience for its A-story.
Like “Sex Ed,” this is a Michael story wherein a large collection of unfortunate behaviors is capped off with a moment of sincerity: After spending the entire episode hating on Gabe based entirely on the sudden realization that Gabe is his boss, ostracizing himself from the group, and then cutting off the cable, Michael suddenly realizes that he is like a father figure to Erin and that she wants his approval because she has no one else to turn to. (If you remember, Erin was raised in foster care with her brother.) I like that conclusion, albeit with the caveat that the whole play-father/daughter thing creeped me out a bit for some reason, but this strategy of having Michael single-mindedly act like a jerk, only to have that be wiped away by a redemptive moment is something I find a bit cheap. This wasn’t an arc; this was Michael acting like a jerk before having an epiphany, and it remains a narrative structure I do not find particularly insightful (or funny, if that’s the metric I should be using).
However, I don’t want to dwell on that: I’ve written about it in the past, and the more it happens, the more I look forward to the day in which Michael is gone so I have something new to rant about. Perhaps I can complain about the broadness of Andy’s humor, and how it seems stale after “Niagara,” but it at least resulted in some fun interactions (Creed’s ability to read Chinese, Gabe and his soundscape in the tag). Also, it connected more successfully to ongoing storylines, as Phyllis helps him address Erin’s relationship with Gabe in a nice bit of camaraderie, while Darryl gets to offer some support in the form of hypothetically imagining whom he would choose were he a girl. These are small scenes, but they are what inform and lead Andy’s behavior, and so I can accept that more than I can accept Michael’s behavior (as I thought they rushed into why, precisely, Michael was reacting in this moment).
Similarly, I thought Dwight as baby whisperer was successful in that it stayed true to the office dynamic. While Michael’s feud with Gabe seemed as if it was heightened for the sake of comedy, Pam and Jim’s struggle with the idea that Dwight would be the solution to their parenting problems rang true. Pam, ever the opportunist (right down to falling into a new position), just wants to get some sleep; Jim, Dwight’s mortal enemy, struggles to deal with his demands. The situation was something that would only happen in this setting, but the way it played out really nicely spoke to the office relationships we know so well. It was also a more grounded version of Dwight than we’re used to seeing, comforting CeCe and showing some vulnerability when it comes to his arrangement with Angela. Even Pam’s conversation with Angela, despite a conversation with one party being naked, ended up saying something about Angela’s love for Dwight and how disappointed she’s going to be to learn he has no such feelings.
And yet, the real highlight here—for this critic at least—was the viewing itself, as the characters fall into some really fun (and familiar) tropes. You have Kelly as the anti-fan who’s really a fan, voicing her frustration with the show and yet proving to be the most panicked when the cable goes out; Phyllis as the new viewer, who asks questions every few seconds; Oscar as the human IMDB, who pauses to explain where you've seen Dianna Agron before; and Jim as the person checking the sports scores during the commercial break. Their panic was about missing out on scenes thanks to Erin failing to set the DVR to record, and their response was getting on their cell phones to try to piece together the episode. Forget that they could watch it on Hulu the next day, or that they could have been recording it at home: Their excitement was “in the moment,” capturing the process of watching television live in a way that really connected with me (and the cold open).
The comparable episode to "Viewing Party" is “E-mail Surveillance,” where Michael discovers that everyone is holding a party at Jim's without him. You have the scenes showing off the host’s room, ongoing storylines reaching key points (including, coincidentally, Dwight and Angela’s sexual activity), and even a closing scene which similarly brings Michael to a particularly positive place (as Jim takes to the mic to sing a duet with him, fitting considering that the Office were watching Glee’s “Duets”). Compared with the christening last week, the laidback and private nature of this party allowed the dynamics to flow, and I thought the non-Michael stuff worked great.
The problem is that Michael’s frustration with the party in “E-mail Surveillance” felt fresh and honest: Michael wasn’t invited and so he crashed the party and responded much as you would expect a self-centered boss to do. Here, Michael was invited to the “Viewing Party,” and Erin even went out of her way to make him feel welcome. That he was still a complete jerk, even with Gabe doing nothing to directly insult him but taking control of the remote, is not justified by a positive ending: The beginning needed to be stronger, and the laziness with which the show deploys the most unlikeable version of its central character continues to perplex me.
- Strong cold open this week: No, it wasn’t all that funny, but I liked how its investigation of viewing culture (including Jim’s description of why live viewings of news events like the Scranton Strangler are something we value as a society) so nicely transitioned into the Glee viewing in the episode. No narrative continuity, but the thematic continuity was strong.
- Loved the opening walk and talk—I’m going to presume that it was an homage to The West Wing, as it really had that show’s rhythm to it, but it was pretty effective (and clever, for Michael).
- Erin is too stupid to know just about every turn of phrase in the English language, but she realizes that Michael was the one to turn off the cable? If you say so!
- “Just say copies. Why do you have to drag cats into this?”
- “No, I bet he’s wishing he was strangling someone!”
- “Do you know who my favorite character is? The invalid.”
- “There’s this thing on Glee called mash-up where two things that don’t go together make one great song. Take Gabe; take Michael; you make GaMike. Best friends.”
- “Thirst: Now there’s a show I’d watch.”
- “And what was with Jesse’s sudden turn on Rachel between “Dream On” and “Funk?” Where the heck did that come from?” Well, because of the choice to air “Theatricality” during May sweeps, the narrative was … oh, wait, Kelly can’t hear me.
- “Which one’s Glee?”
- “All I know is that if I was a girl, and had a choose between a tall dude who loved Asia and a you-lookin’ dude who loved sweaters and … wearing sweaters, I’d choose you. And I’d blow your mind.”
- “Okay, they did 'Blinded by the Light' and they did it with an actual blind guy.”
- “I wanted to eat a pig in a blanket in a blanket.”