The camera doesn’t lie. It highlights our faults, picks up our weaknesses, and records events we’d rather not remember. Sure, there’s always the chance that the most unflattering footage will be discarded or taped over—but there’s an equivalent chance that someone with the knowhow and free time can splice our worst moments together into a montage of humiliation. Anyone who goes before a professional camera crew is agreeing to these facts, consenting to hand control of their previously undocumented life to directors and editors who will remove all the boring bits and shape the narrative they deem most interesting. Ostensibly, the employees of Dunder Mifflin signed a legally binding document saying as much before The Documentarians began shooting; it’s not for nothing that such a form is referred to as a “release.”
“Promos” is the story of those characters coming to the belated realization that they’ve released a lot in the last nine seasons. (Which is 10 years in the show’s own timeline, according to Pam’s conversation with Brian The Boom-Mic Guy.) For better or worse, they’ve given away hundreds of hours of private moments. They’ve been caught having sex (or caught in the moments immediately before or after having sex), shared highly personal information with total strangers, and been filmed in various states of intoxication. But three of those employees got free wedding videos out of the deal, so maybe this isn’t quite the Faustian bargain I’m making it out to be.
Tonight’s episode represents a tipping point for The Office, possibly erasing the line that’s been the source of the show’s humor since Michael Scott’s first line. These characters have always recognized that they’re on camera; only now are they gaining the self-awareness to know they’ve often acted like buffoons. If bringing Brian into the fray was the first step toward making the “documentary” aspects of The Office a plot point, “Promos” is the episode where the show becomes almost entirely about the documentary. Rather than delving immediately into the big questions—Who’s been playing up idiosyncrasies to get more screen time? Is anyone in cahoots with The Documentarians? etc.—the mass epiphany plays to a default Dunder Mifflin mode: Panic.
The more a character has to lose, the better this hysteria plays: Angela and Oscar, whose indiscretions could blow up a sham marriage and a legit political career, are on the precipice of disaster. Their voicemail for Senator Lipton is the funniest part of the episode, a testament to the last great comedy team to emerge from The Office’s bench, Angela Kinsey and Oscar Nuñez. This isn’t a farce of keeping up appearances—it’s a tragicomedy of lies collapsing in on lies, and the alliance that it’s forged throughout season nine has proven a reliable source of laughs. Both characters should be smart enough to realize they’re documented adulterers—Oscar’s awareness of this fact kicked off my favorite episode the ninth season, “The Target”—but it’s worth suspending disbelief just to see Angela mask a conversation using Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA.”
When disaster strikes, it sends everyone scrambling—and that scrambling is more content than “Promos” can contain within a half-hour timeslot. The panic gives the episode its dramatic spine; the comedy branches out to little pockets like Angela and Oscar’s plot or Andy’s futile battle with Internet trolls. In the meantime, those scenes have to fight for screentime with the latest development at Athlead and Dwight’s tractor-aided (and nearly tractor-hindered) courtship of Esther. It’s here where the episode gets into trouble, because the clutter forces some whiplash turns in Pam’s storyline, which is the thread that should have the greatest impact on “Promos.”
I’m still trying to parse out the trip this episode takes Pam on, which is less an emotional roller coaster and more akin to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride: A winding, herky-jerky endeavor that throws multiple obstacles in her way, all of which she veers around at the very last second. And in the end, she comes out where she went in, just a little more flushed, having gone from Point A (The spark in her marriage is fading into memory) to Point B (That spark is immortalized, having been documented in great detail) in record time. She’s upset about how much time has passed since she shared that rooftop dinner with Jim, she wants to know how much of her life (along with those of her colleagues) has been recorded—when she finds out The Documentarians have filmed pretty much everything that’s happened at Dunder Mifflin since the mid-’00s, she’s pleased to know that she and Jim are the promo-ready highlight of the project.
That’s how it makes the most sense to me, at least. That opening phone call with Jim could only lead to a meeting with Brian The Boom-Mic Guy, possibly with an ulterior motive. That all evaporates when Brian admits to the documentary’s loosey-goosey approach to privacy—but, if we’re being honest, Pam should’ve already known that. If The Documentarians were outside the delivery while she gave birth to Cece, every intimate detail of her life that’s unfolded within the office (and plenty that took place without) was fair game. Upset by the perceived deception, she then takes solace in the few moments she can confirm have made it into The Office: An American Workplace, moments like she and Jim splitting a pair of earbuds at the end of “The Client.”
It’s too bad “Promos” has to rush through that realization, because it’s moments like that, no matter how private, that get at one of the ultimate truths of The Office: These characters are in love, and they have been in love, and they’ve never been able to hide it from The Documentarians. If the funny bone of the series is located in the disparity between how the characters think they look and how we see them, then we can find the heart every time perception and reality sync up. You can see that in miniature in Dwight and Clark’s plot in “Promos,” after Esther demonstrates that she’s not playing Dwight for a new family tractor. There are games of deception played in this episode, and there are people whose personalities change whenever the camera is trained on them. But the camera itself is always truthful, and we’ve been watching The Office long enough to recognize when it picks up unvarnished honesty—and when it’s pointed at a performance that’s just running out the clock. Unfortunately for “Promos,” it mostly picks up the latter.
- As pointed out by The A.V. Club’s Myles McNutt, The Office: An American Workplace is set to air on Scranton’s PBS affiliate, WVIA. To me, that implies the final show-within-the-show is geared less toward making viewers laugh—fitting for the dramatic turns of this last season.
- Missing from the epilogue, only because it was cut for time, hopefully: “And that was the last anyone ever heard from Brian The Boom-Mic Guy.”
- Was it just me, or does it seem like the promo only covered the first three seasons? Maybe there’s a backlog a footage still being edited, and what we’re watching right now is actually airing six years in the future.
- Is the “I didn’t know they were filming” reaction the first time every character in a scene has done a take to camera?
- In the Danish cut of the documentary, Kevin is known as “Dumpster Man”—a marked step down from Kool-Aid Man.
- At Schrute Farms, if someone tells you to stick something where the sun don’t shine, they might be referring to the shady grove out by Willard’s Pond.
- Erin jumps to a reasonable conclusion about Esther and her family: “I think they’re from the forest where we harvest our paper.”