NBC's The Office has defied early pooh-poohing from devotees of the British original (and early indifference from everyone else) to become a critical hit and an anchor of NBC's lineup. But the first few episodes of the show's fourth season have been slack and unsteady enough to make fans wonder: Are we watching the fourth good season of The Office, or the first bad one?
We believe that the show's new long format is to blame. The season has kicked off with several hourlong episodes, the fourth of which airs tonight. In seasons past, each 22-minute episode has been a model of comedic restraint. Easy jokes were avoided. Funny ones landed swiftly and moved on to make room for the next. Rather than encouraging actors to mug and showboat, the camera paused briefly on subtle glances and smirks. Mindy Kaling, who writes for the show and plays the ditzy customer-service rep Kelly Kapoor, told Rolling Stone that The Office is a show without "chuffa"—a writers'-room term for "filler that seems like it's funny but isn't really a joke."
The hourlong episodes make us wonder if there's a word for "filler that seems like a joke but isn't really funny." This season has produced a few great gags: The best, perhaps, has the officemates passing time in a dull meeting by placing bets on whether the logo of a DVD screensaver will ever alight in the exact corner of the TV screen. But we've also seen too many broad jokes that skewer easy targets: Gift baskets? Business lingo? Cat ladies?
If it's the new length that's at fault, fans should be relieved: The Office returns to its half-hour format next week, and perhaps we'll forget all about this disappointing debut. But some other changes this season suggest the show's problems may linger like the last jelly doughnut in the box.
The first is the coupling of Pam and Jim. After three seasons of whetting our appetite, The Office finally served us our PB & J sandwich. But not before teasing us just a bit more. Those who thought the fourth season might open with a glimpse of the dinner date arranged during last year's finale were sorely disappointed. Instead, it began with a halfhearted charade: Pam and Jim are just friends, and it's up to Kevin (who put the PB & J thing together), and the documentary crew, to prove otherwise.
The game of cat-and-mouse was mercifully short—Pam and Jim are caught necking in her sensible Toyota Yaris 36 minutes into Episode 1. It's telling, though, that the writers put off showing us the happy couple. Also telling is the scene in Episode 2, when Jim and Pam deadpan that the magic is gone now that their secret is out. Some of the magic was bound to evaporate once they finally got together, but it's been surprising just how unsatisfying the honeymoon has been. For every good scene—Pam telling Jim that she knew she liked him when he warned her about some expired mixed-berry yogurt—there's been one that has felt more saccharine than genuine. Come on, would they really embrace bureaucracy and ask Toby if they should sign one of those love-declaration documents?
PB & J are a disappointment for those of us who saw the couple as a worthy successor to Ross and Rachel, NBC's will-they-or-won't-they couple of yore. But their relationship is also a bad sign for the show. Jim and Pam's thwarted love gave The Office a narrative arc that transcended the episode-to-episode hijinks of the other Dunderheads. Pam and Jim provided emotional ballast for a show that has always been in danger of keeling over into the absurd. Now, especially with these first episodes running to the hour, the show feels adrift and, at times, pointless. When Michael finally learns that Jim and Pam are together, he malaprops that "this is a day that will live in infamy." Let's hope that doesn't turn out to be the case.
One bright spot lies in the emerging love triangle between Dwight, Angela, and Andy. At first, the breakup of Dwight and Angela's supposedly under-wraps relationship seemed ill-advised. Dwight and Angela's trysts had been a welcome counterpoint to Pam and Jim's prolonged courtship, but their bickering over Angela's dead cat this season has been about as funny as, well, a dead dog. Last week, however, Andy emerged as a legitimate suitor, making an inspired play for Angela's attentions by performing "Take a Chance on Me" a capella and with accompaniment via speakerphone. The stunt earned him one of those furtive smiles Angela used to reserve for Dwight—and a not so furtive one from Slate.There's promise here.
There's less promise in Ryan Howard's promotion to Dunder Mifflin's corporate office. At first glance, this seemed like a genius move. Offloading the temp-turned-MBA jackass from The Office's primary setting would free up space for underutilized secondary characters (we love you, Kevin!) while banishing the least interesting one to a supporting role. Turns out that was wishful thinking. A newly bestubbled, technobabbling Ryan is hogging screen time, and it's ruining the show.
Ryan was always The Office's thinnest character. In the first two seasons, he served as a walking reaction shot. As the butt of Michael's pranks and a leg attached to Kelly Kapoor's ball and chain, he did little more than stand off to the side and look aloof. Moving Ryan from tempdom to B-school to the corporate office hasn't added to his single dimension. B.J. Novak, the actor who plays Ryan (and is also one of the show's writers and producers), has simply shifted from blankness to smugness.
The new Ryan has a cocksure attitude and a new suit to match, but he still can't generate laughs. (OK, he did have one good line this season: "People keep calling me a wunderkind. I don't even know what that means. I mean, I know what it means. It means very successful for your age.") It doesn't help that the character's story line—building a snazzy new Web site called Dunder Mifflin Infinity—seems so dated that it could've been a plotline on Murphy Brown. But by far the bigger problem is his relationship with Steve Carrell's Michael Scott.
The rapport between the buffoonish Michael and the buttoned-down, easily exasperated Jan Levinson was one of the show's high points. It was delightful to watch as her irritation became tinged first with grudging respect, then sexual attraction. Now, with Jan conked out on Michael's bed, it's up to Ryan to dress him down. Ryan can do exasperation, but that's all he can do. He's perpetually annoyed, so when Michael bugs him, he just furrows his brow a bit more. We liked it better when Jan was on top. Among other things, it made Michael's "that's what she said" lines seem less forced.
NBC finally has a hit on its hands, but now the network is giving the audience too much of what it wants—Jim and Pam together, Michael acting infantile, Dwight killing innocent animals, Ryan being a villain. It's true that the hourlong episodes make the problems we've enumerated seem more glaring. But they're problems all the same. Will the show return to form next week when it goes back to the half-hour format? That would be awesome.