The Office: Season Two Review
Here’s a curious thing. On the cover of this DVD set there’s a quote from the Boston Globe which proclaims this second season of NBC’s The Office “Painfully funny!” I was well into the second disc of episodes before spotting the review and it came as a bit of a surprise. Oh yeah, I thought, this is meant to be toe-curlingly embarrassing, meant to send a collective shiver of horror down the spines of us viewers. It was something on watching the first half dozen episodes I’d completely forgotten - not because it’s not a bad series (it is, indeed, a very good show) but possibly because we Brits are now so used to the comedy of embarrassment that we have become virtually inoculated to its more excruciating effects. In the second series of Ricky Gervais’ follow-up to The Office, Extras it now takes David Bowie singing a very public ode to the sell-out of Gervais’ character Andy Millman to make us wince and look away, whereas one was constantly on the edge of one’s seat during David Brent’s first onscreen adventures with almost every little thing he did or said. I would argue that it is entirely possible to watch this entire season of the US version of Gervais’ hit without once wanting to grab one of the characters and shake them hard screaming “What the hell are you doing? Wake up and smell the faux pas!” and, while social embarrassment for the characters are still the central point for much of the comedy the fact some are largely unaware of what they are doing makes it far easier to laugh at them without feeling that twinge of regret for the fact they are so blissfully unaware. We felt for Millman because he was fully aware of what he had done, how low he had sunk in a desperate attempt to be popular and we as an audience could see that; whereas with the American David Brent, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, we only catch very rare glimpses of his façade crumbling, so complete is his self-delusion. We can thus laugh at him without guilt.
I spent a fair amount of time in my review of the first season of the US Office comparing the British and American versions, and if one still compares the two the British version still reigns supreme. However, with this second season such comparisons are rendered if not entirely void then certainly of no great concern. The very different demands of a UK and US television season means that the US version has become a substantially different beast to its progenitor, moving away from the delicately plotted, finely balanced masterpiece of nuance that made the original the series it was to one that takes advantage of its extended length, broadening out its style so that more ideas and storylines can be running without fear of upsetting the central relationships the show is built on. A necessary transformation - one suspects twenty-two episodes of a Gervais Office with its narrower focus would end up being rather wearying - but also a natural one, as the show gains in confidence about what it is and feels able to establish its own identity. Length is one reason, giving particularly the secondary characters far more chance to grow and shine; whereas in the UK version the subtlest glances painting a complete picture, this show has the opportunity to build up running themes in the background and ultimately make them more explicit, stories such as Meredith’s alcoholism, Creed’s shady background and Oscar’s secret homosexuality, something which benefits the series and builds up far more characters for the writers to play with. There as many laughs to be had from seeing the nervous but resolute Toby facing down yet another Michael Scott initiative disaster, or the regal Stanley putting his boss in his place with quiet yet authoritative dignity as there are from a Dwight pratfall or Jim practical joke.
In many ways, these are not so much characters you would expect to see in an office than in an American high school. All the stereotypes are there: - with the boys, there’s the Funny One, the Creepy One, the Sex-Obsessed one and, in Scott, the self-deluded bully boy sneak, complete with his own obsequious number two Dwight who he treats like shit, while with the girls you have the Sweet Pretty One all the other girls are secretly envious of, the Prissy One, the Wallflower and so on. What with the games of Keep-Away, the petty rivalries, the virginal flirting and so on it’s very easy to close one’s eyes and find that this is not so much the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin as Degrassi High, a parallel entirely intentional. This is a world in which minor disagreement can flare up to become the most important thing in the universe, in which one little misdemeanour becomes a defining characteristic (see Ryan’s attempt not to define himself, only to inadvertently become “The Fire Guy”) and in which figures of authority are either to be respected or laughed at. At the centre of it all is the biggest baby of all, Michael Scott, a man who craves love and recognition but consistently shoots himself in the foot by his selfish and self-obsessed behaviour and it’s no surprise that he only really emphasises with those even less emotionally mature than him - hello Dwight - or with children themselves. When he was young he had no friends (as shown in one of the truly poignant moments of the series) and now as an adult he tries to use his position of authority to force people to like him, forgetting the lesson Chandler discovered in an episode of Friends years ago (which I caught on E4 the other day), the one that says the boss just can’t be pals with his underlings no matter how hard he tries. Jan, his own superior, is far more liked by those who work for her simply because she doesn’t try.
Because each character is defined in this almost one-dimensional way, the style of each episode is largely similar. Michael tries to get something done, the rest of the office stare at him in bewildered disbelief (aside from Dwight who applauds enthusiastically), Jim flirts with Pam and picks on Dwight, and the secondary characters act as almost a Greek chorus to proceedings. Admittedly, that’s a bit of a generalisation but it’s certainly true that once one gets the set-up of what a particular story is about it’s very easy to anticipate how each will react to any given situation. The main humour comes from that dynamic at work, both our familiarity with the characters and the happy slap-on-the-head as we think “Oh here we go again!” as we watch things play out, a style of comedy that over the past few years has slowly grown more popular on American television. Neither the cosy fantasy world of a traditional “filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience” sitcom such as Cheers or Will and Grace nor close to the hyper-real approach if Curb Your Enthusiasm it is instead most akin to a classy animated show, one in which the characters can behave in slightly exaggerated yet completely recognisable ways with a good dose of real-life sentiment thrown in for a fuller picture.
The first show that really had this style was Malcolm in the Middle, a comedy I never really liked as I found none of the characters remotely sympathetic. That’s where The Office is superior; while Scott, Dwight et al are slightly heightened versions of characters one runs into every day we still believe in them because they are invested with an emotional realism. It is that which raises it above both the studio-audience-based shows and its animated forebears; it’s far easier to feel sympathy seeing a flesh-and-blood person hurting than a drawing. I’m a huge fan of King of the Hill, another show Greg Daniels Executive Produces and which shares some of the style of this, but I’ve never felt close to the same level of empathy for the Hills as I did for Jim yearning after Pam in the last few episodes. The documentary style, in which the characters talk and look directly at us through the camera lens, makes us complicit in their affairs, and whether this is just a joke (such as Kevin’s frequent grins when he’s just done or said something naughty) or a pained confession it brings the world they live in to life, especially when the character is trying to avoid saying something like, like Jim’s pained non-confessions of his love for Pam or Michael’s self-deluded attempts to cheer himself up via presenting a brave face to us. From the beginning of time dramatists have recognised the soliloquy as a way of drawing their audiences in; here is its latest manifestation and, unlike the numerous cinematic mockumentaries we’ve seen over the years, the extended amount of time we get to spend with these people ensure there is developed a far deeper relationship with them than an hour and a half can attest. There is a believability in the emotional background of these people, not just in the various romances but also in such details as the way Michael feels himself backed into a corner when buying his house, which makes the slightly cartoonish characters come alive.
At the heart of it is Steve Carell’s consistently excellent playing of Michael Scott. Although it’s enough praise to say he emerges from Ricky Gervais’ shadow this year and, indeed, makes Scott a completely different character, it’s also worth noting that Carell never succumbs to the temptation of going over the top. The character is grotesque enough that any extra exaggeration would be worthless, and Carell ensures that he never crosses that line. His body language is especially good: note the way he almost never looks someone else directly in the face, as though trying to avoid seeing in their eyes their true contempt for him, only really fixing them with a look when he has just been humiliated in some way (see, again, his run-ins with Toby in the last few episodes). Instead he looks past them, or at the camera, purposefully not seeing what is in front of him in favour of his imaginary kingdom. His partnership with his number two Dwight is great fun too; he and Rainn Wilson work well together, while Wilson himself is the most enthusiastic tight ass you’ll ever see. Dwight, one feels, is a man who is deeply frustrated with the world, a borderline nutter who, one feels, could snap suddenly and end up shooting down everyone else in the office, a muted hysteric. The fact that Michael messes up his life at least twice - once when he shows him up at his martial arts centre, and another when he causes Dwight to resign his proudly-held title of deputy sheriff - adds an uneasy element to proceedings, and again that high school theme emerges, that of the unpopular kid hanging around with bullies and they making him do stuff just so they will tolerate him.
Of his tormentors, early on there’s a danger that Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer) are coming across as a little too smug but this is a feeling that fades away as the season progresses and their fronts are stripped away. It is, indeed, a uniformly excellent cast, with the secondary office personnel (several of whom share the name of their character) making as big a splash as those who appear in the titles sequence. In particular the sinister Creed amuses me, the subtle allusions to a shady past adding a pleasingly sinister piquancy to proceedings. The only character who doesn’t completely work is B J Novak’s Ryan, who works more as a butt to various characters (Scott seems to have an odd crush on him, his on-off girlfriend Kelly is constantly pressuring him to get serious) than an entity in his own right. He’s meant to be the quiet, put-upon one, which is fine, but he ends up more of a cipher than a rounded individual, and his appearances always seems a little more forced than the natural dynamics of the rest of the group.
Novak himself is one of the writers on the show, Paul Lieberstein who plays Toby, is another, and even Carell himself penned the season finale. The writing is consistent throughout. Although each episode is barely twenty minutes long (and, incidentally, how short can half-hour shows get before the adverts become the main attraction on US television and the shows just incidentals between them?) each one is crammed full of gags and ideas. From the small vignettes regarding a particular character such as Jim’s persecution of Dwight (see particularly where Dwight’s desk ends up in one show) or the small observations each of them makes about the others which are always well realised, through to the main stories, there’s very little dead air or duff jokes and much is laugh-out-loud funny. There are even a few high-concept episodes (such as the one in which Dwight gives a speech written by Mussolini to the entire company) and the individual strands of the ongoing plots are nicely woven throughout. If one had a slight criticism to make it’s that the Jim and Pam will-they-won’t-they feels the tiniest bit stretched, encompassing the entire length of the season, and the initial spark of the two romantic entanglements - Jan and Michael and Dwight and Angela - both require a modicum of disbelief. Both, however, once begun develop in entirely natural ways, and there’s a pleasing (and oddly heart-warming irony) in the fact that by the season’s end Michael finds himself in an odd love triangle between Jan and his estate agent (played by Carell’s real life wife)
My one concern for the show is whether it has the legs to continue for an extended number of seasons. It’s not a flexible show; both its characters and situations rely on the status quo being maintained, its entire concept based around the prickly - and static - relationships the characters have with each other. Will it work once those characters develop and change? Surely its very concept is based around the fact nothing changes for year after year? There’s also the danger that those very jokes begin to grow stale. Already by the end of this year characters seem to be in a rhythm - as said, it’s very easy to anticipate how they will react and as a result there are fewer surprises at the end of the year than at the beginning. But this is a problem that (hopefully) will be solved. The series has already come so far in this, its second year, that one can only hope that the writers can continue to develop and find their way through the potential pitfalls. Although it’s not at the very pinnacle of TV comedy yet it occasionally brushes the heights, and I look forward enormously to seeing where it all goes in its third year.
All twenty-two episodes of the season are presented on four dual-layered single-sided DVDs. The discs are held a fold-out case, the sides of which have synopses for all the episodes and which is held in a covering, slide-out case. The four discs each have one of the four main characters on them, and the Main Menus give us a sneak glimpse at the behind of their respective desks, with small animated sections and appropriate sound effects. On putting the first disc in one first has to skip past trailers but fortunately a quick press of the Menu button on your remote will solve the problem.
Each disc holds six episodes aside from the last which holds the final four of the year and the vast majority of the set’s extras. (With the exception of the Deleted Scenes and Commentaries appropriate to each disc’s contents, the only other extra found among the first three is on Face of Scranton on Disc Three). The menus themselves are very pleasingly arranged and very convenient. On the Main Menu itself there are three options: Episode Index, Bonus Features and Languages. The Episode Index lists the episodes on the disc and also includes the option to watch the deleted scenes of each show (although there are no chapter stops for the episodes themselves). The Bonus Features also lists the Deleted Scenes as a separate entity as well as any others, and all submenus are illustrated with static but appropriate backgrounds that work well.
All episodes and extras are subtitled with the exception of the commentaries.
Fine. Skin tones very occasionally look a little pale and there is at times a slight softness of image but overall this is a very nice-looking anamorphic transfer with no significant encoding problems.
It’s a comedy show and as such isn’t something that will astonish your ears or do anything fancy but it’s perfectly fine and does its job with no problems.
Ten episodes come with commentaries, namely The Dundies, Sexual Harassment, The Client, Performance Review, Christmas Party, Booze Cruise, The Secret, Valentine’s Day, Drug Testing and Casino Night. All of these feature a large number of people from the show, both in front and behind the camera including Fischer, Wilson, Daniels and a plethora of writers (no Carell though). They’re okay if a bit noisy (there are at least five commentators per episode, and at least one has ten) with a mixture of onset anecdotes and general appreciation for the show. It would have been nice to have had, say, Daniels and the writers on their own for a couple for a more detailed look at the show but these are fun if chaotic.
Because the episode lengths are so short there’s a large amount of material shot for each show that has to be excised (this is perhaps the only US sitcom today that makes use of the comedy pause, and it uses it extensively). As a result there are an impressively large number of deleted scenes included on these discs. All but a handful run for at least five minutes, with many running for twice that length, and most of the stuff in there is just as good as what ended up in the final cut. Each disc’s deleted scenes have a Play All function which means one can watch six episodes’ worth of material at once, the only problem being that there isn’t any indication given onscreen when one episode’s lot ends and the next begins.
Collection of ten two-minute episodes which were originally posted on NBC.com. Subtitled “The Accountants,” they shine the spotlight on Angela, Kevin and Oscar as they try and hunt down a missing three thousand dollars from the company accounts. Fundamentally a group of sketches, these are amusing and it’s nice to see the secondary characters getting a starring role for once.
Blooper Reel (16:56)
Seventeen minutes of the same sorts of cock-ups every other blooper reel in the world has. Fun I guess, but not half as enjoyable to watch as to take part in.
A collection of seventeen very short (no longer than fifteen second) trails in which one of the main characters gives faux-serious advice about something trivial - for example, in one, Jim lets us know his opinion of jellybeans. I presume these were used on television to advertise the show and they’re a good, different way to trail the show, if a bit indulgent.
Faces of Scranton (2:02)
In Valentine’s Day Michael goes to a financial review meeting of his firm in New York and, instead of presenting a sober assessment of his branch’s economy shows them this two minute home movie he made of life in the office. We don’t get to see the complete version in the episode itself so this is a nice extra, and is a typically inept performance from Michael.
“The Office returns the Thursday after the Olympics on NBC!” Series of specially-shot Olympic-themed promos, including one on which Michael gets the better of Toby at the skating rink. Fun.
Steve on Steve (3:20)
A compilation of the links Carell did during an Office marathon (marathon being used loosely as it appears there were only two episodes shown). The style is Carell interviewing himself while coming across as rather vain, and it’s all good fun, and niftily edited together.
The show’s success speaks for itself, winning Best Comedy at this year’s Emmys and Steve Carell winning Best Comedy Actor at both the Golden Globes and Television Critics Awards, as well as many nominations for show’s writing. This is a high class season which is consistently entertaining which is here complemented by a very decent DVD set. The extras are just what you want from a TV set, a mixture of minutiae (the various trailers, Steve on Steve) and more substantial fare (the ten commentaries, deleted scenes), the only notable omission being the absence of any Making Of. That’s a bit of a shame but other than that a set with which it is difficult to find fault.