The Office: Season Four Review
It wasn't until after I'd already asked for and watched this fourth season of The Office that I realised the previous three installments were all (excellently) reviewed here at DVD Times by James Gray. Now I feel a bit like I've deprived not just James, not just the readership of the site, but the entirety of the United Kingdom. That unique take on the American version of the UK's most famous television import this decade will, unfortunately, not be continued this year. My sincerest and deepest apologies to everyone for mucking things up. We're all instead left with a silly American's opinion, someone who thinks Ricky Gervais is that fang-toothed bloke he occasionally sees on David Letterman.
Four seasons in and with no real sign of slowing down, The Office is starting to leave behind its British source material. Gervais and his co-creater Stephen Merchant must be rolling in the dough at this point, with their baby having been translated into versions for the U.S., France, Germany, Quebec (wherein David Brent becomes David Gervais!), and Chile. Meanwhile, as most everyone knows by now, the original UK version had just 14 episodes while its American counterpart is now a full 65 entries strong. It occupies an enviable position on the television landscape by being both a critical favourite and steadily building a sizable audience. The show's broadcast network, NBC, gave it a coveted spot in the Thursday night line-up, former home to such landmark sitcoms as Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends. There may now be an urge to claim the show as our own in God's country, a successful torchbearer of the long-ago UK adaptations All in the Family and Sanford and Son. Men Behaving Badly? Coupling? Hahaha, what are you talking about? (Cue necktie loosening.)
The Office even proved itself a valuable enough property to earn executive producer Ben Silverman (he of the Reveille company and its toot-toot logo included at the end of each episode) the position of co-chairman of the entire NBC network. In terms of recognition, the show's second season won a well-deserved Emmy as the best comedy series of that year, a rare instance of the awards truly getting it right. The viewers soon followed, and it's now one of the most popular comedies on the air. The obvious reaction here is that the relative masses have found a worthy addition to their viewing schedule. But hold on. If the show was funnier and perhaps more daring in its perfectly cringeworthy comedy in that second season, the one where viewership was sort of lacking, it soon started playing in the direction of its fans. Everyone wanted Jim and Pam together, and after a few false starts, they're a couple. Dwight is supposed to be an idiot and over and over again he's portrayed as such. Michael's stupidity is so blissful as to be sympathetic and, as such, he's never truly in harm's way. The viewer can always have a shared connection of moronic impossibility with Michael Scott, but the paradigms are entirely established.
Really, if we're going to wage a complaint against The Office, it has to be for lack of ambition. I don't see any sense in claiming the show isn't funny. It and 30 Rock keep my sense of humour active every Thursday night and I hardly bother with anything else. Yet, the show hasn't really grown very much. Season four feels like an extension, but not an advancing, of season three, which itself was a step down from the previous year. The events that take place are frequently hilarious, but also uneven and stagnant. Michael hits Meredith with his car and she's hardly heard from again. Michael runs his car into a lake because he thinks a GPS instructed him to and suddenly he's Homer Simpson. Michael becomes a victim of domestic abuse and breaks up with Jan. Michael, Michael, Michael. The awkward position of Steve Carell as a now bona fide movie star, forgiving Evan Almighty, means he's no longer a true ensemble cast member. The whispered reality is that he's the star, and John Krasinski as Jim is in his rearview mirror. These peripheral aspects are a little distracting from a show that once seemed intent on doing whatever necessary to leave its audience uneasy and laughing nervously.
Considering how rewarding it can be in most instances, a conflict exists as to how harsh one should be of The Office. Season four suffers from lots of unevenness, but also a good deal of brilliance. The first four episodes are swollen into lengths twice as long as normal - part of NBC's master plan, presumably caused by the hilarious deleted scenes that never make it into the final cut. Yet, these too are little more than a pair of related episodes squeezed into one another, still with very funny excised moments. Only one of the quartet should be considered as among the series' best. The episode "Money," the last of the four, takes everything that's good about the show and reminds us how to keep laughing. Michael's impromptu declaration of bankruptcy is possibly the funniest single moment in the show's history. You wonder if anyone could be so stupid as to literally declare bankruptcy at the top of his lungs and think that was the end of it, but you also recognise how in line such an action would be with the character (and our continually devolving nation of morons). Plus there's Michael as telemarketer and Jim and Pam enjoying all that Schrute Farms has to offer as a bed and breakfast. Entirely inspired.
The season then moves on to regular, 21-minute episodes. After experiencing the double-length versions, these suddenly seem to be missing half the funny. We have to adjust yet again to stories of a certain length and little time for humouring the supporting characters. Normally, this might be a problem, but the initial episodes of regular length are so perfect as to negate any real complaint. "Local Ad" finds Michael once again showing that his incompetence is not entirely debilitating, just as some of The Office's poignancy shines through. "Branch Wars" contains a few of the season's funniest moments when Michael, Dwight, and an unwitting Jim try to sneak into Karen's Utica branch of Dunder-Mifflin only to get humiliated and caught amid fake moustaches. Dwight's singular focus on destroying the eyes of anyone unlucky enough to get caught in his crossfire is a particularly hilarious element. Then for the almost distractingly absurd, look no further than "Survivor Man," in which Michael attempts to replicate the survival skills of the actual show of the same name and ends up making the usual ass of himself.
When you're not sure if The Office is on its A-game and therefore hesitant as to whether the show is still capable of delivering the painfully sharp material it once spit out with abandon equaled perhaps only by Curb Your Enthusiasm, look no further than a pair of episodes here in the middle of season four. "The Deposition" and "Dinner Party" are truly damaging to the viewer's delicate sensibility. These particular episodes are so far out into the uncomfortable laceration as comedy realm as to be almost difficult to accept. Both move far away from the main office setting, as do several of this season's plots, but the dynamic strangely remains. Michael is still the idiot manchild and the now-unemployed Jan remains in control of him. "The Deposition" is a classic example of how The Office works. There are moments of brilliantly traditional humour, things like Michael sitting down next to Toby and then shoving his food tray onto the ground, but it's the fingernails-on-chalkboard portions that find the show in its primary niche.
Carell's actual acting, instead of just mugging idiotically, gets a good refresher in that episode, as well. It's a bit ballsy to put that even more claustrophobic spin on a series normally set within an office, but now briefly confined to a single, tension-filled room. You just know that Jan couldn't possibly have expected Michael to come through here. Yet, he's put in an impossible position that inspires sympathy from the viewer. The only way Michael Scott works as a character we can tolerate week to week is for there to be some sense of us wanting him to succeed despite his own extreme stupidity. Otherwise he's a cartoon. The Office positions him as the lead character so his actions must allow for some investment in the viewer. Merely watching Michael sink to humanity's low point each episode would be fun for no one. In "The Deposition," the viewer truly feels bad for him because he's in this predicament that requires either turning against his job and company, which he clearly adores, or his live-in girlfriend and their somewhat abusive relationship. Michael's answer to his problem is typically inept in that he breaks down into that childlike diversion we've all grown to love. In many ways, the fact that regular viewers and fans of The Office don't outright loathe Michael Scott may be the show's greatest achievement.
The happenings of "The Deposition" conveniently lead into "Dinner Party" with skilled perfection. That toothy Michael Scott grin, the one we often get when he's transforming his own stilted mood into sudden, enthusiastic joy, feels like an apt reaction to this episode. Gleaning heartily from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, "Dinner Party" serves up a night at Michael and Jan's with all the uneasy horror we've grown to love from the show. The clincher is when Michael brings out his neon St. Pauli Girl beer sign for the guests to bask in just as Jan is preparing her assault. We're finally able to see the full Michael and Jan dynamic in this episode, something hinted at in many other episodes but never explored as fully as we get here. It's a "sorry I asked" sequence of events. There have been many downright squirm-filled entries of The Office, but "Dinner Party" takes the cake and sits on it.
The next four regular-length episodes are mostly more of the same in that they're often funny, but always predictable. The Ryan storyline takes some notable hops along the way, but I find this particular subplot weak and unrealistic. B.J. Novak as Ryan is a better writer than actor and he tends to weigh the show down when compared against so many exceptional performances. The character's forceful leap into authority only gets interesting when he has it in for Jim, a turn even the show's writers seem uninterested in exploring. We're thus left with the season four finale, an hour-long (really 42 minutes) episode entitled "Goodbye, Toby" that seemingly escorts the human resources point man off to Costa Rica.
Michael's loathing of Toby is always humourous, but, again, entirely predictable. It's verbal slapstick at this point. If he really does call it quits, thus bringing in Amy Ryan's kindred spirit Holly, I see no substantial downside because Toby is basically given nothing to do aside from acting as the butt of Michael's jokes and silently pining after Ms. Beesly. The season finale at issue sets up a few things of interest. One is Jim's inability to propose. Viewers feel like it's coming and that they're destined to be together, it's owed to them, etc., but never underestimate the value of the monkeywrench, which may emerge in the form of art school. Regardless, The Office seems to have its viewership right where they want us at this point and that may prove to be a dangerous thing. The show can either continue to placate with laughs that are nonetheless mired in a rut or riskily shake things up to the possible detriment of viewer preference. I'll be watching regardless, and I like to be placated, but the more sensible voice says that we're dealing with something hovering near greatness and the safe option is rarely the best one.
Episode listings follow, with run times for each show and set of deleted scenes in parentheses:
Disc 1 - "Fun Run" (42:02, 16:20), "Dunder Mifflin Infinity" (42:00, 14:57), "Launch Party" (42:00, 9:17)
Disc 2 - "Money" (42:00, 13:43) (commentary by Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Melora Hardin, Brian Baumgartner, Paul Lieberstein, Michael Schur, and Jennifer Celotta), "Local Ad" (21:38, 8:06) (commentary by B.J. Novak, Ed Helms, Leslie David Baker, Creed Bratton, Craig Robinson, Jason Reitman, and Anthony Ferrell), "Branch Wars" (21:52, 5:09), "Survivor Man" (21:17, 5:30)
Disc 3 - "The Deposition" (21:36, 8:12) (commentary by Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Melora Hardin, Brian Baumgartner, Ed Helms, Lee Eisenberg, Lester Lewis, and Ryan Koh), "Dinner Party" (22:18, 8:43), "The Chair Model" (21:46, 8:36), "Night Out" (21:22, 5:45)
Disc 4 - "Did I Stutter?" (22:06, 11:18) (commentary by Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Leslie David Baker, Kate Flannery, Justin Spitzer, Brent Forrester, Gene Stupnitsky, Randall Einhorn), "Job Fair" (20:52, 8:11), "Goodbye, Toby" (42:00, 13:20)
Season four of The Office is released by Universal on a quartet of dual-layered discs, housed in a digipak with a slipcover that slides over the top of the case. Synopses can be found printed inside the folded cardboard. The discs are overlapped and divided into two trays. When removed, Dwight's hilarious office chart is revealed, as seen in the "Did I Stutter?" episode.
The show is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Image quality is dull, but fine. The show is, of course, supposed to replicate the look of a documentary being shot by a roving crew. It thus makes heavy use of natural light. The few scenes taking place at night actually appear quite strong as well and with good detail. The transfers are progressive and present no issues. The deleted scenes, however, have once again not been enhanced in anamorphic widescreen.
Aside from its rousing theme song, The Office gets by primarily on dialogue. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track presents it all effectively. Everything is easily heard and understood. No problems whatsoever. Subtitles are white in colour and available in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish. Extra features, including the writers' roundtable which does have inferior audio and video, are also subtitled. The deleted scenes get bumped down to a DD 2.0 track and they too sound worse than the episodes.
Extra features are perhaps more limited this season. Just four commentaries are included, all with several participants. These are, per tradition, great for fans but somewhat unenlightening otherwise. I'd regard them more as fun listens than essential ones. Deleted scenes abound, with each episode carrying many, many minutes' worth of unused footage. I've detailed the actual number in the episode listings above. I did particularly enjoy the lengthy blooper reel (22:39) on disc four because it not only added the equivalent of a plotless episode, but the scenes also gave some insight into how difficult it must be to put the show together. I'm not even usually a fan of the bloopers, but I think it was my favourite extra in the set.
Not to be outdone, the supercharged inclusion of a writers' roundtable (52:52) filmed at the Scranton, PA The Office convention has several people responsible for the show, including head guy Greg Daniels and cast members slash writers Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak, discussing the nuts and bolts of putting everything in place. You might think watching nearly an hour of various writers talking about, essentially, writing would be boring, but it's actually not and this too is a worthy addition.
A few minor supplements are included, as well, highlighted by the uninterrupted cut of Michael's Dunder Mifflin commercial (1:24) from "Local Ad." A "Rabies: The More You Know" (0:24) bit is also included, as is an NBC promo (3:02) highlighting the characters' summer away from viewers. Finally, a table draft of the script for the "Dinner Party" episode is tucked inside the slipcover as a nice little bonus. After watching the writers' discussion, I wonder if it's there as a model for would-be writers as much as anything else.
I miss the glow that surrounded The Office when we were first getting to know the characters, and it now feels a bit like running in place. The show is still undeniably funny. Several episodes here in season four, particularly "Money," "The Deposition," and "Dinner Party," are as good as anything in the series' run, but I also hope that things continue to stay interesting without merely resorting to Michael Scott being an imbecile. The quality of the DVD set is excellent, another worthy entry for the collection, but maybe a few more extras would have topped things off more nicely.