The Office walks a fine line between low-key, character-based observational humor and big, goofy physical comedy. With a few notable exceptions, it strikes a masterful balance between subtlety and slapstick, comedy and pathos. In the first few minutes of today's episode, however, I very much feared that it would step over that line and barrel on obliviously in search of cheap laughs.
The show did, after all, begin with Dwight fake-pretending to deliver a butter-covered watermelon as part of Michael's deliciously misguided attempt to prepare himself for the imminent birth of his non-child. Shortly afterwards it is revealed that Michael labors under the misconception that Jan intends to give her newborn a name that sounds disconcertingly like "Ass Turd".
Then The Office surprised me. Or maybe it didn't surprise me, since I expect good-to-great things from The Office and it seldom disappoints. So a show that initially seemed to be going big and broad managed some character moments that were tender and touching if not downright transcendent.
Tonight's episode featured some of the best dramatic acting Steve Carell has ever done. I'm thinking specifically of the scene where Michael, who has been callously cut out of the delivery process when Jan shows up with baby Astrid in tow, holds his sort-of-not-really-God-this-is-getting-really-sad-even-for-The Office-non-progeny for the first time and feels not the expected glow of warmth and pride but something sadder and emptier.
In voice over, Michael softly, sadly confesses that holding baby Astrid all he feels is short-changed but the crestfallen look on his face–the aching disappointment of a man who has been looking forward to something his entire life only to find it hollow and disappointing–make his words seem unnecessary. Like Lisa rejecting Ralph on The Simpsons, you can freeze-frame and pinpoint the exact moment where Michael's heart breaks. Michael's baby fever is often played for laughs but here it borders on tragic.
Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself. In tonight's episode, Michael throws a baby shower for Jan only to discover that he's missed out on the blessed event. In a pathetic, weirdly telling attempt not to upset Jan, Michael tells Holly that because she's one of the better looking people in the office, he's going to treat her cruelly so Jan won't get jealous and think they're an item.
Holly is both insulted and flattered: obviously he wouldn't be worrying about such things if he didn't nurse a schoolboy crush on Holly he was afraid Jan would pick up on instantly. Jan is evil and subjects the gang to an endless rendition of "Son Of a Preacher Man" but she is not stupid. So it doesn't take her long to figure out that Michael calls Holly a weirdo and claims that she smells like rotten tomatoes and dirt not because he thinks he hates her and thinks she has cooties but because he desperately to sit in a tree with Holly, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Love, marriage and a baby in a baby carriage would presumably follow.
Though there were a few brief subplots, tonight's episode was all about the Michael/Jan/Holly love triangle. But before we delve into the meat of the episode let's discuss the subplots. In the show's weakest thread, Dwight, enraged that Jan has purchased a ridiculously expensive baby carriage, decides to put it to the test by abusing it in all sorts of colorful ways. It was mildly amusing but could easily have been cut and detracted from the emotional heart of the episode. In a more resonant subplot, Jim and Pam struggle with the difficulties of maintaining a long distance relationships. Jim has a great scene where he tries his damnedest to seem interested while Pam tells a "funny" story involving her fellow students he's never met and consequently couldn't care less about. This was just a warm-up, however, for a brilliant final scene where Jim and Pam leave each other messages confessing that they each feel out of sync with their fiance in language that betrays that they're actually completely in sync, even when they're feeling lost and anxious. The scene easily could have come off a twee and precious. Instead enormously affecting.
Ah, but tonight wasn't really about Jim and Pam: it was all about Michael, Holly and Jan. Michael's attempts to convince Jan that Holly is a smelly cooties-carrier he couldn't possibly hate more predictably has the opposite effect. When Holly cracks some suspiciously Michael-style jokes about Astrid answering phones and going on a coffee break, Jan realizes that Holly is the perfect girl for Michael. She simply can't bear the idea of two lovable dorks like Michael and Holly making each other deliriously happy and spawning a whole gaggle of dork-babies so she shoots Holly a devastatingly evil, cold-blooded look and makes Michael promise that he'll never go out with her.
In a scene that beautifully book-ends/parallels Michael holding the baby for the first time, the would-be father immediately goes to Holly and holds her far longer and more tenderly than is professionally appropriate before asking her out. This time it's Holly/Amy Ryan's opportunity to deliver a genius reaction shot conveying first confusion and surprise but soon happiness and joy. Someone should give this woman an Oscar, or at least an Emmy nomination. So, an episode of The Office that started off labored (no pun intended) and broad ended up being moving, dramatic and beautifully acted.
Grade: A- Stray Observations– –I loved Stanley's monologue about how he doesn't need to be pregnant to experience everything a pregnant woman goes through. It's funny because it's true –Favorite lines? –When do you think The Office has gone too broad? –Jan was looking radiant and evil tonight –Should the Jim/Pam voice message scene have been shot in a split-screen? Or would that have been too show-offy and distracting?