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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Office: "Costume Contest"

Illustration for article titled The Office: "Costume Contest"
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In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t really do Halloween. I don’t like candy, I don’t like scary movies, and since it doubles as my brother’s birthday — an early Happy Birthday goes out to Ryan — it was never really mine to begin with.

The Office, of course, loves Halloween like it loves every other holiday. It’s an excuse to rally the entire office together, something that the show wants to do on every possible occasion. They love the way the characters rub off on one another, and the way in which larger events spark smaller conflicts. Most shows follow this basic pattern, so The Office is not entirely unique, but I do think that its holiday specials come with a particular treat — or trick, if you prefer — in Michael Scott’s inability to act like a rational human being during such events.

I’m not so down on Halloween that I didn’t get a chuckle out of Kevin as Michael Moore or Gabe as Lady Gaga, but I’m far more interested in the parts of “Costume Contest” which just happen to take place on all hallow’s eve. Part of the success of the episode is that things continue as usual: Gabe announces the plans for drivers to sell paper in his Lady Gaga costume, and Michael deals with the potential consequences of that decision in his MacGruber outfit. In last season’s “Koi Pond,” the holiday was relegated to the cold open, and the same goes for “Employee Transfer” (where Pam was the only person in a costume at corporate). In fact, you need to go back to season two’s “Halloween” to find a real Halloween episode which integrates the holiday into the entire half-hour.

However, when you go back to “Halloween,” you find Michael Scott acting like a hapless boss who is unable to make a decision to fire someone; by comparison, Michael’s behavior in “Costume Contest” (similar to his loathsome behavior in “Secret Santa”) shows him militarizing the holiday’s traditions. The notion of dressing up as your co-workers is often spiteful, but it’s rarely as wholly spiteful as it was here (Cougar Town did the same thing last night, but the antagonism was more fun than vitriolic). It isn’t even funny when Michael comes out of his office wearing an afro and a Warehouse uniform: the lines don’t land, and he drops it after only a few seconds. While I like that the office shuts it down before it can even really start, that moment seems entirely unnecessary in the grand scheme of things.

As you’re likely starting to discover, I like my Michael Scott competent, so that particular part of the episode bothered me. I enjoy that he’s self-conscious and worries about how Darryl will feel about corporate “stealing” is idea, and I even enjoyed how he initially bristles at the fact that Darryl went over his head. My problem is in how his anger manifests, whether it’s the lame impression or the attempt to make the Ouija board suggest that Darryl is an asshole. I’m tired of storylines wherein the only semblance of humour in Michael’s behaviour is that he is hideously overreacting. This is especially bizarre exaggerated, and thus cheap, thanks to Michael’s earlier praising of Darryl — their relationship has always been quite positive, and I like the camaraderie that they developed, so this felt especially cruel and unecessary. This undercut their relationship for the sake of a cheap and ineffective gag, which is the precise opposite of the most similar storyline in the past: “Did I Stutter?” dealt with the theme of Michael’s authority being subverted, but it ended in that transcendent moment where Michael stands up for himself against Stanley’s insubordination. Here, Michael just acts like a petulant child.

That being said, not unlike Michael’s romantic quest a few weeks back, it ends on a positive note. I really liked the closing scene where Michael and Darryl’s frustrations shift over to Gabe, and the balance of power in the office is restored: Darryl is able to stop caring, Michael is able to stop worrying about one of his employees subverting his authority, and the onus for the office’s problem lands on Gabe. I also liked the way that Darryl stood up for himself, and pointed out that despite Michael’s earlier commentary he has very much charted his path independent of Michael: Ed Truck hired him, Jo promoted him, and he deserves better than what Michael offers him. It’s a nice restoration of the status quo, albeit a status quo where Michael’s behavior is not successfully reprimanded by either the script or the office’s characters.


I’m on the fence when it comes to the awkwardness regarding Pam and Danny’s torrid, week-long love affair. On the one hand, I thought there was a lot of charm in Jim and Pam’s side of the storyline, especially in their shared talking heads and in their light-hearted search for the truth (not to mention Cecilia in costume). I also enjoyed Andy and Kevin’s concern over the issue, and the sort of territorial case they make against going to Danny’s party. However, as we discussed in the comments last week, there is potential to add interest to their relationship with this particular device, and so the cuteness seemed to be slightly too all-encompassing. I don’t mean that they needed to be on the verge of divorce, and I’m glad that Jim not wearing his costume didn’t get exaggerate in the way that Michael’s behaviour did, but I do think the storyline could have had more weight.

That all being said, I thought the Halloween parts of the episode were actually a whole lot of fun outside of the presence of Todd Packer (who we apparently mentioned too often last week, as he emerges Beetlejuice-like from some alternate, horrifying universe). I was particularly pleased with the running storyline about Oscar, which perfectly fit his character. He’s right about the coupon book, but his insistence on informing everyone that he is right, and their complete disinterest in his argument, are beautifully done. Their enthusiasm about the coupon book — it even won over Angela, people - fits nicely into the idea that working in an office leads to becoming irrationally excited for fairly worthless things like costume contests with a coupon book as a prize, and Oscar’s “rational consumer” costume and his victory were a beautiful climax.


I wrote a piece elsewhere about how Halloween episodes tend to operate, and on that level this had some fun developments: some of the costumes were perfectly chosen (Kevin and Michael Moore), some were thematically relevant (Jim and Pam’s Popeye/Olive Oil outfits), some were culturally relevant (Andy and Meredith as Bill and Sookie), some were out of character (Angela’s sexy nurse), some were run-of-the-mill (Phyllis, Stanley, Erin) and some were just silly (Gabe as Lady Gaga). If the Halloween party had taken place independent of Michael’s behavior, I think this episode would have been far more successful. As it was, Michael’s behavior was in opposition to the holiday, but it wasn’t funny or transgressive; instead, it was just plain stupid, which is the precise opposite of his behavior last week.

And thus, my response to “Costume Contest” is similarly in opposition to last week’s outing — some solid work around the edges, but the central storyline was too problematic for me to look past.


Other Observations

  • Since the 3 Glees theory is spreading like wildfire, I propose a theory where we decide how many different versions of Michael Scott there are.
  • Another entirely disconnected Cold Open this week: I thought it was a bit far-fetched, but this was one instance where the slightly over-the-top vibe worked perfectly with the lampooning of Stanley’s aloofness. It was slight, and airy, but I laughed.
  • I complain about Michael’s behavior above, but it got some nice comedy in Kevin’s response to being attacked for breaking the chain of command as it relates to suggestions for Lady Gaga dance moves — some great acting from Brian Baumgartner there.
  • While we’re talking about delivery, Ed Helms’ take on “unencumbered by instruments” cracked me up for some reason. I also really enjoyed that we got more of the Andy/Darryl friendship: some of you may not enjoy their musical stylings, but they’re a great comic team.
  • Note that we see part of a conversation between Danny and Packer which indicates that it was either part of a larger uncut scene or was intended to be an incomplete glimpse into their ongoing feud (which would make sense, considering that we never see the traveling salesman).
  • Add not knowing that Ouija boards aren’t real, not knowing how to work a speaker phone, and thinking that bobbing for apples means you try to eat them to the list of things used to gauge Erin’s stupidity.
  • My favorite reaction shot in the episode: Phyllis’ face after Oscar explains his costume. Priceless.
  • “CREED’s GOING?!”
  • “Does anyone remember what her Dad smelled like?”
  • “I spend most of my Sundays gluing my loose coupons into a book…this would free up so much of my day!”
  • “Can you for once just let us enjoy a party without making it all about your issues?” [Pretty sure I cheered when Kelly said this]
  • “I present to you the rational ‘consumer’…as it were.”
  • “Hell, I can even sleep on a fence — the trick is to do it face down with the post in your mouth.”
  • “Shake things up — I’m a Nader guy!”
  • And now, let us bask in the genius that is Creed Bratten, who had a marvelous episode.
  • “What’s the crowd like, Danny - our age?
  • To Pam: “Did you hear about that Danny guy? I heard he used to date Pam.”
  • “Best Edward James Olmos costume I’ve ever seen — like freaky good.”