Watching “PDA,” I figured out a more nuanced way to discuss my issues with The Office's cringe humor. My problem is not with the actual words being said, or the actions being performed: It is what drives those actions and the way in which the rest of the characters respond to them that get under my skin. If the characters are crossing a line because of sheer incompetence or outright cruelty and if the people around them are offended by their actions, I personally can’t enjoy the scene in question. I might laugh a bit, and I will appreciate the craft, but I can’t enjoy cringing when the situation is mean-spirited.
However, in the form which dominates “PDA,” cringe humor is something to be reveled in rather than something to be reviled. When everyone in the office comes to an agreement that Michael and Holly’s public displays of affection are creeping them out, it is without a single bit of malice: No one is trying to break them up, no one feels as though they are acting on some sort of grudge, and even the hints of jealousy which Michael later suggests seem mostly absent. Instead, it’s a group of regular people who are rightfully a little wigged out at Michael and Holly’s affection, so brilliantly brought to life by Steve Carell and Amy Ryan.
The response to their affection is perhaps best captured in Oscar, who has been on a real roll as of late. Oscar is leading the charge for something to be done about the PDA, clearing his throat during their wonderfully creepy hand-touching in a meeting and helping spread the sentiment to Gabe directly, but the character is acting on his general appreciation for decorum and decency, rather than as an archetypal wet blanket. Oscar doesn’t need to be manipulated into being a buzzkill, as he just is a buzzkill, but the episode doesn’t make it into some sort of crusade. He is uncomfortable with the PDA, but he’s willing to let Michael and Holly celebrate moments like their declaration of “I love you” and their decision to move in together. He is, in other words, a human being, and the episode allows him to remain one, despite potentially positioning him as an antagonist early in the episode.
The fact of the matter is that we sort of relate with Oscar: Michael and Holly’s behavior did sort of creep me out, just watching it on television, and so I don’t exactly blame him for leading the charge to have something done about it. However, so long as you are emotionally attached to Michael and Holly’s relationship, your perspective on the issue will likely shift. Their “I love you” moment demands affection, its impact lessened with only a handshake, and our sympathy shifts to the lovebirds (especially given that Michael shows the willpower to avoid a PDA in that moment). We’re right with them as they find a way to make not touching just as creepy (and hilarious) as touching, and as they deal with the revelation that their affair may be more short-lived than they had wanted to believe (which is some really wonderful work from Carell, in particular). And by the time they reveal that they are going to move in together, defying the inevitability of Toby’s return from jury duty, the office has joined us: They have been affected, their perspectives on the issue variable depending on emotions, personalities, and everything in between.
The result is one of the show’s most dynamic episodes in recent memory and one of its funniest. In truth, this is not a “complex” episode on any level: It relies heavily on physical humor, it mostly sticks with pre-existing character traits, and its C-story is a drunk Jim and Pam wandering around the office looking for somewhere to have sex. And yet because those simple parts are woven together extremely well and because the A-Story is an emotional rollercoaster, there is an energy to the episode that was absolutely reminiscent of earlier seasons. There’s a little bit of everything here: There’s some blatant romanticism in Michael and Holly’s resolution and in Andy and Erin rekindling their relationship, there’s some broad (and hilarious) work in Michael and Holly’s handsiness, there are some great individual character beats for characters like Kevin and Creed, and there are some more subtle glances and facial expressions as Jim and Pam drunkenly realize that they’ve yet to christen the office as their own.
It never feels as though “PDA” has to turn off one of these modes to transition into another or that some of the storylines are happening outside of the central narrative. Andy and Erin’s treasure hunt gets thrown into Gabe’s face during the meeting, Jim and Pam’s conspicuous absence is mentioned during Michael and Holly’s big announcement, and the B and C stories literally collide as Jim and Pam look to enter Ryan’s office just as Andy and Erin start to leave. It’s a key component to the episode’s dynamism, the idea that each storyline is a moving piece which may not necessarily be operating in its own space. It gives the episode a really scrappy feel, despite the fact that the episode is expertly constructed by writer Robert Padnick, and keeps it from falling into formulas (or, at the very least, keeps it from feeling as though it is falling into formulas).
In the comments a few weeks ago, someone noted that these reviews deal with how episodes make me “feel” quite often; that particular commenter thought this strange, but isn’t that how comedy works? Comedy is about the effect, tapping into our emotional response and asking us to become engaged with what we’re seeing on screen. The problem for a show like The Office, however, is that it can become reliant on built-in engagement: Many of us watch because of how connected we have become to the characters over seven seasons, and so there’s a temptation to more or less coast on that fact. However, while the accumulated engagement may keep watching the show from becoming an outright terrible experience, it isn’t enough to make it exciting, or surprising, or anything like the experience it might have been five seasons ago.
“PDA” is proof that it doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t feel as if my enjoyment of this episode was dependent on some sort of sitcom Stockholm syndrome, as it never stopped long enough to rest on its laurels and appeal to some sense of nostalgia. Maybe it was because Greg Daniels was back behind the camera for the first time since last season’s “Murder” or maybe it was simply that Steve Carell is nearing the end of his tenure and throwing himself wholly into every moment; either way, this is just an incredibly diverse episode of The Office which managed to be everything that is great about the show without feeling as though it was trying too hard.
By the end of the episode, I had forgotten that this was supposed to be a Valentine’s Day episode, and I had forgotten that Michael was going to be leaving soon, and I had forgotten my bizarre displeasure regarding cringe humor. For the first time in what seems like a long time, an episode of The Office was simultaneously funny and sophisticated, “whole” in a way that gives me a great deal of hope for the remainder of the season and, perhaps more importantly, just plain made me laugh a lot.
- I was actually honestly surprised Rachel was a real person, which says something about how sadsack Andy has been recently. Not sure if the show can handle a full-on love rhombus, as we didn’t actually meet the character (and I didn’t recognize the actress), but it was still a nice twist to have Andy approaching happiness just as Erin realizes Gabe has turned into a complete tool.
- Speaking of Gabe, I thought this was a far superior look at his sense of authority in the office compared with last week. His extreme response to the caption contest was without any kind of context, but this week, his actions had backing from multiple employees and were clearly driven by personal discomfort rather than corporate policy. He was still a tool, but we could understand why, which is key to the character’s viability.
- Simple, but devastating, cold open. I know I shouldn’t have laughed at Craig Robinson’s teary-eyed stare into the camera as Andy gives him his birthday punches, but it was just so damn perfect.
- Really enjoyed the simplicity of the montage of Michael being incredibly unattractive being paired with Holly’s discussion of his sexiness.
- I don’t know if any of you watched the recent NOVA special about Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence system which is playing Jeopardy next week, but its discussion of Watson’s struggles comprehending Jeopardy-style answers has convinced me that Erin is actually a robot. That said, I sort of loved Ellie Kemper in this episode, so I’m not exactly complaining.
- I sort of alluded to it above, but I love the rhythm of the scene where the office commiserates about how uncomfortable they’re finding Michael and Holly’s behavior. Their insistence on framing their comments outside of any judgment of their happiness was a nice bit of humanity (which I always prefer to the cruelty on display last week), while Kevin’s insistence on finishing his reasons for enjoying it was easily predicted but no less funny for it.
- Lots of wonderful small moments here: Creed’s brief, reminiscent look during the discussion of who has had sex in the office and Stanley’s sudoku-related death stare were some of my favorites.
- I haven’t exactly been as critical of Jim and Pam’s more recent characterization as others, but I have to admit that they are a lot more fun when they’re drunk.
- “You’re just filling that out right now. That wasn’t meant for me. I will not be your valentine.”
- “Yep, all the honkings.”
- “Whispering and tickling have their place in business.”
- “So has Kevin… she goes to another school.”
- “That makes sense, ‘cause I feel I’d be able to hear us at this level.”
- “And a shower.”
- “No one is a bigger fan of sexual touching than me.”
- “Boner Bomb starring Jason Statham, or we go against type with an Eisenberg or a Michael Cera… saving the world has never been this hard.”
- “Hurl your feces!”
- “Oh, that’s cute, like benign tumor!”