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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Office: "St. Patrick's Day"

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During its sixth season, The Office has come under increased criticism from fans and people who don't like it alike, all of which basically boils down to the fact that the show just isn't as funny as it once was. And while I don't go so far as to think this season is an outright disaster or anything, I do rather think the show is missing some of the really terrific jokes that have made the series such a success in the past. The characters, fortunately, are still fun to hang out with, and that alleviates any of the series' problems with not offering up humor as consistently as it once did. But there have been some bigger problems this season, mostly to do with the plotting.

In general, I think the Sabre arc has been a bit of a misfire. It seems like it's mostly ending this evening, with Kathy Bates heading back to Tallahassee. The biggest problem with the Sabre arc is that it hasn't told us anything we didn't already know about these characters or this world. All story arcs on TV shows are essentially there to resolve themselves, so the status quo can return. It's one of the pleasures and irritations of the form. The reason to do a story arc is to reveal just how your characters will react to the changes and events happening in their world. The Michael Scott Paper Company arc last season - which was structurally very similar to this arc - revealed a little bit about how much Dunder Mifflin was in dire straits, and it revealed just how much Michael Scott understood about his own company. The Charles Minor character was never as good as he could have been (and his hatred of Jim felt arbitrary at times), but the story arc was very much a good one about figuring out how to adjust in a new corporate environment.

The problem with the Sabre arc is that it mostly just copies that storyline with a guest character who's even less interesting than Charles Minor. Kathy Bates is a great actress, but her Jo character is pretty much a walking bag of cliches. She's a tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners kind of Southern good ol' gal, and if that description doesn't give you a sense of just how much she feels exhumed from a big bag of old character elements, well, I don't know what will. There's really nothing about her that feels fresh or revelatory or new, and seeing Michael suck up to her has gotten rather tiresome awfully quickly.

Would there have been another way to do this story arc? Maybe. But this dovetails with one of the other problems with The Office at present: The show is just getting old. This is nothing it can help and nothing it can change, obviously. There's no way we can all feel the shock at seeing how good the show had gotten in its second season. We've pretty much seen all (or at least most) of the cards the show can play. And even when the show seems to be introducing a new plot arc that might offer up new information - like the tease of Jim being the manager - it abandons it just as quickly, unsure of what it's doing and hurrying to return to the status quo it knows so well.

Also, as the show has gotten longer in the tooth, it's, well, gotten a lot weirder. It's getting harder and harder to see this office as a real office someone might make a documentary out. Take a look at the whole Erin character, pivotal in tonight's episode. She's essentially cut from the same cloth as Pam was back in the day, but she's been cranked up to a few more levels of goofy. She's an orphan who grew up in some sort of crazy foster home and was in the hospital from the ages of 3 to 6. She's got a foster brother who's clearly obsessed with her in a sexual fashion. And she still lives with him. Pam, while obviously a TV character, was also someone you felt like you could know in your real life. Erin is definitely someone you wouldn't. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, per se. The Andy and Erin romance, after all, is still very sweet, and the moment when she kissed him, even though she was sick, in tonight's episode was very well done. But the weirdness of the show feels like a very deliberate split from the show as it was back in the day.

There's been plenty of irritation based around the Jim and Pam characters, too, and this I can get more on board with. It's not that I don't like Jim and Pam, who are still very sweet and funny, but I don't like that the show seems unwilling to let them really change. Jim will take big steps toward becoming a big-time businessman, say, or toward becoming Michael, and then the show will walk them back so he can get back into some sort of prank war with Dwight. I mean, Dwight giving Jim a hard time about how his baby girl was at home and how he was missing out on it was something anyone could have seen coming from a mile away, and that it mostly boiled down to Dwight singing "Cats in the Cradle" was disappointing. (Though I did like MegaDesk vs. QuadDesk.)


The central plot in the episode - when will the office denizens get to leave work to go celebrate St. Patrick's Day - also felt like it was airlifted in for no particular reason. Jo being such a workaholic felt like a contrived way to force everybody to stay behind at the office for a while, and while I really liked the turn where she brought Darryl up to the office upstairs after liking his shipping chart, I just don't buy that the show will treat that story development with any seriousness. Other than that, it just felt as though this was yet another "Michael embarrasses himself and the office and then saves everything at the last possible moment" storyline, and while those storylines can still work, this one felt pretty tired and constructed out of other elements.

I don't want to sound like I'm really down on this season of The Office. I'm rather enjoying it, all things considered, and I've quite liked a number of episodes in it. While I didn't think "St. Patrick's Day" was all that good, I wouldn't say it's a typical episode of the season. The writing is still sharp enough, and the characters have so much goodwill built up toward them that even an off episode like this one is ultimately worth a watch. But the elements of a tired, overlabored show are starting to creep up on The Office. In a way, that's inevitable, but the series had mostly staved them off for so long that it's a bit disappointing to realize it's just another TV show.


Stray observations:

  • "I don't care if you're a loser or practice bestiality, if Jo likes you, you're in."
  • "According to How I Met Your Mother, that's the date that your kids are going to wait patiently to hear about, and you better have a good story."
  • "You're here at work, and the baby thinks the refrigerator is its father."
  • "Whenever I'm sick, it goes away after a few hours, except once when I was in the hospital from age three to six."
  • "Oscar has a life. I think Ryan has a life."
  • "As the Irish poet Bobby McFerrin said, 'Don't worry, be happy'."