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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Office: "The Seminar"

Illustration for article titled iThe Office/i: The Seminar
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I envy those Office viewers who are not reading this review.

This sounds like a strange statement, one which I'm sure numerous commenters will spin into witty, hyper-critical yarn, but the kind of people who are reading this are those who likely learned last week (or this afternoon, or on Twitter before you got a chance to get to the DVR) that Ricky Gervais would be appearing in tonight's cold open as David Brent. Heck, the show’s official Twitter account posted a link to the video before the episode finished airing on the East Coast and long before it even started airing on the West Coast, and since every media outlet under the sun chose to share the video immediately, it seems likely that many of you didn’t get to be surprised by Gervais’ appearance.


I don’t think the moment was ruined by the fact that I knew about it in advance: Carell and Gervais have a great rapport, and the way the characters fell into a mutual understanding was simultaneously incredibly meta—just look at the nod towards an upcoming job opportunity—and quite charmingly natural. They share their love for racially insensitive impressions, Brent gets to offer a little nugget on his theory of comedy (that it is “a place where the mind goes to tickle itself”), and Michael remarks what a nice guy he is after hugging him for dropping a "That's what she said." I think the reason the moment works without the element of surprise is that it’s short and simple: no elaborate setup, no complex punchline, just the interaction between two characters for a brief moment of comic collision.

However, I can’t help but feel that the surprise might have been nice (especially since it was filmed on the sly, clearly intended to be something of a surprise). Sure, it’s very possible that anyone who managed to remain unaware of Gervais’ appearance might not have any concept of its significance, but there’s some part of me who remains a purist. I wanted that moment to reflect on the characters and not on the sense of celebrity: I wanted the David Brent part to be more important than the Ricky Gervais part, and I wanted it to feel divorced from any sense of hype (or controversy, in the wake of Gervais’ recent Golden Globes hosting foofaraw — hat tip to the ever-wonderful Pop Culture Happy Hour crew for that particular word choice).


Given my concern over hype overshadowing what was a charming, fairly subtle moment, you can imagine my initial reaction to the most recent casting news regarding Carell’s exit. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s been reported widely, will surely be discussed in the comments, and worries me immensely. “The Seminar” may not be a particularly great episode, but it’s one that demonstrates that the series’ charm lies in pre-existing character dynamics and not in broad stunts (or character exits, frankly). I certainly agree that Gervais’ appearance is the bigger story here, but I think it would be a shame if his brief cameo appearance would render the episode itself entirely obsolete, obscuring the small details in favor of the big story. So, acknowledging that "Michael meets David" is going to be the biggest takeaway for most viewers, I want to focus on the episode, rather than the meta-textual implications of the opening scene.

I don’t know if you read episode descriptions, but NBC seemed to think that this episode featured Michael and Holly showcasing their “improv-comedy flair (or lack thereof).” However, we never actually see Michael and Holly performing much in the way of improv, at least not as we might have expected based on this description. The way the episode is set up, we might presume that they will ruin Andy’s seminar (much as they ruined the company picnic) or in some way disrupt the central storyline. Instead, they do a little routine for the security guard/barista, and when they actually get into the seminar they are actually entirely helpful in their role as the plants.


However, I think whoever wrote that description was reading the sort of improv-comedy feel that was quite clear in the rest of the episode. Andy’s seminar wasn’t a plot so much as it was an excuse to create a number of independent scenes for various characters — heck, I still have no idea what Andy was actually selling, which is sort of the point of his seminar but does make for a somewhat ineffective narrative. What it allows, though, is for characters like Kevin, Kelly, and Creed to get in front of a group of strangers and act out the most exaggerated ends of their characters for comic effect.

In his review of the third season of Parks and Recreation, David Brinckley argued that the show is held back by a sketch comedy mentality, wherein the show’s rhythm is disrupted by “self-contained jokes.” Now, this argument is somewhat strange to me, given that Parks’ sense of rhythm is unmatched in television comedy right now, but I think that “The Seminar” offers a nice test case for how this might operate on The Office. While I thought Kevin’s bit went a bit too far with the vomiting, despite starting strong with "Crazy Train," and Kelly’s never quite found its footing, Creed’s brief bit about the Loch Ness Monster was hilarious. It was a huge laugh for a show that doesn’t always get a huge laugh, highlighting how sparingly the show uses Creed and thus how much we enjoy those brief glimpses of genius. However, did those moments really add up to anything substantial? Did they really matter to the eventual conclusion where Andy gets the sales he was looking for? Did the episode, as a whole, have the rhythm we might associate with series highlights?


I don't think so, but it did have some interesting thematic ramifications: I quite liked Dwight’s idea, for example, that the employees of Dunder Mifflin are no more a team than people staying in the same hotel. Michael has always imagined the office as a family, but the truth is, the employees are quite divided, and this episode features a couple of stories which speak to those divisions. Sometimes, it’s small disagreements, as Oscar and Pam help Erin win her Scrabble battle with Gabe, and other times, it’s the sales staff jockeying for a spot on Andy’s newly legitimate seminar after having abandoned him earlier. And in those interactions, I thought there were a lot of great moments: I loved Darryl offering Andy advice from behind his newspaper, I loved Erin’s bizarre obsession with playing words related to cows in Scrabble, and I loved Oscar’s desire to make his backseat Scrabbling as theatrical as possible.

The episode’s structure was more transparent than the show is on average, exacerbated by the fact that Krasinski was once again limited in his screentime thanks to what we presume to be some form of cinema commitment, but the results ended up feeling surprisingly fresh. Jim’s final moment with his childhood friend actually lived up to the growing questions surrounding his absence, Andy’s success ends up feeling like a triumphant win for the little guy, and Michael and Holly’s potentially jokey bit as a fake Greek couple finds a sort of bittersweet conclusion as he charmingly (albeit inappropriately) tries to turn it into a kiss. The episode lacked any sense of cohesion, and I do think that it loses points for not trying to do anything but string together some loosely connected setpieces, but I think there were some fine moments which resulted from that decision.


And, even when the surprise is ruined and they don’t add up to much of anything, this show has enough going for it that moments spent with characters we basically enjoy can often be enough (if not enough, apparently, to commemorate Carell's exit).

Stray Observations:

  • It's clear Gabe is totally getting the jerk edit right now so as to help facilitate an Andy/Erin pairing, what with the whole horror movie runner and the bit where he insults Erin by suggesting that the only way she could answer the questions correctly was in a Slumdog Millionaire situation. I found it all pretty damning for Gabe as a character, both because he seemed to be taking advantage of Erin’s lack of intelligence and because Wall-E is awesome. I think this is a bit of a waste of Gabe’s character as well, to be honest, but the worst thing is that the show implies that exposing Erin to Shrek 2 is a good thing. It’s the gateway Shrek, that which could potentially lead Erin down the dark road known as Shrek the Third, so I don’t know why it is being used as a sign of Andy’s romanticism.
  • As weird as it sounds, the vibe I got from the opening Michael Scott/David Brent scene was sort of like how I feel when I watch Kermit meeting the Fraggles in Muppet Family Christmas. I am presuming I am the only person on Earth who felt this way.
  • No, seriously, what was Andy selling? Were they simply riffing off of similar seminars which offer no actual content and instead stick to boring inspirational babble? Or was there some kind of printer/paper/mentorship bundle being sold? I think that the choice to leave it vague was purposeful, but it kept the seminar from feeling “real” and contributed to the sketch vibe.
  • I very much enjoyed Creed yelling “Creed!” after the group huddle — Bratton is just so great in these small doses, and he’s had a couple of banner weeks given last week’s cartwheel storyline.
  • On a more subtle note, I quite liked Andy’s “Maybe, only maybe” after Dwight claimed he was going to blow it — he’s a sad sack character, but he’s a winning one, and that line summed it up nicely.
  • I expect that we’ll have a discussion in the comments below which will reveal my opinion on the subject, and there are some passive aggressive digs at it above, but my initial gut response to the recent casting announcement can be found here. I look forward to being raked over the coals for it in the months ahead!

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