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'The Office' recap: Mommy issues

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the-office_lOooomahgah. We knew this episode was coming, and yet the full-on Pam freak-out still seemed completely fresh to me. The Office has been playing around with different energy levels and styles of humor this season (can you imagine the barfstravanganza happening in season two or three? I can’t…), and “The Lover” brought us a whole new range of emotions we’ve never really seen on the show: Straight-up, blood-curdling fury.

The lovebirds returned from their honeymoon to find the DMHQ largely unchanged: Michael’s still doing awful “bits” (Blind Guy McSqueezy) that are redeemed only by Dwight’s childlike enthusiasm for them. Speaking of Mr. Schrute, he’d never fully come to terms with Jim’s promotion, so he decided to do what Dwight does: Be completely weird about it and plant a listening device in a wooden duck mallard in Jim’s office, the better to spy on him with. Jim figured it out pretty quickly when the mallard created that static-y interference sound that happens when you hold your cellphone too close to the TV. I know this was a super minor point on the episode, but I loved that attention to normalcy: despite the lunacy of the episode, that little interference sound was so, so grounded. That’s incredibly true to life in this way that most other shows can’t even make e-mail or text messages look how they actually look. Anyway, five points for that.

Pam and Erin had a minor power struggle when Pam tried to leave candy on the front desk, and Erin cheerfully — like, so cheerfully — insisted that she clear it with Michael first. Pam balked, which made me a little sad: I’d like to see Pam have a non-Jim ally in the office, and Erin seems like a good candidate. Pam sort of tolerates the other women at work, but no one seems to particularly like her back: Kelly’s blindingly jealous, Angela is too puritanical, Meredith too…drunk?, and Phyllis a bit out of her age bracket. It might be nice to see some gal-pal time.

And then we got down to business. Michael bragged to Jim that he had a “lover,” and confessed immediately that it was Pam’s mom. Jim didn’t believe him until Michael correctly identified that Mama Beesely drives a green Camry, at which point we got a glorious blurred-out expletive from Jim. Jim implored Michael not to tell Pam, but it was clear from the get-go that that plan would never, ever work.

It didn’t. Moments later, Pam accidentally teased the info out of Michael. Jenna Fischer crushed this scene, veering from playful to shocked to livid to run-out-of-the-room screaming with impressive naturalism. It’s sort of a hokey moment to play, but it worked. “That could have gone one of two ways, but I never expected her to get upset,” Michael confessionalized soberly.

Pam was out in the parking lot screaming when Dwight offered to give Michael the chills through the elementary school tried-and-true method of “crack an egg on your head.” This…was amazing. The version I learned was slightly different, but holy crap have I not thought of it in decades.

Jim tried to cheer Pam up but was foiled when Pam solemnly scolded him, “She’s your mother, too.”

If he can’t cheer up his wife, at least he can tease his nemesis Dwight. Jim cranked some opera in his office to mess with the mallard, and in a series of silly reaction shots, we see Creed looking oddly moved. Also, Ryan was wearing a fedora.

In the conference room, the troops gathered ostensibly to brainstorm community-relations strategies, but narratively, it was for Pam to freak out in front of everyone. Which she did right quick by turning into a 14-year-old girl having a clichéd fight with her stepfather. She even tried to get everyone to chant “no more meetings,” but the only one on board was a gleeful Stanley in the background. Hee. Pam’s outburst raised a few eyebrows, but then Michael took a call from Helene, and suddenly everyone was in on the scandalous, terrifying, and kind of gross news. The Dunderheads immediately turned on Michael (except Kevin, who went for a fist-bump), but Michael responded with one of his rare but perfect little monologues. “What is so wrong about me?” he wondered. “I’m caring, I’m generous, I’m sensual. Is it really so horrible that I could possibly go out and find happiness?”

That, Officers, is the emotional hinge of this very series. On the one hand, there’s a lot “so wrong” about Michael: He’s offensive, inconsiderate, ignorant, irritating, buffoonish, and immature. Among other things. But we’ve also seen his moments of vulnerability, his surprising patience with, say, Jan, and his adorable tenderness with Holly. Our ability to believe that Michael deserves or is capable of happiness affects our ability to enjoy — or at least care about — the show in general, and the show has to balance humor and tolerability for such a divisive character. This moment killed.

Pam and Michael continued to bicker, even as popular opinion within DMHQ suddenly shifted to Team Scott.

Michael tried to get Toby to talk to Pam on his behalf by sweet-talking the beleaguered HR rep, who completely fell for it. It didn’t work, and Pam went off all over again: “Let me make this very easy for you: I could give a s— about your happiness!” Again, we don’t get to see characters fully lose it very often on this show — it relies on the difference between what the characters say and what they express in their confessionals, often — so watching Pam scream like every clichéd teenager with divorced parents was a leap for the series. An appropriate one, and one that worked, but a leap.

Jim comforted her, Pam softened slightly, Ryan refused to disclose the origins of his fugly fedora, and Dwight demonstrated better-than-we-thought skills at surveillance when he showed off that he’d Veronica Mars-ed Jim. The mallard was a mere decoy, and Dwight had recorded Jim all day with a bugged pen. “Did you really think I’d put my primary listening device in a wooden mallard? I’m not insane.” Clearly.

Other highlights:

++ Kelly choking back tears as she said “I’m so happy for you”

++ Dwight buying the mallard back from Kelly and Ryan

++ The perfectly-timed back and forth between the Halperts: “Maybe I’m over reacting.” “Yeah, maybe.” “But I don’t think I am!” “You’re not!” Aw, that killed me.

I liked “The Lover” a lot, Officers, but here’s my question: Was it funny? It had funny moments, and a few silly lines, but so does Bones. Hell, so does my commute. So I’m wondering — even though I doubt there’s a clear answer: Is The Office still good if it’s not hilariously funny?

Photo Credit: Trae Patton/NBC

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