The season premiere of The Office has a lot more snap and vigor than most of last season’s episodes. The half-hour felt as though, with the end of the series in sight, it now has a renewed sense of purpose — to go out strongly, and perhaps paying off on a number of long-running subplots.
One doesn’t necessarily think of The Office as having a “mythology” (that term itself has come to seem inadequate and old, hasn’t it? whether we’re talking Fringe or a sitcom, wouldn’t “backstory” do just as well?). But it does, and the deepest mythology of The Office — one set in place when Ricky Gervais created the original British version — was that of the unseen but somewhat omniscient film crew that is supposedly taping everything we see in 30-minute, edited installments.
SPOILER ALERT FOR SOME DETAILS THAT FOLLOW.
With original showrunner Greg Daniels back and swabbing the decks of poor James Spader’s misconceived guest arc and Catherine Tate’s exit seemingly just a matter of half-hours, The Office concentrated its premiere on both core characters (Mindy Kaling back for a delightfully daffy departure); Kevin providing a running gag about his turtle-endangering summer; Oscar quietly having an affair with Angela’s husband; Andy back from and Outward Bound course and full of a fresh amount of false optimism) and new ones. Yes, for a show that really did not need any more new characters, it’s come up with an amusing pair, young staffers played by Jake Lacy and Clark Duke who served as two pairs of fresh eyes to remind us just how peculiar and insulated this office has long been. The new guys are amusingly snarky twentysomethings, smugly superior and falsely sincere in the way ambitious new employees can be, and it was nice to see that, after some funny moments of Dwight thinking one of them might be the son he’s never had, he tumbled to their deviousness: Worthy enemies for Dwight, they are. (Also, kudos to Rainn Wilson for some choice slapstick pratfalls on a slack-line.)
But the two biggest reveals of Thursday night’s episode was to have us hear the voices of the people who’ve been filming Dunder Mifflin for nearly a decade now, and, in a related storytelling move, tip their hands that the office members they’ve always been most interested in are Jim and Pam. Yes, the cute couple whom many viewers in recent years have complained they’re tired of? Well, turns out, Jim and Pam are pretty sick of themselves: Jim’s long-standing superiority over the rest of his office mates has now curdled into something close to despair and certainly bitterness, is feeling trapped in his comfy marriage, and made a move to change his life… without, thus far, telling Pam. And Pam, who said, “I love my boring life” in that tone of I-don’t-believe-what-I-just-said tremulousness that is Jenna Fischer’s most original contribution to sitcom characterization, seems both a little unhappy and on the verge of much greater unhappiness.
If we are to think that The Office is really an epic portrait of a middle-class couple’s courtship, work-place co-existence, marriage, and family life, it does demand a certain reinterpretation of the show, certainly one far different from Gervais’ Office, which was a portrait of David Brent. For starters, by permitting their subjects to mug and telegraph their reactions directly to the camera all these years suggests filmmakers nearly as eccentric and/or desperate as some of the vivid Dunder employees, which could prove either fascinating or too obvious, depending on how Daniels and company play out their string.
But I’m reserving judgment on that reinterpretation for a few more episodes, to see how it plays out for a bit. But as Jim said on the phone to his new business partners: I’m all in.
How about you?