The Office: Season Four Movie Review
The Office may not be the #1 show in the rankings -- it's not a reality show or prime time soap -- but it's TV's best show at the moment, and it shows no sign of lightening its cynical heart of darkness. The biggest reason, of course, is Steve Carell, the central actor/improviser (and occasional writer) whose portrayal of the clueless manager Michael Scott is as perfectly observed and funny as Carell's movie roles are tame and safe.
The Office has no obvious weaknesses. The scripts are miles smarter than any other writing on TV. Carell, Rainn Wilson, and Ed Helms all somehow manage to be obnoxious in different but complementary ways, John Krasinski's Jim provides the regular-guy appeal without which the show would be hard to watch, and Jenna Fischer's Pam Beesley is both normal and subversive. Michael's ex-girlfriend Jan (Melora Hardin) is awful in a way that somehow fails to resonate with Michael's awfulness. (As Wilson's character, Dwight, says about Jim and Pam after finding out they're dating: "They both could do better.") The other actors (a few of whom are also writers) are in supporting roles, but all have their bizarre logic -- even Creed Bratton, a former '60s pop-rock guitarist who plays a fictionalized version of himself as an aging, aphasic drug casualty.
There are several reasons why season four of The Office is slightly inferior to previous seasons, but they're not going to keep anyone from renting the DVDs. The most important is the 2007/2008 writer's strike, which turned a planned 30-episode season into only 14 full episodes (some are hour-long, however). That is still more than the show's first season, but the quality of some episodes after the hiatus ("Dinner Party," for example) is a little off as well, maybe because the writers had trouble deciding where to go and what to leave out. (Hopefully most of the lost ideas will get recycled eventually.)
Probably no episode in season four ranks with the very best episodes from season two and season three (reasonable minds can differ) but some come close. "Night Out," in which Michael and Dwight go clubbing with Ryan (B.J. Novak) in NYC, is a good one; Jim and Pam visiting Dwight's beet farm in "Money" is another highlight. There are sweet moments, as when Pam reassures Dwight that he is a better salesman than the company's new website, which Dwight believes has become "somehow alive." There are cringe-inducing scenes, like Michael and Dwight demanding that one of the company's former clients return a gift basket. The season finale, in which Michael meets a potential soul mate but ignores her and goes back to Jan while she has her sperm-donor baby, is sweet and brutal at the same time.
In short, the show's best qualities are intact in season four -- the great use of an ensemble cast, the talking-head interviews which leaven the cringe-worthy dramatic moments, the writers' light touch with story arcs which allow for developments in the characters' lives without straining to wring every possible joke out of them. (Some of the more significant events in season four, such as Ryan's arrest, happen almost in the background while attention is elsewhere.) As social commentary, The Office is familiarly politically correct, but Michael's racial and cultural callousness can be shockingly funny anyway. Carell is as brilliant as ever as Michael Scott -- nightmarishly inappropriate, appallingly clueless, a would-be service worker thrust into a white-collar job, a compendium of the most embarrassing things anyone has ever done or said -- but also (a recurring theme of the show) somehow the leader of his team.
The DVD extras are less essential than on the previous two seasons - the promotional ad is good but not as inspired as say, Michael's and Dwight's rapping tribute to Scranton from Season Three. But the deleted scenes are often as good as the stuff the made the cut (the show's most memorable outtake, a five-minute Carell monologue about clubbing a deer to death, is from season two) and the commentaries by cast and writers are always funny and insightful.