For all the soap opera, will-they-or-won't-they? Pam-Jim subplots of The Office, the show has always been on the firmest footing when it simply focuses on the pulse of the American office. (Or a German or French office.) Last night's episode started out with a classic American corporate conflict: increased efficiency through technology or old-school methods of face-to-face communications. The new guard vs. the old guard. The Palm Pilot vs. the desk calendar. It was tightly written, sharp and based in reality.
And then Michael drove his car into a lake.
Steve Carell is obviously the star of The Office, and clearly the most talented and successful (though that Dan in Real Life movie has a treacly, cloying feel … and Dane Cook!); it's only a matter of time until his schedule's too busy to keep up a weekly television program. The beginning of the season gives one the sense that this might necessarily not be a bad thing. Carell's definitely funny, but his character is stuck in a man-boy rut. The show came alive last year when Michael was shown to be a sort of a competent employee; his methods might be infantile and insecure, but he wasn't a drooling dolt. But this episode's second-half subplot of Michael obsessing over in-person gift baskets and GPS trackers that send him into lakes turned him back into a cartoon character. Carell's not an inherently showy performer, but he's so skilled at buffoonery that the show can't help itself sometimes. But his antics last night sent a promising episode careering off the rails.
The key to the episode, and possibly the season, is Ryan, who has become an amoral, BlackBerry-tapping, buzzword-spouting bearded little runt. (And I say that with the utmost affection.) Firing off corporate doublespeak like "a floor-to-business streamlining of our business model" and "the centerpiece of the campaign is a new business-to-business Web site interface," he's like Patrick Bateman if American Psycho were written by Rivers Cuomo. Drunk with fake power, Ryan has the countenance of a boy who has always believed he was better than everyone else and has, sadly, been provided with a slight piece of evidence for his theory and won't let go of it. (He even hits on Pam!) Every scene he's in sizzles. Now if we can get Michael out of that lake and back in a conference room with Ryan, we'll have something. —Will Leitch