It was the regular Christmas episode of The Office last night, with its usual karaoke machine, Dwight as an elf, and the Secret Santa exchange that once led to one of the most memorable episodes in The Office history (“Christmas Party” back in season two), so we are hesitant to be too Scroogy here. But it’s difficult not to feel some disappointment. The potentially delicious plotline of Dunder-Mifflin closing and everyone being forced to make it on their own — the one hinted at most of this season — was summarily dropped: The company is being sold, but everyone’s keeping their jobs. All is normal: There is no reset button. Yay? Merry Christmas?
The Christmas episode has always been a beloved one for Office fans, from the odd Benihana waitresses from season three to the darkness of Angela’s affair in season five to the aforementioned season-two gala, which ended with a naked Meredith. This one took safer routes. Phyllis wants to be Santa this year, leading to a predictably jilted Michael undermining the whole enterprise. Michael eventually calls David Wallace to complain, who informs him that the executives are all being canned once new ownership takes over. Michael tells the staff they’re being fired, but once they confront Wallace about it, he cedes that only he’s being fired: The Scranton branch will remain as-is under the new owners. (Which would have to be someone like Staples, right?) Thus, conflict, and change, is avoided.
The episode still gets the little details right, from Michael calling Toby “the Antichrist” and Phyllis “Tranny Claus,” and the ongoing Erin/Andy flirtation ended on a giddy, 12 Drummers Drumming note. But was much of it funny? Did it take chances? No. It was just another Christmas episode.
For years, The Office has been a show that’s delicately walked the tightrope of being funny as well being sweet: It is one of its more endearing qualities. Now, though, it’s getting the conventional sweetness right but forgetting to make us laugh. The notion of “The Office” without an office could have sent the show off in daring new directions. Clearly, though, the franchise is too valuable at this point. It’s afraid to take chances or mess with the formula. That’s why critics are responding to Parks and Recreation this year and simply being polite to The Office: Because Parks is willing to be risky, and it’s willing to be hilarious. The Office is turning into a pleasant half hour with old friends that’s all it is.
Nathan Rabin at The Onion AV Club says he “long ago stopped demanding, expecting or really even wanting verisimilitude from The Office.”
Margaret Lyons at EW.com loves the Erin/Andy storyline, saying, “It’s hard to stay mad at a dude who can so joyfully smash cymbals together.”
Rick Ingebritson of the Palm Beach Post says his Christmas wish for 2010 is a “long-awaited Creed episode. Where’d he come from? What makes him tick?” We do not want this. What we have of Creed is just enough.