So far this seventh season of The Office has done a pretty good job demonstrating all of the problems that can arise when a sitcom manages to survive until its seventh season, including complacency, increasingly extreme and unrecognizable plots, and singing. But “Costume Contest” (a.k.a. "The Halloween Episode") managed to showcase the positives that can come from watching a show for seven years: familiarity, comfort, and the sight of a six-foot-something milquetoast dressed as Lady Gaga.
After a surprisingly clever teaser in which everyone finally notices that Stanley doesn’t notice anything except when it’s time to leave — and thus sees how far that extends by cross-dressing, announcing sales figures for Dunder Mifflin’s Jupiter branch, slapping a mustache on Pam, and allowing Dwight to bring a goat into the office — the episode hit the ground running in a dozen different directions at once. This was, we think, a good thing. As The Office has kicked around in search of direction this year, many of the plots have seemed forced — the less said about Ed Helms’s sex-ed seminar, the better. Halloween, then, must have seemed like Christmas in the writers’ room. Not in the sense that Christmas episodes are very good, but in the sense that it was a present: Finally an opportunity to relax the forward momentum and play with the characters we know and love! Thus, we get reliable smiles like Michael as MacGruber, Dwight as the Scranton Strangler (which is how he is actually known to his chickens), and Darryl as not Blackula but Dracula. Everyone is competing (Pam’s idea) for a $15,000 book of coupons that Oscar (dressed — or not dressed — as a “rational consumer”) keeps pointing out is basically worthless. But, of course, no one cares and there’s a pretty excellent democracy of jokes in the buildup to the contest, with Dwight thinking Pam’s Olive Oyl costume is actually his mother, Angela dolled up as a sexy nurse (“We all live in the real world here!”), Kelly changing costumes at lunch, and, the bestest, Erin bobbing for apples for so long people get nervous. Why? Because she was eating them underwater.
Draped over the general merriment were two ostensibly “serious” story lines. In one, Michael is at first sorry that Darryl didn’t get credit for his good idea to let drivers sell paper on their routes and then furious that Darryl not only got credit, he “took him from behind” by talking to Gabe instead. One of the smarter plays The Office has made in its dotage is gently increasing the screen time of actors and characters we haven’t grown weary of, and Craig Robinson — he of the deadest pan outside of a restaurant consignment shop (no?) — is still as fresh as he was in the pilot. (Was he in the pilot? But still.) He and Michael have always been worthy adversaries, but mostly because Darryl couldn’t care less what his buffoonish boss thinks of him. But now Darryl cares — as he tells Andy, the company could very well be his a cappella group — and seeing him angrily steer the Ouija Board from “asshole” to “asset” was a treat.
The other plot focused on handsome new guy Danny (who, in addition to being both devastatingly good-looking and good at his job, also owns a “hip” bar called Public School, volunteers at soup kitchens, and doesn’t mind watching Project Runway with his significant other — we’re just spit-balling the last two, but they feel right) and his history, or lack thereof, with Pam. No characters have been less well-served by the show’s descent into otherwordly inanity than its ostensibly most “real” characters, the Halperts. Having Danny who, looks aside, also seems to at least reside on planet Earth, around helps. After some awkward interacting, Danny finally admits why he never called Pam back that fateful night four years ago: He thought she was kind of dorky. Very true! But she’s Jim’s kind of dorky, and the sight of him agreeing to dress up in his wife’s handpicked Popeye costume, baby in arm, was the sort of warm, low-key beat that, outside of the Kahlua toast in a minivan a few weeks back, we haven’t seen for a while.
All this without mentioning the return of David Koechner as Todd Packer (this time dressed as a pregnant nun and asking Jim if he’s looking for someone to “bang his wife”) or the fact that Oscar’s non-costume wins the coupons because Ryan is a “Nader guy” and Creed thinks he’s dressed as Edward James Olmos! So, not all that much to criticize here. After all, as Michael says, “Halloween should be a day when we honor monsters and not be mad at each other.” Sometimes old dogs doing old tricks can be just fine.