tv review

Nussbaum: The Office Christmas Episode Made Me Love the Show Again

Dwight during the episode’s truly terrifying snowball war.

Last night’s Christmas episodes of Community and 30 Rock were, respectively, darkly innovative and full-on hilarious. But what really blew me away was the “Classy Christmas” episode of The Office — and not just because I had low expectations going in.

Our smart recapper has already praised last night’s hour-long installment, but I wanted to weigh in, particularly because I left the show — for years one of my favorites — off my Top 10 writeup about the current crop of sitcoms. Until “Classy Christmas,” I’d thought that this season had run out of ideas, a real disappointment after last year, which pulled things despite the weak “co-manager” plot.

And really, I didn’t blame the show’s creators. It wasn’t surprising if they’d finally run the battery down on inter-office love triangles, the theme that the writers have managed to extend masterfully year after year, first through Jim/Pam/Roy, then Jim/Pam/Karen, then, in a quick, scary, intense, kaleidoscopic cascade, Andy/Angela/Dwight, Michael/Jan/Holly, Kelly/Ryan/Daryl, Angela/Dwight/Isabel, and Andy/Erin/Gabe, with occasional side-stops for Toby’s crush on Pam and the short-lived Angela/Stringer Bell/ Kelly competition. (At times, I’ve marveled that they haven’t gone the Meredith/Kevin/Creed route.)

Some of these plots have been romantic, others nasty as hell. I especially loved the way the Dwight/Angela/Andy plot worked as a dirty mirror of the show’s primal romance. And then there was the lovely plot in which Jim tutored Michael on how to woo Holly, based on his own knowledge of male-female friendships.

Still, this season, they seemed to be stirring the dregs. Jim and Pam are married, with a baby, making it contrived to throw any temptation in their path. I’m curious what will happen with Dwight and Angela, but I don’t mind if they never find love (and after Lost’s parade of soul mates, I’d rather some characters stay single. Not Oscar, though. He should time-travel and get together with Billy from Soap.)

It seems obvious that Andy will end up with Erin, because the series, and I, love this couple, who sooner or later will be sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

So really, it’s all about Michael, particularly since Steve Carell is leaving the show.
Holly’s return last night was very effective, especially because it left some scars: Michael’s anguish felt genuine, her character was as odd as ever, and for once, the love-triangle competitor didn’t seem like a bad guy. If they can pull this off — keep Michael’s loneliness real, make Holly’s decision meaningful, and yet have our pitiful antihero get and keep his dream (fatherhood and marriage, which he’s spent years helplessly trying to find through his office “family”), my critical heart will grow three sizes.

The key, to me, is that they’ve let Michael change during the show, in incremental, realistic ways. Over seven seasons, he’s learned to relate to women as human beings; he’s gotten better at asserting authority as a boss instead of settling for coerced laughter; and now he’s even begun to work toward self-knowledge, facing up to his own delusions (I loved that sequence in which he reconsidered all his exes and insisted, stubbornly, that he’d never romanticized Holly, that she was that great).

I know I’m talking all deep and highfalutin. The Office is not In Treatment, despite the presence of the lovely Adele. But the truth is, the show — which began as a sweetened riff on the uncompromising British series — has become something richer and more surprising than that. In its best moments, and more than any movie I’ve seen in recent years, it’s become the ultimate romantic comedy. I have fingers crossed that it will be able to pull off a fulfilling final sequence for Michael, one that ideally does not include a race to the airport. (Or if it does, includes the best race to the airport ever.)

What makes this potential so much sweeter is that last night’s show proved it could also find new layers in the larger ensemble. Daryl’s divorce plot was surprisingly affecting (Daryl, you should really bond with Toby!). Erin, who fantasizes that Michael is her father (her damage is a perfect match for his), is understandably threatened by Holly, a stepmom figure who could offer him a real family. There was Oscar’s hilarious revelation about Angela’s politician boyfriend: “He seems great! Good-looking, strong handshake, gay, good sense of humor.” (Oh my God, I just realized Oscar could end up with that guy.) And there was the awesome payoff for Pam’s comic book, with the terrific John Krasinski choking me up with his speechless confessional.

Best of all, there was that truly terrifying snowball war, which led to a final sequence that scared me more than anything on the entire season of The Walking Dead. Also the Wig bit. Frightening! Let’s go to the tape:

Nussbaum: The Office Christmas Episode Made Me Love the Show Again