Ah, now this is more like it. Despite the lack of an appearance by his character, Ryan, actor/producer/writer B.J. Novak (one of the more dependable scribes on the series) has managed to turn in one of the most Officey episodes of the fourth season so far. With the Jan-Michael story seemingly winding to a close (or, at least, on the backburner for now) we’re given the opportunity to spend an episode’s duration almost entirely in and around the office itself – and with a subplot revolving around recently-underused supporting characters, the original spirit of the show is invoked once more.
Admittedly, things don’t get off to a hugely promising start, with a pre-credits sequence that – while it again sets up one of the episode’s plots – fails to provide the customary “big” gag to lead into the opening titles. Thankfully, the “parking spaces” plot goes on to provide ample opportunity to get reacquainted with various characters – although, while Kevin is good enough to carry a plot, Andy fares rather less well, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see what his role in the show is really supposed to be. When you consider some of the great material built around him in season three (the “Rockin’ Robin” mobile phone trickery, the attempt to woo Pam, the Pig Latin), it’s a shame that Ed Helms is being wasted somewhat.
The main plot, meanwhile, is still a touch rooted in the more surreal style of the most recent episodes, as Michael develops an obsession with a furniture catalogue model who later turns out to have been killed in a car crash. Furthermore, his disastrous blind date with Pam’s landlady is eerily reminiscent of the UK series’ Christmas special – his reaction upon her arrival almost identical to Gervais’. That said, the way the story plays out does feel that bit more traditional, as there’s a welcome return to the Michael and Dwight “team up” dynamic – one of the things that has defined the show’s own identity – and it’s interesting the way we see both of them, in the closing scenes, possibly happier than they’ve been in some time (even when in a graveyard). Both suffering from recent breakups, it’s arguable that neither of them really need romantic relationships when they have… well… each other.
But it’s Jim and Pam who, once again, just about steal the episode, this time in its closing minutes. Somewhat out of left-field, a further plot thread between them is opened up – and this leads to a quite superb moment of game-playing by Jim that tricks the viewer as much as it does Pam. Once again, the developing relationship is one of the most compelling things about the show – and even with the “will they/won’t they” out of the way, it’s hard not to enjoy watching it blossom.
What really makes this ep stand out compared to last week, though, is the lack of reliance on situational, or cringeworthy, humour to draw laughs. Instead, there are just great lines dotted throughout – Creed being mysterious about wanting three chairs (and hey! Creed’s back! Yay!); Phyllis’ admission that no, her friend can’t fit in a rowboat; and even Michael’s staggeringly-misjudged “Oscar Meyer Wiener… lover”. There is silliness, still – but the whole idea of the “five families” feels like exactly the sort of faux-serious title that people in an office would come up with, and you can just about forgive the graveside “American Pie” rendition for the way it feels so much like “classic” Michael and Dwight.
Generally, at least, “Chair Model” is a definite sign not only of improvement on the humour front, but of a shift back towards the style and situations that made the show such a success in the first place. And with next week’s episode both promising to bring Ryan back into the fray, and coming from the pen of Mindy “Kelly Kapoor” Kaling, that could be set to continue…