Having established itself as just about the best US sitcom going – perhaps the equal, even, of the sadly-missed Arrested Development – it was something of a shame when The Office became the first high-profile casualty of the WGA strike. It felt like the fourth season had barely got underway – and, with it not yet having really hit its stride and matched the supreme second and third seasons, its momentum was in no small danger of being broken.
Four months later, and Dinner Party marks a welcome return – and launches straight into the fray as if nothing’s happened. Indeed, it’s quite disconcerting to be coming into it after such a long break and not picking up a cliffhanger to match those that capped the previous two seasons – but it’s also interesting to note that, unusually, the pre-credits sequence ties into the main plot, as Michael puts into play an unsubtle scheme to finally get Jim and Pam to agree to come to dinner.
Once the action moves to Michael’s house, meanwhile, what’s immediately striking is just how uncomfortable and cringey the humour is. It’s not as if The Office hasn’t used this style before – but it’s generally tended to favour it less than its UK counterpart. This is the first real glimpse into Michael’s home life since beginning his relationship with Jan, and the deranged former boss is absolutely terrifying. When playing (and dancing to) the hilariously awful record by former assistant Hunter, the show becomes – for arguably the first time – genuinely difficult to watch.
The over-the-top manner in which Michael and Jan’s relationship catastrophically and publicly disintegrates even spreads to other characters – Dwight, in particular, suffers from both an overplayed early reaction to not being invited to the party, and the subsequent ludicrousness of the “former babysitter” plotline (despite a neat guest turn from perennial “her out of…”, Beth Grant). Conversely, the “wackiness” of Andy has been toned down during his bizarre attempt to instigate a relationship with Angela, and it’s stripped the character of any real entertainment value. Here, the pair might as well be absent for all they manage to contribute.
Mercifully, the presence of Jim and Pam gives us a grounded counterpoint to all the insanity. Indeed, the performances of John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer are perhaps the high points of the episode – particularly when each hide in the bathroom, cowering in fear to camera. Jim is also at his best when deliberately thwarting Michael’s charades game; and the back-and-forth as he attempts to duck out of the party, with Pam then turning the tables, is exemplary of just how brilliant the relationship between the two of them has turned out to be. Finally getting them together really should, by rights, have ruined the show – instead, because it’s taken so long to happen, because the relationship has grown organically, and because they’re just so damned cute, it works perfectly.
That said, it’s Michael who gets the best line of the episode, with the quite jaw-dropping “You have no idea of the physical toll that three vasectomies have on a person!” summing up just how deeply twisted and disturbing his relationship with Jan is. Indeed, he’s being cast as something of a victim in this series, and we’re increasingly being led to pity him, rather than laugh at him. I suppose there’s only so far you can push your lead character as an antagonist – it’s why Fawlty Towers and the original Office were so short – and The Office has been successful in shifting various other dynamics and indeed in having Michael be a more sympathetic character to start with. But they need to be careful with it, just as with the increasing shifts into the surreal
Still, it’s not short on laughs, and the overriding feeling is simply that it’s great to have these characters back – although, for the first episode back, it might have been nice to have spent a bit more time in the office itself. It’s not quite up to the standard of its previous couple of years just yet, but it’s still just about the only truly great sitcom out there right now.