The capacity to surprise has long been one of the strongest attributes of the US Office – consider Jim’s sudden declaration of love at the end of season two; his unannounced departure at the beginning of the next; Ryan’s getting the corporate job at the end of the third; or the fact that having Pam and Jim finally together in the fourth didn’t ruin the show – but even so, you’d expect that after three and a half years, that ever-present threat of the unexpected might have begun to diminish.
So it was quite pleasant to see that the opening episode of season five, “Weight Loss”, was packed with twists and turns – both in the plotting and, uniquely, the structure. The Office hasn’t really done a “format-breaker” before now – but here, rather than the usual setup of an episode taking place over a day or so (a handful of days is, I think, the most we’ve previously seen covered), a single – albeit double-length – ep told us the story of an entire summer at Dunder Mifflin.
And as a way of easing the viewer back in after a stop-start – and at times disappointing – fourth season, it worked a treat. Rattling through the weeks, the episode was essentially a series of vignettes – or sketches, even – and this placed the emphasis firmly on a quickfire rate of jokes. From Pam’s scales-based embarrassment and Dwight’s unorthodox method of getting Phyllis to lose weight, to Kelly’s “tapeworm” and Ryan’s list of enemies, there was plenty of great, old-fashioned material without relying too heavily on the cringe factor that too often characterised the last series.
As far as the plot goes, too, there was plenty to cover – indeed, perhaps getting it all crammed in was one of the reasons for going with the episode’s format. And again, characteristically, much of it was about wrong-footing the audience. Ryan’s return, in particular, was extremely well-played – barely had the viewer had time to wonder exactly how he was back, before the “reveal” was expertly done. Depending on how long, in “series” terms, Pam is off the scene, this is an idea ripe with comic potential, and makes Ryan’s story neatly circular – even if it’s a little unrealistic that Dunder Mifflin would let him anywhere near the company again.
And then, of course, there’s the latest development in the Pam and Jim saga. I must admit that about halfway through the episode, I was all set to get extremely angry at the prospect of some random guy at college worming his way into Pam’s affections – yes, I’m far too emotionally invested in this show – but it turned out to be a sublime piece of wrong-footing, and having spent the fourth season waiting for Jim’s proposal, it was extremely canny to have the eventual moment be as much of a surprise to us as it was to Pam. This was classic Office, a beautiful shock moment to rank up there with the various other twists and turns their relationship has provided.
Not that it was all plain-sailing. There’s still a sense that The Office‘s absolute best days may just be behind it. While one of the show’s strengths is the excellent array of supporting characters it’s built up, that’s also a weakness in that sometimes you feel the right ones aren’t getting the exposure – it’s criminal, after all, that a double-length episode should give so little screen time to Creed. And I have nagging doubts about the role of Andy – when introduced in season three, he was brilliantly funny, and worked in moments or set-pieces. But he’s become dulled as a character by the Angela plotline, and feels increasingly unworthy of having big plots hung on him. If nothing else, we’re being made to feel sorry for him – and that was never supposed to happen.
That said, though, this opening ep certainly offered plenty to enjoy, and much promise for the upcoming season, compared with the at times lacklustre second half of the last one. Most pleasingly, there’s still a commitment by the makers to mixing up the format, setting and characters – and if nothing else, that shows a commendable lack of complacency. It’s on strengths such as this that The Office will hopefully continue to thrive.