‘The Office’ – ‘China’: Win in the end

Senior Television Writer
12.02.10 39 Comments


I tend to review the NBC Thursday comedies in order unless I’ve seen one in advance, or unless one of them is a particular stand-out in some way. And since I said only two weeks (and one episode) ago that I was done reviewing “The Office” until they did an episode I actually enjoyed, and since I’m now interested in reviewing this one, I figure it deserves to jump the queue. Some thoughts on “China” coming up just as soon as I understand pirate code…

I started off “China” fearing that this was yet another one that was going to confirm my fears about season seven. Michael wasting many many man-hours to discuss his fear of China as an emerging super-power seemed like a real stretch, the sort of thing a series does when it’s exhausted all other possible ideas.(*)

(*) Here’s an obscure reference to a slightly underrated movie: In “The Last Action Hero,” Schwarzenegger’s movie-within-the-movie character is appearing in the umpteenth film in his series, and his writers have obviously run out of close family members for him to avenge, and so the film’s plot revolves around his second cousin Frank. For a couple of minutes there, Michael’s fear of China sounded very much like Arnold’s second cousin Frank.

But then the China discussion turned out to be a MacGuffin for what the episode was really about: Oscar’s self-appointed role as Smartest Guy in the Office, and everyone else taking pleasure in Michael ever-so-briefly outsmarting him. And that is the kind of small yet universal story that this show can tell so well, because every workplace has that guy, and there’s been plenty of evidence in the past of Oscar correcting other people. There are times where it seems implausible that the entire office would come together in support of Michael, but this was one of those times where it felt right, and earned, and funny – not explosive laughter funny like Dwight’s fire drill or Kevin’s chili, but the sly, knowing kind of humor that represents a different but equally satisfying type of “Office” episode.

It helped that that story was paired with a couple of other gems. The Darryl/Andy texting etiquette subplot was a perfect kind of C-story: didn’t need to take up much room, didn’t wear out its welcome and felt thematically consistent with the A-story, in that every office or group or friends or family also has the guy who over-texts. And the payoff with the pigeons eating ice cream was just right.

As for the Dwight/Pam B-story, it was a nice merger of the “Dwight buys the building” and “Pam cons her way into a new position” plots from episodes past, and also a reminder that while Jim/Dwight is the show’s more famous and frequent antagonistic relationship, Pam/Dwight can be just as entertaining, if not moreso. (Since Jim came back from Stamford, it feels like one out of three Jim/Dwight stories inadvertently turns Jim into the bully.) Pam and Dwight have a history, and as she has in the past with Michael, Pam has been willing to see the good in Dwight when no one else would. And here we got to see that kindness finally rewarded – as well as an acknowledgment that the necessity of keeping Pam in that office for the sake of the show has required the writers to turn her into a repeated failure – when Dwight overhears her confession to Jim and decides to give her the win.

I also particularly like how every scene in Dwight’s office has his new lackey Nate (who’s a poor man’s Mose, but what can you do?) turning the toilet paper into one-ply on that weird loom. Mike Judge’s short-lived animated comedy “The Goode Family” had a similar joke in its pilot, but here it lent the right level of visual absurdity to each of Pam and Dwight’s arguments. The show is always in danger of making Dwight too broad, but here he was just human enough, even before he was particularly human in throwing the fight for Pam’s sake.

Blogging-wise, I’m going to continue to play this season by ear, reviewing the ones I like and ignoring the ones I don’t (unless I find a new or interesting reason for why I don’t like a particular one), but “China” was definitely one that I liked.

What did everybody else think?

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