Nothing made me bemoan the writer’s strike more than the loss of precious episodes of the funniest show on television, The Office. Season 4 had a five month gap while the writer’s walked around carrying signs and we got 14 episodes rather than the hoped for 25. Still, five of those episodes were “hour-long” (about 41 minutes without commercials) and there has been almost no drop-off in quality from Season 2 and Season 3. You’ll still be laughing (and sometimes cringing) your ass off, just for not as many episodes.
The gang at Dunder-Mifflin hasn’t changed significantly from previous years. The show is still presented in a documentary format with accompanying interviews by a camera crew that apparently never sleeps. Michael (Steve Carell) is still the insecure, obtuse, and sometimes cruel boss. Dwight (Rainn Wilson) shows flashes of the old sycophant, but spends much of the season mourning his breakup with Angela (Angela Kinsey) after he mercy-kills one of her beloved cats. Salesman Jim (John Krasinski) is now openly dating receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer), although they try to hide it for half an episode, after throwing over Karen (Rashida Jones), who becomes branch manager in Utica. As Karen notes, “turns out it’s a pretty easy gig when your boss isn’t an idiot and your boyfriend’s not in love with somebody else.”
Although Jones only appears in one episode, everyone’s favorite reformed rageoholic Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) is on board as a permanent cast member and takes up the slack in Dwight’s dating life with Angela. Michael starts out living with former boss Jan (Melora Hardin) but things go south following a disastrous dinner party at Michael's famous condo. Former temp/salesman Ryan (B.J. Novak) has been promoted to Jan’s old job and dumped Kelly (Mindy Kaling), who is hilarious in both carrying a torch for Ryan and taking up with warehouse foreman Darryl (Craig Robinson). The remaining employees all contribute their usual excellent small parts with Stanley (Leslie David Baker) even getting the focus in the episode “Did I Stutter.”
While the laughs still flow freely on the show and the characters don’t undergo personality transplants, there are some additional shadings brought out that give the characters more depth. Although Jim is primarily his charming, smart-ass, unbothered self, he screws up more often and worries about Ryan seeing him as a threat and firing him. In both “Night Out” and “Survivor Man,” Jim makes decisions in Michael’s absence that backfire and raise the ire of the rest of the office. Conversely, in “Money,” Michael is funny and popular at his second job as a diet pill salesman. The writers do a good job of hinting at the reasons behind Michael’s behaviors as boss without being totally obvious and are able to give us more interesting characters who aren’t just repeating their actions from seasons past.
While the show is successful handling the next stage of Jim and Pam’s relationship, the other relationships aren't as strong. Jan’s bi-polar behavior has never been interesting to me and her behavior once she moves in with Michael is a real dead spot in the first few episodes. Michael shows in “The Chair Model” and “Night Out” what his being on the prowl does in terms of comedy. The three-way relationship with Andy seeking Dwight’s advice on wooing Angela is pretty good, but it is never quite clear what Angela gets out of being with Andy. It is fortunate that Andy is involved, though, since the hilarious Helms is criminally underused this season.
As has been the case in previous seasons, the writing is top notch with Novak, Kaling, Paul Lieberstein (who also plays Toby), Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky accounting for two episodes each. While a couple of the early hour long episodes are a bit padded, it is usually just a line or two that doesn’t work or gets extended longer than needed, not any problem with the overall tone or direction of the series. There are a few silly situations where you might yell out “oh, come on!” at something that Michael does (driving into a LAKE, for example) but Carell’s performance usually directs attention away from the unlikelihood of his situation. Some don't like that Michael got a bit mean in a few episodes (especially “The Chair Model”) but turning him into a sad sack, which the show sometimes flirts with, is the wrong way to go. I’m all for the occasional return of the Michael who was such a jerk at the Christmas Party in Season 2. The use of guest directors is toned way down (probably due to the fewer episodes), but Jason Reitman and Joss Whedon get behind the cameras for two of the funniest episodes of the season, “Local Ad” and “Branch Wars.”
The show has never quite returned to the never ending hilarity and freshness of Season 2, but it’s still the most entertaining half-hour on television. Characters grow and play off each other and the witty lines and reactions never fail to make us laugh. The only real problem with Season Four is it is just a little too short. Damn you writer’s strike, damn you to hell.
The four disc Season 4 set follows the lead of its predecessors from the last two years and puts together a group of extras that will convince someone who has all of the episodes saved on their DVR to breakdown and buy the DVD. The picture and sound are about what you’d expect from a TV show you are watching on TV, even if it’s coming out of your DVD player. You can also get various goodies depending on where you buy your set. The set I got included the script of “The Dinner Party” in a booklet. Others give you “Fun Run” items or a stapler in a jello mold key chain (talk about jumping in the Wayback machine.)
As has been the case the last couple of years, the highlight of the DVD are the copious deleted scenes. Each episode has about ten additional minutes (2 hours and 16 minutes in all) of deleted scenes that can be accessed on the same menu as the scene itself or from a separate “play all” function on each disc. It’s an amazing collection with most of the material clearly cut because of time, not because the material isn’t as funny as what ended up in the actual episode. In fact, watching the deleted scenes from one episode almost feels like one of the episodes, just shorter and with some plot points left out. It’s not like a lot of deleted scenes for TV shows that don’t really link together with the other deleted scenes. There is a lot of funny stuff here and it’s like having six extra episodes to watch.
While not on the same level as the deleted scenes, the discs also contain four commentaries. For reasons that I can’t quite understand, there is no commentary for such key episodes as the first episode of the season (“Fun Run”), the first episode back from the strike (“Dinner Party”), or the last episode of the season (“Goodbye, Toby.”) They do have commentaries for “Money,” “Local Ad,” “The Deposition,” and “Did I Stutter?” As usual, Steve Carell doesn’t participate and this time he’s joined in non-involvement by John Krasinski. Each commentary has approximately six people involved (how many times do I have to say that this is too freakin’ many!), usually with four or five actors and two or three writers or directors. Jenna Fischer, Rainn Wilson, and B.J. Novak all participate as does guest director Jason Reitman. While the commentaries suffer from the usual overly-jokey, not particularly informative patter of previous seasons, Reitman makes the commentary for “Local Ad” the best of the bunch. In a crazy twist, he takes the lead in talking about the actual filming of the episode and trying to give people information about behind-the-scenes activities. Hopefully his method will catch on in future seasons. It’s infinitely more interesting than impressions of a production assistant who brings everyone their food.
The other lengthy extras include one of the longest blooper reels I can remember. It’s over 20 minutes and while it is pretty entertaining, it has that annoying blooper reel habit of showing some scenes over and over and over again. Seeing someone break up at the same scene two or three times is funny, after that, it gets tiresome. Fortunately, that’s kept to a minimum and most of it is fun to watch. Less fun is a 55-minute video of the show’s writers appearing on a panel at The Office convention in Scranton earlier this year. The writers are obviously funny guys (and gal) and they do drop some interesting information, but it goes on a bit too long and it was being shot by someone who was either drunk or didn’t have a tripod for his camera. It shakes most of the time and both the video and audio are mediocre. Couldn’t the producers spring for a little bit better quality set up? Also, this extra is already on the Internet, making it something that most hardcore fans have probably already seen.
The final three extras are all pretty short. There is a “The More You Know” spot about rabies by Steve Carell. It’s about 45 seconds but it is funny. Not sure it has tons of repeat value, though. There is also the entire television ad for Dunder Mifflin created by Michael Scott. This is the one that ends with “unlimited paper in a paperless world” which is funny in that it sounds good but makes no sense. Finally the teaser ads for Season Four that played on NBC are included.
Unlike the Season 3 DVD, the webisodes that played over the summer are not included on this disc. It’s not big deal since the most recent webisodes about Kevin selling ice cream were horrible. In fact, by not including them, they may have actually boosted the rating for this DVD. The show itself is really the selling point here, with the deleted scenes a more than adequate bonus and a good enough reason to pick up the set.