Not quite Dundie worthy, but not as bad: Post-DVD watch musings on The Office’s sixth season

There weren’t too many people high on the sixth season of The Office. Despite a number of high-water marks (the Halpert wedding and birth, among others) and compelling plot-lines, the season seemed disjointed, unfunny and constantly bored with the possibilities that certain stories were bringing to the table. For every single person or critic that I know who watches the series, season six was definitely the worst in the run. When I did my season wrap-up for The Office, I was far from kind.

So when I popped in the season six DVD last week, I was curious as to how it would play with episodes in rapid-fire succession.

Thankfully, said episodes play much, much better than they did during the original viewing. This is particularly true for the first half the season from the opener “Gossip” through episode 11, “Shareholder Meeting.” And despite the terrible stretch of “Scott’s Tots,” “Secret Santa” and “The Banker” in which I’m not even sure the writers were making an effort, the introduction and aftermath of Sabre’s purchase (from “Sabre” through “New Leads”) plays fairly well narratively on a re-watch as well.

The up-tick in quality stems from the ability to actually see a narrative through line in these two halves. The first half of the season is all about Pam and Jim’s maturity or attempts at such. They’re now faced with a baby on the way and a marriage coming even sooner, so it makes a lot more sense narratively and for them as characters to take their jobs a little more seriously, even those circumstances do make them less charming than they were during their lovesick season two days. With that reading, I’m more willing to accept Jim’s insistence on getting a promotion and taking the job uber-seriously (he even mentions that on a few occasions). While Jim as the boss isn’t LOL funny and instead uncomfortable funny, I do find it to be realistic. Jim and Pam are especially real people and eventually, reality sets in and even the cool goofballs grow up in some ways. Pam acts out when she finds out that Michael is dating her mother, but eventually she realizes that even slapping him doesn’t work and it’s just time to grow up and move on.

The Sabre storyline is certainly not as fulfilling as the merger issues or especially Michael Scott Paper Company, but I did find myself enjoying it more in succession because it felt more complete. It isn’t fully defined, but there’s an arc there about how Michael and company have to deal with a larger corporate entity that is both more controlling and less hands-on than before. While Jo is certainly suffocating and the rules and regulations are different, there is also a lack of support system for both Michael and the rest of the employees. Surely the ineptitude of Dunder Mifflin’s corporate arm had something to do with allowing people like Michael hold important jobs, but they still managed him well without making Michael go nuts. Moreover, the mini-arc with the Nard Dawg and the exploding printers from Korea is actually relevant, and actually hilarious in terms of the sweet video he shoots with Darryl.

Finally, narrative-wise, I think the discombobulated nature of the whole season can be read as how Michael is really feeling without Holly in his life. At the end of season five, he was feeling good in the fact that they’ll have one of those long, interesting love stories that takes them awhile to get together. But after Pam and Jim get married and the feelings of loneliness really settle in, I think Michael can’t handle it anymore. Add that to the fact that Jim becomes his equal in the workplace and I think Mr. Scott realizes that he’s not getting any younger. He plays the game in “Murder” not just for the employees, but for himself, because the office is all he has. He acts out during Christmas because he’s alone during his favorite holiday. He desperately hangs on to a relationship in which he is the mistress. It’s all one giant mess of a year for Michael and he finally breaks down on Jo’s jet. Perhaps this is a more complicated reading of Michael than is necessary, but these things did arise when I watched and I feel as if they should be given credit.

You’ll notice that my analysis of the season doesn’t include much about the jokes and there’s a reason for that. Perhaps it was because I already knew much of the season wasn’t “funny,” but I didn’t have much of a problem with the lack of humor during the re-watch. It’s as if I was able to pay attention only to the arcs and character moments, analyzing more for narrative and thematic purposes and that’s an interesting experience. Michael Z Newman wrote a great piece about TV bingeing for FLOW awhile back that I think displays this idea beautifully:

“No matter the format of a show, watching on a binge intensifies the continuity of character arcs. Shows that are hybrids of episodic and serial narrative forms like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Judging Amy seem more serialized when viewed in heavy regular doses.”

Perhaps it’s the lack of major comedic high-points that forced me to look elsewhere in my enjoyment of the season, or maybe I am becoming more intelligent in my DVD re-watches. It’s probably a bit of both, but of all comedies, The Office is one that we can derive enjoyment from separate from the humor because the characters are so familiar and so strong in many instances. I found Dwight to be less annoying this time around, when I absolutely expected to sigh every time he came on-screen (though I certainly still did that, particularly during “The Delivery”). Thus despite my major disappointment for the series when it aired, I’ve found that there are some really nice, redeeming qualities about The Office‘s sixth season.

But as Newman suggests, that’s a complicated feeling:

“Something is lost in this process, and we should be wary of accepting this new way of viewing as an evolutionary step. In some ways, binging feels unnatural. Watching this way, we lose our connection to the larger viewing audience as community and to the temporality of broadcasting that unites a program with the moment of its airing. (Viewers still get this experience from sports and reality TV and news and talk shows — from genres of programming inimical to binging.) We also lose a significant aesthetic effect of the weekly rhythm of the prime-time serial. It’s hard to be specific about what this means, but it’s a function of how we appreciate a show that airs once a week, and takes a break of a few months between seasons — what we pay attention to, how it makes an impression on us, and how the interval of time between episodes and seasons encourages us to talk and think about the characters and their situations in the space between installments of their story. Binging makes the experience of television more intense and personal. It can feel like too much of a good thing, and maybe it is.”

With that point in mind, maybe I did get caught up in the characters too much to realize the diminished quality of the sixth season. But I probably got caught up in the negative rhetoric during the season because there was enough time between episodes to really complain without in-depth analysis of the season as a whole. Moreover,  I do think that my initial frustrations are not totally evaporated after this second helping (I still have a number of issues with the season), but instead complicated. So although Newman’s argument about bingeing can certainly happen to someone watching a series for the first time, I do believe that the usefulness of a second go-through via DVD or whatever medium is there. Just because I like it more doesn’t mean the analysis is incorrect, I don’t think.

Anyway, if you get the chance, re-check out season six of The Office. It’s the series’ lowest moment, but not as awful as it appeared.

One thought on “Not quite Dundie worthy, but not as bad: Post-DVD watch musings on The Office’s sixth season

  1. This is the first season I haven’t bought on DVD. I was just too disappointed by most of it the first time around. You’re kinda convincing me I need to rewatch it, though. For what it’s worth, the highlights for me the first time around were “Murder,” “Scott’s Tots,” and, of course, “Niagara,” which felt more like a big thank you hug from the show’s creators to the faithful audience than a true episode of The Office. Most of the rest of the season had its moments of greatness lost in seas of mediocrity.

    I’m hoping they really pull out all the stops this season to make Steve Carrell’s last year on the show worthwhile.

    Like

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