The accused: The Office, “The Banker” (Season 6, Episode 14)
The crime: Clip show. That is all.
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
With the firs three #TVFail entries, I tackled failures in the dramatic arena of television, basically unintentionally. Therefore, I made a conscious decision to write about a failure of the comedic type and to be honest, it took me a little bit to settle on what I wanted to write about. I would love to write about older series more often, but a feature like this requires a steady hand of context as far as series-long stories go. I cannot really talk about why an individual episode sucks without having the other episodes to compare it to, you know? I received a number of fantastic suggestions on Twitter that I proceeded to save for possible coverage at a later date because I ultimately decided that I wanted to write about The Office. It is a series that has been on long enough that I can properly point out why an episode like “The Banker” is so terrible (although it is probably obvious to even the non-initiated).
But even though it is completely unintentional, I think I have started something of a pattern here with #TVFail. With the first two odd-numbered posts, I have discussed how certain failures have impacted a series’ long-term viability and quality, whereas with the first two even-numbered posts (including this one, clearly), I have tackled episodes that express some larger issues with a genre, format or the medium as a whole. Again, this is something that was not purposeful at all with my original planning of this feature, but I actually sort of like it and will probably try to keep it going moving forward. Of course, that might depend on the response to this post, but it is just something to think about, I guess.
ANYWAY, with the first three posts, I think I have been at least somewhat sympathetic to the episodes discussed. I have not outwardly supported them or tried to argue for why they are “good” episodes, but there are redeeming qualities worth discussing, I think. With today’s post, I cannot really say that is the case. I am not here to save The Office‘s “The Banker” or the clip show as a narrative device.
When I wrote about House‘s “Simple Explanation,” I talked a lot about how the constraints of making television on an American broadcast network impact not only the “great” series on the air, but those that appear to be, well, less great. No matter how high of a bar your series has set, chances are there will be a few episodes a season than come in far under that bar. When things get tough, sometimes series rely on old tricks like the “very special episode.” Other times, they go to another well, one that is perhaps the most annoying and frivolous in the medium’s playbook: The clip show. Of all the tricks, gimmicks and go-to moves television series have, I hate the clip show the most. Even when they are supposed to serve some vague purpose, it is hard not to read a clip-fest as a temporary white flag, a signal to the audience that there is not a lot of creative juices left in the series’ tank.
Although that might be the stereotype of the clip show, I am wondering if it is really true. Of the dozen or so responses I received on Twitter as to what episode I should write about here, at least four of them were clip shows of comedies. I had three people mention the various Simpson clip-centric episodes and one throw out 30 Rock‘s 100th episode, which was powered by clips of the pilot effort. It is clear that other people feel as strongly about the horrid virus that is the clip show.
What is interesting about the clip show as a narrative device in comedy is how good of an idea it sounds in a vacuum, but how flawed it becomes in execution. In general, we primarily hope that the comedies we watch make us laugh. That is, without a question, their most important function. A simple and naive view of television comedy can be boiled down to a simple suggestion: The more laughs, the better.
With that in mind, having an episode chock-full of a series’ most overtly “funny” moments played in rapid succession sounds like the best of ideas in theory. But in actuality, comedy is so driven by context and by the set-up more than it is the punchline. Try as they might, clip shows regularly remove too much of the context in which a joke, rag or pitfall originally occurred, which ultimately devalues the number of laughs it will probably draw from the audience. Clearly, audiences well-versed a series’ oeuvre and rhythms can recall the context in their minds and still enjoy the clips on some level, but there is most definitely an inherent flaw in the use of clip shows as laugh-deliverers. In short: Clip shows aren’t funny.
So what are they useful for, if anything? In many cases, comedies use the clip show conceit as a narrative device to flash back and recall previous plot elements that are apparently once again important. I can recall a number of Friends episodes using this device and that is basically what those initial Simpson clip shows did as well. This element of the clip show is certainly less problematic than the humor aspect, but the relevance of the plot that is being forced upon a series within a clip show is very, very rarely so important that sort of back-tracking is necessary. The ultimate truth is that clip shows give the cast and crew some time off from their hectic schedules, which is fine and respectable, but not something I have to like just because Jennifer Aniston needed some a break.
This all fails to mention one of the more egregious things about clip shows: How they are marketed. In my experience, it seems like networks don’t like to promote the fact that the latest episode of a popular series includes very little new footage. It is almost as if the networks know that clip shows are pointless and there is no way fans are going to tune in if they have all the facts. So not only are these episodes enraging in their own right, they totally sneak up on us, exacerbating those rage-filled feelings. It is one thing to be slapped in the face. It is an entirely different thing to be slapped in the face when you thought you were going to be given a hug. Clip shows are the televisual version of the slap replacing the hug.
But if we are to assume that clip shows come at the end of a series’ creative peak, what do we make of the fact that the first two Simpsons clip shows came during what many would consider two of their best seasons (seasons four and six) or that 30 Rock‘s clip show was part of that series’ mildly impressive creative resurgence? Those individual episodes might have been derided for their laziness and liberal and problematic use of previous clips, but they happen to take place within pretty good overall seasons of two of the best comedies ever made. Clearly, two cases do not make my straw man argument about the clip show completely invalid, but they do complicate it. Maybe clip shows can tell us something obvious about a series’ quality in the moment the clip show was created and aired, but maybe not.
Which brings us to The Office and “The Banker.” Unfortunately for this series and this episode, “The Banker” makes all the negative remarks about the clip show seem completely true. This is, without a doubt, the worst episode of a series that has won countless awards and aired over 150 episodes. Yes, even worse than the Will Ferrell episodes from this past season. This is an episode that only barely uses the clip show device to tell a new story. This is an episode that is not really funny because so many of the snippets feel like they are cut just a moment too early or too late. NBC didn’t actually market the episode as a clip show at all, leaving fans to stew in the comments sections of The A.V. Club. And finally, this is an episode that takes place smack-dab in the middle of The Office‘s worst season, a season that regularly felt rudderless, sterile and unfunny in ways fans never though the series could.
Furthermore, if there is a series with a universe in which the clip show does not actually work, it is The Office. I know that the series has basically given up on portraying the realities of the documentary series that the crew is supposedly filming in the diegetic world of The Office (or the producers at least only use it as a device when they feel like it is necessary or helpful to a gag), but creating a clip show and then not even making an effort to explain how we at home would actually being seeing that integrated into this documentary is really lazy. This is a series that once used to be defined by is realism, both in the way it treated its characters and how it was shot, but not here. I get it, the shooting style is little more than a device at this point. But when you start with “Hey, this one’s gonna be a clip show!” and then follow that up with zero explanation or even an attempt to play with the framework of the mockumentary, it is hard not to hate the episode.
Series like The Simpsons and 30 Rock that regularly rely on the cutaway gag or joke can fairly seamlessly integrate past clips into their narrative. Even if 30 Rock‘s 100th episode was a full-on, pure clip show in the most traditional sense, it still could have worked because the series’ framework is already built for that sort of thing. And despite the awkwardness it creates, the history of the clip show in multi-camera comedies makes those efforts (like the Friends episodes I mentioned) feel even more natural than what is presented in “The Banker.” The documentary format of The Office does use quick cutting to build a narrative, but the lack of attention paid to the logical issues with a clip show episode developed within this world is probably the series’ most egregious documentary-related error ever.
This kind of laziness is what makes the clip show such a (stereotypically) obvious marker for declining quality. The clip show is sort of synonymous with complacent, fat, yet popular comedies that can produce episodes like this and not really worry about pissing people off. Theoretically, the two come hand-in-hand. A series starts to lose its edge and its ability to make consistently high-quality episodes, so obviously that drought of good ideas is going to lead them down the dangerous path that stops once or twice at the clip show station.
Never has that been more true with The Office and its sixth season. Although I enjoyed it much more during a DVD binge, there is no doubt it is the worst season, one that is defined by the kind of laziness that appears in “The Banker.” Characters stopped feeling like real people and more like characters and the narrative lacked forward momentum or sense of pacing. When The Office became television’s best comedy early in its run, it served as a beacon of hope for people who felt trapped by the formulaic kind of comedy that previously dominated broadcast television. By the time “The Banker” aired, it had become more like those formulaic suck-fests than anything else and it had the terrible clip show episode to prove it.
But of course, the seventh season of The Office was a nice little rebound for the series. It is most certainly down there with season six as the series’ least successful seasons (season one doesn’t count), but it was more enjoyable and consistent and simply better all-around. “The Banker” didn’t necessarily snap the series out of its funk, seeing as it aired right in the middle of a bad season that only got worse as it progressed, but something (probably the imminent departure of star Steve Carell) pushed The Office brass to make things better this past season. Therefore, this is an episode that is representative of a series at its very worst, but it is not completely representative of a series that never looked back from the depths the episode in question brought it to.
Therefore, perhaps the clip show doesn’t necessarily and automatically mean a comedy is out of ideas and on its way down. Instead, maybe we (meaning me, of course) should evaluate how a series uses the clip show conceit as a way to determine just how good it is at that moment. 30 Rock‘s clip-heavy 100th episode was problematic, but that had more to do with the running time than anything else. The use of the clips was fairly intelligent and funny, which basically defines 30 Rock season’s fifth season. Similarly, Community‘s fake clip show, “The Paradigms of Human Memory,” serves as a great example of that series’ ability to bust open the frameworks of the sitcom and of television as a whole. The Friends clip shows? Signs that series was out of gas. “The Banker” is most certainly closer to Friends than 30 Rock and Community‘s use of the clip show, even if it has had its positive moments in the aftermath of the episode.
I would like to say I feel better about the clip show as a device after this post, but I cannot. I might have worked out some of my own personal issues with it, but all we have to do is look an episode like “The Banker” to realize straight-forward clip shows are still pretty much awful. And I’m not sure that will ever change.