In the past five seasons, “The Office” has evolved a lot more than your average sitcom, to the point where every season has a distinct character. Season one mostly just set up the premise, running through some pretty standard office situations and making them awkward and occasionally funny. In season two, the show really hit its stride, with some of the most hilarious and memorable episodes so far. Season three still had plenty of laughs, but there were also some real surprises in terms of plot, which made sense: There is a limited number of purely office-related situations that can happen, so to keep the show fresh, the writers had to start fleshing out relationships. By season four, though, it seemed like maybe they were running out of ways to be funny. Pam and Jim were finally together, taking away a big part of the tension of the previous seasons, and while Michael was, of course, still Michael, he started to cross that fine line between making the audience laugh at his cluelessness and just making them feel bad for him. And last season, there were whole episodes that didn’t even seem to try to be funny.
Thursday’s season six premiere, “Gossip,” started off with a scene of truly inspired physical comedy, with Michael, Dwight and Andy attempting to do parcour (getting from point A to point B in the most creative way possible) around the office (YouTube it). But this was the only time I laughed out loud during the entire episode. Not that there was anything wrong with the episode per se; the basic plot was well realized as always. Michael finds out that Stanley is having an affair. Excited to finally be in on the gossip, Michael tells everyone in the office. When he realizes he might have just ruined Stanley’s life, he tries to cover by spreading one ridiculous rumor about each person in the office, hoping that people will just assume that none of them are true. The rest of the episode deals with the complications: The rumor that Andy is gay sets off his insecurities about his orientation, and the rumor that Pam is pregnant is actually true! And ultimately, Stanley’s wife finds out that he’s cheating anyway.
So consider this episode as opposed to, say, “Drug Testing,” one of my all-time favorites, in which Michael gets high at a concert and leaves a joint in the office parking lot, prompting Dwight to order full-scale drug testing and ultimately have to lend Michael his own clean urine. The storyline is just as complex, and the same classic Michael ineptitude is at play, but no one gets hurt. Michael always made the office a hard place to work, but usually if he made real trouble, it was for himself. Now, I like Stanley. He has a sort of wry wit that makes for a nice little piece of the show, and the few episodes where he has stepped into the spotlight, he has had an antagonistic vibe with Michael that works well, but mostly he’s in the corner doing his crossword puzzle. But all of a sudden, in one episode, Stanley’s marriage ends, and he’s beating up Michael’s car, and I just can’t quite bring myself to laugh.
PB & J were sweet as always, trying for the third time to keep a major development in their relationship a secret from the office. You’d think they’d learn. The pregnancy ought to bring in some new ways to make the couple uncomfortable, and hopefully we’ll finally get a wedding this season as well. There does seem to be a disturbing trend toward Jim being the sane, down-to-earth voice of reason in the office, but this might just be specific to the episode, since some new characters were stepping up. On the other hand, between the PB & J relationship developments left and right, the Angela love triangle last season, and now apparently a new Stanley plotline this season, “The Office” might just be moving away from pure comedy and embracing the dramatic tension—which is fine, but it’s not why people watch “The Office.” With any luck, the writers know this, and this new angle is just a temporary fluctuation in what is still a fantastic show.