The strike has been over for months, but it is only now that we begin to see new episodes on the horizon. Granted, we will only get five or so episodes for all our waiting before the summer break. At this point, we’ll take anything after what’s happened, though. In the case of The Office, they were interrupted just as Jim and Pam finally experienced life together, Angela left Dwight for Andy, and Michael and Jan were at their rockiest point after a failed lawsuit against Dunder-Mifflin. At some point, I imagine some actual office work was done in between all that. But in “Dinner Party” its all about how experiences at Michael Scott’s home can be even more cringe inducing than experience in Michael Scott’s office.
Michael and Jan, despite their obvious extreme tension and even more massing debt, are hosting their first dinner party as a couple. After many failed attempts to invite Jim and Pam, Michael finally tricks them into accepting. Angela and Andy fill out the remaining seats, which drives Dwight back into despair over his lost- but not pregnant on the show- Angela. But dinner is a long long way off when the couples arrive, which gives Michael and Jan plenty of time to show off Michael’s decaying condo, Jan’s new candle “business” and every one of their embarrassing problems. And then Dwight shows up after all to top it off.
“Dinner Party” was the last script that The Office writers wrote before the strike started. Since then, Jenna Fischer and other cast members have repeatedly said that the table read for “Dinner Party” was the funniest one in Office history. Apparently none of it was changed after the strike, as The Office crew is saving a jump in time and new plot developments for next week. But the process of hiding Angela Kinsey’s pregnant belly has already begun, as things like flowers and purses cover her stomach and the camera mostly frames her from the neck up. Other than that, things pick up right where they left off in “Dinner Party” to the shame of all the characters.
The previous episode “The Deposition” laid a lot of Michael and Jan’s past bare in the most cringe worthy fashion. But in “Dinner Party” the awkwardness hits a new record even for The Office. For those who love those kind of Office episodes, this is a welcome return. For those who have been worried at the occasional over-the-top cartoonish approach to The Office and Michael in Season Four, maybe they will be a little more reluctant. But the awkwardness comes from the dialogue and uncomfortable one liners and exchanges, not from stupid actions like Michael driving a car into a lake- though it is said that Michael ran into his own glass door days earlier. Still, dialogue driven comedy and interaction between these characters is where The Office is much more comfortable at, which helps “Dinner Party” along nicely. By the climax of Michael and Jan’s showdown, the uncomfortable lengths to which they go to may be a bit too much for some viewers, however.
But “Dinner Party” isn’t all about comedy that makes the viewer squirm. Michael actually uses a smart ploy in the cold opening to finally get Jim to come to the party, in “Dinner Party”‘s only scene set at Dunder Mifflin. The Dundies are seen again, Michael is seen on a very small “bed” and Jim gets to play around with Michael during a hilarious game of “Celebrity.” Dwight then gets in on the events with a very poor but typical Dwight attempt to move on post-Angela. And Jan gets to play a CD from ex-assistant Hunter, who was played by Nick D’Agosto before he became the very unpopular West from Heroes.
For once, a relief from all the couples drama and squirm inducing Office material comes from Jim and Pam. The star crossed new lovers have always been the normal ones in the bunch to play off the likes of Michael and Dwight, though their own soap opera often overshadows that. But this time, they are the stable couple and are even more well adjusted than ever in the face of all this madness. Jim makes more deadpan and stunned glares to the camera than ever, and Pam even gets to worry that a jealous Jan is out to poison her. For an episode like “Dinner Party” that is driven by Michael and Jan’s rocky roller coaster of insanity, Jim and Pam’s normalcy and ability to provide deadpan comments and disbelieving reactions are more of a relief than ever.Once more, they represent us Office fans and our own reactions to the madness around us. And once more, for all the bitterness and passive aggressiveness of a Michael and Jan, we have Jim and Pam to give The Office its sane, beating heart.
However, recent spoilers and rumors hint that Jim and Pam will have a big arc of their own starting next week- will the drama and angst return to the new couple, or are they about to take brand new steps in their relationship? Or both? Either way, there should be a lot of Jim/Pam changes to come in the rest of the shortened Season Four.
“Dinner Party” was pitched as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” meets The Office, which is probably the most accurate description of all time. It certainly proves that The Office did not miss a beat since the strike- it is still as funny as ever, and often so uncomfortable that you forget that it even is a comedy in the first place. Still, “Dinner Party” was written before the strike, so we still haven’t really found out what The Office writers did after they came back and what new twists are ahead to end the season. Next week is the first true test of whether The Office writers got rusty during the strike and whether they can still end this year with as big a bang as Seasons Two and Three did.