Note: Some people will think: how do you talk about the fifth season of a television show without spoiling the other seasons? The answer: You don't. If you're an "Office" newbie, you should start with Season 1, although I wouldn't begrudge you starting at Season 2.
The voyage of "The Office" remake has been filled with peaks and valleys. Watching the pilot episode was an experience similar to staring at a car accident, but the journey to the Season 2 finale "Casino Night" (one of, if not the finest moment in the show's first four seasons) brought about a slow but enthusiastic change of heart. The show stumbled again with the Season 3 opener, refusing to address the finale's cliffhanger head-on, but maintained my goodwill with the introduction of brilliant characters like Andy (Ed Helms) and Karen (Rashida Jones). Season 4 had episodes like "Money" (a great balance between the show's honest observation and clever humor) but it was weighed down by several unwieldy hour-longs, and painfully strained writing surrounding the romantic relationships between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) and Michael (Steve Carell) and Jan (Melora Hardin).
I get flak for it from all my friends, but every year I wait until DVD to watch a new season. This year's wait was tinged with worry: I've been hearing complaints that the show is threatening to tip over. It's a common problem with American sitcoms: the status quo may be appreciated, but eventually viewers will bail if the characters start over every week. Something's gotta change, and the easiest way out is to engage a few regulars in an intimate relationship. Some of these moments on "The Office" have been brilliant: the surprise first night between Michael and Jan was both hilarious and signaled a conscious, absolute deviation from the British original, and the attraction between Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and Angela (Angela Kinsey) was a masterstroke of pre-existing characterization. Still, while comparison between the two shows is pretty lame (especially this far in), the original "Office" used Tim and Dawn's unrequited love as a backbone, a through-line for the whole show to stand on. My problem with Jim and Pam's material during Season 4 was that despite playing their card much earlier, the show still wants to have some of the classic will-they-or-won't-they tension, and Jim's nervousness about proposing just isn't as compelling. There was also Angela and Andy, whose impromptu engagement provided a "shock" finale last year, but I had trouble seeing how the story could play out.
Between my reluctance to embrace Season 4 and my friends criticizing Season 5, I went into this DVD with a hint of dread. Thankfully, "The Office" Season 5 is better than Season 4. Hourlongs are used more effectively, the story takes smarter turns, and the whole thing staves off tonal fatigue better than most sitcoms are capable of. Sure, the little jokes peppering each episode like Michael mangling words and Jim shooting exasperated looks at the camera have been reduced to chuckles, but the show still creates predicaments that make my jaw drop in glee.
One of the primary factors that keeps "The Office" fresh is its ability to find new dynamics for its expansive cast of characters. In the episode "Business Trip", Michael, Andy and Oscar (Oscar Nuñez) head to Canada. At night, they hit up a bar, and Michael leaves with a girl, which gives the other two a chance to hang out. Oscar has always been one of the writers' secret weapons, and watching him drunkenly bond with Andy is awesome (and a twist on the formula in and of itself -- there are almost no friendships at Dunder-Mifflin that aren't punctured by frequent awkwardness). Resident cynic Stanley (Leslie David Baker) actually adopts a good mood for a few episodes this year, celebrating personal triumphs in "Weight Loss" and trying to relax in "Stress Relief". The biggest relief, though, is the show's handling of Jan and Ryan (BJ Novak). Jan just fades into the background instead of having her existing story stretched any further; her obvious distaste for Michael had become a burden, and while I like Melora Hardin, her character had clearly run its course. I also wouldn't call the season's late-breaking attempt to give Ryan a fresh start unsuccessful, but I'm still not convinced the character can be totally rescued. Like Jan, Ryan has been written into a mood-killing rut, but I'll withhold total judgment of the new-and-improved version until Season 6 is over.
The first half of the season pretty much runs the entire spectrum of quality. We follow Angela and Andy's wedding plans along a rocky road -- a road that leads straight to Dwight, we see the struggles of Jim and Pam's long-distance relationship while Pam is attending art school in New York, and finally, the show covers Holly Flax ("The Wire" and Gone Baby Gone star Amy Ryan) as the office's new HR rep and Michael's latest love interest. Holly's compatibility with Michael is played to great comic effect without ever seeming too unrealistic. Michael's a good guy, and Holly sees what he means rather than what he says. Jim and Pam's situation is an improvement on Season 4, because Pam's desire to study art is logical groundwork from the characters rather than artificial tension generated by Jim's out-of-nowhere need (not unreasonable, but out-of-nowhere just the same) for the proposal to be perfect (an issue resolved head-on in the season's very first episode). The Dwight/Andy/Angela love triangle, on the other hand, is a bit of a non-starter. Andy's enthusiasm is unflappable, Angela is irritable as always and Dwight has a few good schemes up his sleeve (like the one in "The Surplus") but the concoction of the trio never really takes off the way it should and the resolution is underwhelming ("The Duel" starts great and ends weakly).
Season 5, however, saves the best for last. Upon Pam's return, there were interesting developments with her and Jim (Jim makes a big, impulsive purchase), and some episodes were quietly excellent (including the bittersweet "Prince Family Paper" and the ups and downs of heartbreak in "Blood Drive"). Now, I was amused by these developments, but even so, I started to get that familiar sensation that the show was just existing rather than telling a story. Then, almost out of nowhere, the writers pull out five of the best episodes the show has ever aired. (Spoilers ahead.) On the eve of Michael's fifteenth anniversary with Dunder-Mifflin, CFO David Wallace (Andy Buckley) brings Charles Miner (another "Wire" star, Idris Elba) in to supervise Michael and the staff. Angered by David's decision to use Charles as a barrier between David and himself, Michael quits, forming the Michael Scott Paper Company. His employees: Pam, who chooses to walk out with Michael, and Ryan, who they rescue from a minimum-wage position at a bowling alley.
I've always appreciated the way "The Office" humanizes Michael and shows the ways he is good at relating with people, but admittedly the "nice" moments can become pandering or easy grabs at the audience's heartstrings. These five episodes don't pander at all; they're on another level of quality. The fact that Pam walks out with Michael could easily feel like a necessity. There's no way Michael can start the company alone. Yet, once again, the character groundwork is there: I never felt like I didn't understand why Pam was making the decisions she makes, and whenever her resolve falters, Michael really steps up to the plate. In "Dream Team", Michael gives a speech to her about how he's good under pressure, and it's one of the season's finest moments, played perfectly between Carell and Fischer. In an even more refreshing move, I'm especially grateful that the show never tries to bring any conflict between Jim and Pam into the equation, because the point of her decision is to give her the spotlight rather than introduce more tired time-apart conflict.
Carell reaches a few more celebratory high notes throughout the season, most of which reveal a new level of maturity or awareness in his character. Great moments from the actor include "Business Trip", when he makes a much-deserved phone call to David Wallace hit home, "Lecture Circuit (Part 2)" and "Blood Drive", where you feel his genuinely sweet longing for Holly, and the end of "Stress Relief", when he gives his staff a dose of their own medicine. On top of all that, if Carell is going to be submitted for another Emmy, "Broke" manages to stand head-and-shoulders above the rest as the episode he should submit. "Broke" is the best episode of Season 5, and every moment of it is funny, clever and surprising, starting with Dwight's slow downfall in the eyes of Charles Miner through to Michael's unrelenting hardball tactics in a business meeting. This is a show built on the trials and tribulations of the 9-to-5 daily grind and just trying to make it through the day with your potentially crazy co-workers, but "Broke" celebrates teamwork and solidarity, and it flies so high, it makes you want to cheer. In general, the last third of the season seems to feature a wiser Michael, a Michael with more common sense, and it works like a charm. Leavening Michael's cluelessness with a few more insights really rounds the character out.
I hate wondering how much gas is left in the tank (I've always thought seven seasons is as far as the series could go, just in terms of sheer volume), and I walked away from Season 4 feeling like "The Office" had dropped into a comfort zone, where the show's missteps were evened out by little more than the sensation of seeing familiar faces and trademark gags. Season 5 is the ultimate rebuttal, delivering episodes that take a big risk and presuming they have an audience that's willing to follow. Even beyond the number of episodes and moments I've written about in this review, there are still plenty of great moments I haven't mentioned (such as the brilliantly-directed fire-alarm opening to "Stress Relief" or Andy and Dwight playing dueling string instruments in the break room). It's exactly the type of confidence-booster I need to make the permanent transition from liking the show to knowing that it's one of my favorites; even if the show finds itself in another valley, I'll know that the creators have it in them to potentially pull something genuinely great together.
The episodes in this set break down as follows:
Disc 1: "Weight Loss", "Business Ethics", "Baby Shower", "Crime Aid", "Employee Transfer".
Disc 2: "Customer Survey", "Business Trip", "Frame Toby", "The Surplus", "Moroccan Christmas", "The Duel".
Disc 3: "Prince Family Paper", "Stress Relief", "Lecture Circuit (Part 1)", "Lecture Circuit (Part 2)", "Blood Drive".
Disc 4: "Golden Ticket", "New Boss", "Two Weeks", "Dream Team", "Michael Scott Paper Company", "Heavy Competition".
Disc 5: "Broke", "Casual Friday", "Café Disco", "Company Picnic."
"The Office" continues a string of badly-Photoshopped, unappealing DVD covers with Season 5, which sticks the cast in...um...a padded room? The back cover is nicer, although John Krasinski's name is spelled wrong in the summary ("Krasinsky"). Inside the slipcover is a digipak fold-out booklet with glass-case directory/bulletin board design that's considerably more clever. On the flaps of the digipak (in a strange order) are the disc contents with short episode summaries and a listing of bonus features for each one. The discs themselves sit in trays over a cast photo (out of promo images already?), and there's an insert, featuring Jay Leno on one side and a potential "Dunder-Mifflin Golden Ticket" on the other. Golden Ticket finders will, among other things, potentially get to fly to the set of "The Office" and watch the show being filmed.
I also picked up (as is my yearly tradition) the Best Buy and Target Exclusive editions. Both contain the exact same standard DVD of Season 5 within their special packaging. The Best Buy exclusive this year comes in a Schrute Farms Beet Crate; inside is a Large T-shirt advertising Schrute Farms Beets, a mouse pad (also designed like a crate), a magnet (Schrute Farms is the #1 Beet-Related Agrotourism Destination in Northern Pennsylvania), a doorknob hanger and a beet-shaped stress toy. The Target exclusive (the better of the two, in my opinion; the Best Buy sets are clever but heading downhill) comes in a special outer slipcover designed to look like a ream of Michael Scott Paper Company Paper (with an awkward fold-over flap with the hinge at the top; I'd have preferred to slide the DVD in from the side). Inside is a miniature screenplay for the episode "Michael Scott Paper Company", four magnets designed to look like classic black-bordered, inspirational one-word "phrase" posters, and, sitting inside the DVD digipak in a plain paper envelope, a bonus disc (see The Extras for further information). It's worth noting that neither of the unsealed DVDs in the store-exclusive sets contained a potential "Golden Ticket" insert.
The Video and Audio
Just like previous seasons of "The Office", Season 5 is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and just like previous seasons of "The Office", Season 5 looks and sounds pretty great. Color and fine detail are very strong, especially in the well-lit office set that most of the show takes place in. When the cast and crew venture outside, the show is more apparently digital, and the lighting is harsher, but it still looks good. During the occasional nighttime shoot, grain starts to show up, but it's not the fault of the disc or the compression. The only exception is the opening credit sequence, but that was filmed on handheld digital and has always looked rough. I'm sure the show, being released on Blu-Ray for the first time this season, will look even better in HD, but this DVD presentation is nothing to scoff at.
On the aural side, the 5.1 mix doesn't always get a chance to be active, but it is immersive in a unique way, punctuating the show's constant awkward silence with painfully perfect ambience. The important thing is that the dialogue comes through clean and clear, which it does. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are provided, although they're fairly large, and Universal always attempts to make the subtitles directional, placing them in an area of the screen relative to the person speaking. This works fine except when the opening credits are rolling; the captions are placed away from the credits, and therefore usually over the face of the person speaking. It's a not a big deal, just something I always notice.
"Office" lovers have another veritable treasure trove of extras to dig into, starting with deleted scenes, which are so elaborate and often so good they've become a fan favorite. The first disc alone serves up 55:50 worth of excised footage, viewable in shorter reels for each episode or as one large chunk. Highlights include: Jim reading an email from Jan concerning her pregnancy, Michael chatting with Holly about a friend's death, Michael and Holly flirting in garbage bags, a Michael/Toby phone call, a thematic device involving walls, Stanley explaining his hatred of babies, Michael's Godfather impression, Andy explaining what thieves have done to his office chair, and Darryl (the great Craig Robinson) explaining "cow surfing". There's also a key scene where David Wallace discovers Ryan working as a temp, which fills in a considerable blank in the season proper about why Ryan chooses to join the Michael Scott Paper Company (and perhaps why Ryan abruptly vanishes). In fact, there's a lot of Ryan on the cutting room floor, most of which goes a long way towards making his character seem a little funnier, if not necessarily more sympathetic. Kevin also has a shining moment throwing Ryan's new mentality back in his face.
Three audio commentaries finish the extras on Disc 1. In order to shake things up, some new commentators have been brought in, ranging from craft services to the boom operator. It doesn't work too badly; the commentaries feature a fair amount of dead air and laughing at the episodes, but when the commentators speak up they have plenty of information to provide about challenges viewers might not be aware of: a seemingly simple task like choosing a road-side gas station turns out to be an extensive, layered discussion necessitating meetings and nationwide travel and a conversation about craft services, and catering makes for one of the more entertaining "Office" tracks. The third track is back to basics, but the one with catering/craft services is one of the best tracks on the set.
The disc opens with automatic trailers for "Parks and Recreation", "30 Rock": Season 3, Away We Go, Universal Blu-Ray and "The Jay Leno Show".
More deleted scenes (39:56) feature Dwight's inability to understand the humor in a political cartoon and him performing an alternate-reality failed assassination of JFK, the return of Mose (Michael Schur), Michael claiming that Meredith needs to drink a "responsibilitini", the discussion of dead celebrities (like "Ernie Hudson") during Meredith's intervention, Stanley's amazing, succinct attempt to convince Andy and Dwight not to duel over Angela, and a story from Dwight about a plane that could only fly for three minutes at a time.
Another three audio commentaries are provided on Disc 2, on the episodes "Customer Survey", "Moroccan Christmas" and "The Duel". Fans of both the original and American versions of the show should jump straight to the first track, which features UK creator/writer/director Stephen Merchant (and also the director of the episode in question). Flanked by writer/producers Paul Lieberstein and Mindy Kaling, the track verges on awkward reverence towards Merchant, but it's still a treat to listen to the man marvel at what his original co-creation has birthed. The second track, with Kate Flannery, Angela Kinsey and Brian Baumgartner, is an extremely excited, extremely complimentary affair, but the trio makes time for a handful of amusing shooting stories (especially Flannery, who talks about getting physical with Steve Carell when Michael tries to force Meredith into the rehab center). It also never fails to amaze me how far apart Baumgartner and his character really are. The last track is somewhat chaotic, and makes time for less interesting stories, but writer Jennifer Celotta gets a good comment in here and there, and Rainn Wilson bends over backwards making jokes.
The lone extra on Disc 3 is another massive batch of deleted scenes (43:21). Here, we get Angela being driven to tears at the thought of "Baywatch", the office's attempt to reassure Michael after he visits Prince Family Paper, Darryl's speech about what he's going to change as a black man during the Obama administration (perhaps the best deleted scene of the whole season), Michael carrying around a portable defibrillator, Dwight getting all up in Phyllis' face, Angela and Kevin mutually appreciating a joke, Jim's advice to Dwight on how to be more relatable to people, Dwight and Toby making a terse deal, Jan's contribution to Michael's roast (containing the second-best line of the deleted scenes), and a really unusual, awkward scene where Jim describes a shoelace prank he plays on Pam.
Once again, we have deleted scenes (33:10). The best bits include additional scenes of Kevin fighting off dating advice from Andy, Jim and Pam, Michael angrily referring to Jim as "James" in a scene that would have been foreshadowing had it been left in, Michael's various methods of emotional release following his impulse decision to quit, a speechles Charles Miner, Dwight mocking Jim and Pam following the impromptu soccer game, Pam describing "the road less traveled", Dwight and Andy having a pantomime gunfight, Ryan criticizing Pam's word choices, and the Michael Scott Paper Company failing to lock down Ryan's uncle as a client.
Only two audio commentaries on Disc 4, on "Dream Team" and "Michael Scott Paper Company". The first track is one of the most laid-back commentaries on the disc, with Novak, writers Aaron Shure and Charlie Grandy and DP/camera operator Matt Sohn sounding relaxed as they casually chat about hair dye, the risks of splitting up the cast and the pain of shooting in the world's tiniest office. The second, with Jenna Fischer and producer/writer/directors Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, starts out more subdued than the first but quickly becomes the funniest extra on the disc. Stupnitsky and Lee get in several jabs at Fischer and their episode, explaining their writing and directing techniques, plus true insider information like where gum is stored on the set, and how Ryan wears the same sunglasses as Joaquin Phoenix.
Season 5 gets yet another classic gag reel (14:48) of the cast and crew breaking up while trying to painfully, suffocatingly serious. So many bloopers and gag reels on DVDs aren't funny, but there's something almost cathartic about watching this particular cast and crew break up.
The set's final chunk of deleted scenes (21:28) showcase Angela wringing joy from declined expense reports, Michael remembering one of his school teachers and trying to use David and Goliath as a metaphor for the buyout proceedings, Andy yelling at Creed to "hurry up" at the copier, Dwight trying to tell people that failure isn't an option "in his book", Kevin explaining what he looks for in a woman, Dwight and Andy singing an impromptu song about Utica, and, finally, what appears to be the resolution of the volleyball game.
"100 Episodes, 100 Moments" featurette (8:45) is literally a reel of highlights from the show's first 100 episodes, complete with a gigantic counter in the corner. It's not terrible (the best moment is the juxtaposition of moments 28 and 29), and I have nothing against its inclusion, but I imagine most fans would probably rather watch their DVDs.
"The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Presents 'The Office'" (30:01) is a half-hour, on-stage interview with the cast and crew, hosted by Andy Richter. It's a really good, well-edited interview that works mainly because Richter is really good at doling out questions to all of the numerous people on stage but asking smart questions that get them to respond. Some of the material will be familiar, but it's one of the better general overviews I've seen for a TV show.
Six television promos, filmed for the XLIII Football Championship and the Beijing Games, are really funny specially-filmed sketches. It seems like it'd be a pretty small thing, but this is one of the best extras on the disc. Where else are you going to hear about Murder Checkers?
Speaking of specially-filmed sketches, two short websiode series are up next, titled "Kevin's Loan" and "The Outburst" (20:17). I never watched "The Accountants" webisodes on the earlier DVDs, and these aren't as good as the promos, but they are a reasonably amusing diversion, thanks to the always-welcome addition of Craig Robinson and a couple of great lines like "Lindsay Brohan" and Angela's description of non-gossip.
Finally, the last two audio commentaries are for "Casual Friday" and "Company Picnic", and sadly, these tracks are mostly non-essential. Both contain too much amusement at the episode in question rather than information, lacking chatter about the idea process or the challenges of creating those particular episodes. The second one gets better in the second half, and they're not bad commentaries, per se, but 75% of this material isn't particularly compelling or worth the listener's time.
Target Exclusive Bonus Disc
Unlike the Best Buy exclusive set, the Target exclusive set contains a bonus DVD with an additional feature. "Inside the Writer's Room" (47:47) is a wonderfully lengthy panel discussion at the Paley Center with ten members of the writing staff, plus Greg Daniels. They mock each other (Lieberstein and Kaling rag on each other's acting, and when the question comes up about who's most addicted to their mobile device, the result is decisive); they go in-depth discussing the challenge of keeping Michael realistic (including cutting a particularly great joke that Schur recounts); and fan reactions versus their own expectations. They also turn to the floor for fan questions, and the host, Jenny Tan, may be familiar to "Office" lovers as the webmaster of fansite www.officetally.com. It's even better than the featurette on the regular DVD, so if you haven't already picked up the DVD, I highly suggest heading to your local Target.
All of the extras on all six discs are captioned in English for the deaf and hard of hearing and subtitled in Spanish, with the exception of the audio commentaries.
Popping in the first disc of Season 5, not only was I worried that the show was losing its luster, but I was also confident it was never quite going to reach the level of lofty esteem I held Season 2 in. Taking the last disc out of my player, I feel like Season 5 might be the best season yet. Any fan of "The Office", hardcore or casual, should consider this set highly recommended as one of the finest examples of current American television comedy. In addition, the 47-minute extra feature included in the Target set (plus a mini-script, exclusive packaging, and a set of magnets) really boost the value of the collection, so much so that I'd actually be willing to give that edition the DVDTalk Collector's Series rating.
Note: The star rating for "Extras" to the side corresponds to the standard edition of the DVD.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.