Cubicle dwellers rejoice, for another season of The Office is soon upon us. This successful saga of pranks, printers, and paper has remained a genuine weekly highlight for the last five years, especially since the first and second seasons provided such a sturdy foundation. Early criticisms of the show being a cheap imitation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's British series were soon put to rest---and by now, they're recognized as completely different entities altogether. Greg Daniels' adaptation of The Office for American audiences quickly yielded fantastic results: it's kept us guessing in-between fits of laughter, even dropping in touches of melancholy and surprise while our guards were down. The series has developed a considerable fan base of all ages, races and salaries since its original inception---and if we're lucky, it'll stick around for a little while longer.
After four straight years of very-good-to-flawless comedy, it wouldn't be surprising to see a slight dip in quality for the best television comedy of the decade (sorry, Arrested Development); after all, a fraction of the excitement and spark has worn off since the beginning. That's how the human brain operates: no matter how great something seems at first, we can't help but become downright familiar with it after awhile. Since the pitch-perfect second season and its worthy follow-up set the bar so high, many fans couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed with how sections of the fourth season played out. The infamous WGA writer's strike certainly didn't help matters---but I thought it served as the series' most underrated year. Now that the mixed reviews from that season have faded away, the fifth round was met with much anticipation---and as expected, this full-sized season aimed for the fences and swung hard.
Only one major character was introduced this time around, but this fifth season of The Office is anything but repetitive and overly familiar. Like the fourth season, it simply expands on what made this series great in the first place: combining pitch-perfect comedy with colorful characters that have interesting relationships with one another. Friendships are formed, rivalries are born (and amplified) and a few fledgling couples attempt to make things work. The Office already morphed into its own during the last few seasons, but this season only cements the series' individual identity. It also serves as the series' longest season to date---but even at 26 episodes in length, there's rarely a dull moment. Let's see what this five-disc collection includes, shall we?
(26 episodes on 5 single-sided discs)
* - Includes optional Audio Commentary (see below)
From start to finish, Season 5 of The Office is one of the strongest yet. Many will continue to unfairly compare the series to its arguable peak---that being Season 2, at least in most circles---but such a comparison is silly at this point. The writers have wisely side-stepped the Pam-Jim dynamic for the last several years, but they definitely haven't abandoned it. Theirs is still the most down-to-earth, refreshingly drama-free relationship to hit a sitcom in years---so to "fill the void", other relationships have been added to the recipe. First it was Dwight and Angela, Michael and Jan, Angela and Andy---and now Michael and Holly, perhaps the most adorable dork-couple in television history. The ongoing Angela-Andy-Dwight triangle is also amplified by a few degrees. Even so, Pam and Jim remain one of the series' obvious centers, for better or worse. To the creative team's credit, they've kept things interesting, real and over-the-top all at once.
Other things have changed, especially when Season 5 comes into the home stretch. After a new boss is brought on board, tension rises sharply---and shortly thereafter, the brilliant "Michael Scott Paper Company" story arc is introduced (complete with new opening titles, at least during one episode). Though some long-time fans didn't appreciate the sudden change in direction, I think it could've easily stuck around for a few more episodes. Such a bold (but temporary) step is rarely seen in such a formula-driven series, but this shake-up helped to propel the series to its finale---and even though this standard-length episode didn't quite hit all the right notes, it left us with plenty to ponder over the summer. With the Season 6 premiere just a few short weeks away, this five-disc collection should bring everyone back up to speed.
Presented on DVD once again by Universal, The Office: Season Five comes fully equipped with a strong technical presentation and a host of amusing bonus features. It's also worth noting that there's nearly twice as much content here as the truncated Season 4---and if the quantity doesn't get you, the quality sure will. Simply put, even if you've replayed these episodes a dozen times over the summer, there's still plenty here to warrant the price of admission. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratios, these 26 episodes look right on par with past season collections. The series' natural color palette has been preserved nicely, image detail is solid and black levels are consistent. Digital eyesores such as edge enhancement and pixellation are nonexistent, rounding out the presentation nicely. I'm not sure if Universal has changed their mastering techniques (since a Blu-Ray release is also available) or the technical budget is a little higher this season, but everything looks a little crisper and more vivid overall.
As expected, the audio treatment is equally satisfying. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, the natural soundstage comes through clean and clear. Surround activity is generally reserved for background noise and rare music cues, while most of the action is anchored squarely up front. Dialogue is clear and never fights for attention. Optional English captions and Spanish subtitles have been included during the episodes and all applicable bonus features.
Seen above, the lightly animated menu designs are smooth and simple to navigate. Each episode has been divided into several chapter breaks, though selection sub-menus are not present. Obvious layer changes were not detected during the actual episodes. This five-disc set follows the same packaging style as Seasons 2-4, featuring a foldout digipak case with a slipcover and overlapping hubs for the discs. Episode listings and descriptions are printed on the interior of the digipak case.
Leading off is a collection of Audio Commentaries during "Weight Loss", "Business Ethics", "Employee Transfer", "Customer Survey", "Moroccan Christmas", "The Duel", "Dream Team", "Michael Scott Paper Company", "Casual Friday" and "Company Picnic". Interestingly enough, we're given plenty of new perspectives here: no cast members are present during the first three sessions, so we hear from a handful of assistant producers, sound mixers and technicians, the costume and production designer, craft services and catering (!), the location manager and several others. Some of these folks are new to the commentary game, but most of them have been involved with The Office since day one---so it's a different experience, but a much appreciated break from the norm. Later commentaries feature writers, directors, producers and most of the principal cast (minus Steve Carrell and John Krasinski, among others). For the most part, these commentaries are balanced nicely: several of the earlier seasons' sessions, while funny at times, were much too busy and disorganized.
Next up is the star of the show: a mammoth collection of Deleted Scenes (below left) that runs for over 3 hours total. These clips are presented alongside each and every episode (even "Frame Toby", which is already extended) and run for roughly 5-12 minutes apiece. As with past seasons, they're a real treat and play out more like bonus mini-episodes than...well, what most deleted scenes feel like. Several minor subplots and side-stories are also part of the package, including a few nice scenes with Pam in New York that flesh out her character's growth a little further. Overall, these deleted scenes are a blast to watch and are easily the highlight of the bonus features.
Also returning is a Gag Reel (14:48), featuring a traditional montage of line flubs and other tomfoolery. Fans of past seasons will appreciate "100 Episodes, 100 "Moments" (8:45), which counts off some of the most memorable lines and moments from The Office's first five seasons (ending with "Company Picnic", appropriately enough). They don't always go for belly laughs, but it's hard to argue with this collection as a whole (#13 for the win!).
Up next is an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Q&A (30:01, above right) moderated by Andy Richter, featuring creator Greg Daniels and most of the principal cast and crew members. It's not exactly first-rate in the technical department, but this laid-back session is interesting and moves along well---and thankfully, just about everyone gets to chime in more than once.
Also here are a few minor but noteworthy extras, starting with a collection of terrific Office-style Promos for Super Bowl XLIII and the 2008 Olympics (6 clips, 4:42 total). We're also treated to a pair of Webisodes ("Kevin's Loan" and "The Outburst", 20:17 total); both are certainly watchable, but they're hardly the show's creative peak. Starring Kevin and Oscar respectively, along with several appearances by the show's supporting cast (including Craig Robinson during the first one), these mini-adventures are divided into several smaller chunks apiece. With that said, they'd run much more smoothly without the multiple intros and credit sequences.
All extras have been presented in anamorphic widescreen format when appropriate (including the deleted scenes, finally!), while optional English captions have been included during each and every bonus feature. It's great that Universal has finally gone the full 16x9 route, and the captions are just one more feather in their cap.
After a truncated and ever-so-slightly uneven fourth year, Season 5 of The Office stands tall as one of the finest to date. The show's effortless balance of drama, intrigue and pitch-perfect comedy remains remarkably consistent, thanks to strong performances, clever writing and a devoted creative team. Such a balance is rare in comedy-driven productions---especially for a series with 100 episodes under its belt---but if there's one thing that fans of The Office are used to, it's being pleasantly surprised. Universal's five-disc collection offers plenty of bang for the buck: aside from a rock-solid technical presentation, there's enough bonus features to keep things interesting after the credits roll (and with nearly 40% more content than Season 4, it's still only $10 more). Those new to the series are obviously encouraged to start from the beginning, but all die-hard fans of The Office will undoubtedly want to scoop this up on release day...unless they're opting for the Blu-Ray, of course. Very Highly Recommended.
Better Late Than Never: A few photos from the Office Convention (October 2007)
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.