"I miss Holly", Michael Scott states in a later episode of The Office's sixth season, shortly after he lists other grievances that have weakened his performance at the recently-purchased Dunder-Mifflin. He's not alone, and she's not the only thing that's missed.
As the American take on Ricky Gervais' UK production has chuckled its way through five sturdy seasons, dynamics have been forced to change in the mischief-heavy office where minorities, layoffs, inappropriate pranks and beet farms are the brunt of the joke, captured in mockumentary fashion. The secretary-salesman flirtation between Pam (Jenna Fischer, Solitary Man) and Jim (John Krasinski, Leatherheads) that first fueled the series ran its course, now evolved into an engagement with a baby expected, while Michael's unrelenting obliviousness has barreled through lovelorn relationships and countless almost-canned, almost-downsized situations. When HR rep Holly (wonderfully played by Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone) came into the picture, and into Michael's life, the show exhibited a new spring in its step as it morphed the brainless, forlorn boss into a giddy kid in love. Now, Holly's gone, there's no more flirtation at reception, and the other caricatures are gathering a bit of dust as The Office falls back into the status quo. What's left to do but adapt to the change, which they do -- to mixed successes.
Last season's finale, "Company Picnic", suggests that this would be the path The Office would be taking. It dropped Pam in a doctor's office for a surprise reveal and brought Michael and recently-transferred Holly back together for a fleeting tease at their chemistry, though the picnic was sent into an uproar over rumors that Dunder-Mifflin has grown even closer to folding over. Though the company's financial problems will become important later in this season, the first chunk really focuses on a bit of managerial restructuring. With a baby on the way, Jim proposes a rearrangement of jobs to executive David Wallace (Andy Buckley) that'd put him in a higher pay grade, but it turns out a bit differently than expected when David cooks up an idea for the two of them to be "co-managers" -- not ratcheting back to the manager / assistant manager plotline, but with both as equal powers in the office. Oscar (Oscar Martinez) himself addresses the ridiculousness of the idea in one of his side-room interviews:
"Look, it doesn't take a genius to know that every organization thrives when it has two leaders. Go ahead, name a country that doesn't have two presidents. A boat that sets sail without two captains. Where would Catholicism be, without the popes."
As The Office progresses year after year, the doubtful nature of Dunder-Mifflin's ability to stay afloat grows more obvious, and this sixth season steers further away from that rationale into harebrained, devil-may-care sitcom territory. Part of what made the series such a hit in its beginnings were the anchors it shared with reality, such as the embellished take on a boss-employee relationship with Michael and Jan, the twitchy atmosphere around layoffs, and the screwball antics that cropped up around charity events, anger management, and that quixotic neighbor in the cubicle next door. That overstated reality behind the inter-office mischief gave The Office its appeal, whereas this season throws caution to the wind for the sake of eccentric, schtick-heavy desperation. Angela's (Angela Kinsey) bitchier to a point of disbelief in a work environment, while the bizarreness that is Dwight (Rainn Wilson, Juno) frantically stabs at comedic shock value in hopes for laughs -- which, mind you, still works on a fairly regular basis. And then there's Micheal, who has reverted from last season's justifiable depression back to even more obnoxiously far-fetched, self-absorbed tantrums. Remember when we weren't sure if Micheal was egotistical or simply unable to communicate properly? That's practically gone at this point.
While the series' archetypes are gathering rust at the joints, wearing down the steady interest that they've generated with time, the humor's still there in force -- a testament to the quality of writing that's come out of The Office since its inception. Much like other seasons, several episodes focus on satirical portraits of mundane stuff going on in the office, such as the decision-making behind giving out raises in "The Promotion", getting on people's good graces with communal food in "Double Date", and the implementation of an Employee of the Month program in "Scott's Tots". One thing you'll notice, by reading some of those episode titles, is that they're not the chief focus in the episodes that they take place in, where the kooky antics Michael gets himself into and the Pam-Jim relationship squabbles take the spotlight. Even if that's the case, the stuff that happens in the office with the supporting cast -- which, aside from company defrauder Ryan (B.J. Novac), has strengthened into an ensemble of still-fresh entities that feel comfortable in their designated places -- oftentimes earn the most laughs.
Taking a different approach than with other seasons, Pam and Jim's storyline has fallen more into sentimental humor-laced drama. Their dynamic still carries a comedic spark to fuel their knee-to-knee antics in the office, yet it's also spilled over into their interview time -- which features the two together almost as much as them separately, a shame since Krasinski and Fischer shine in their solitary segments. But all that's understandable since this season's obviously the big culmination point for their relationship on a semi-serious level, as two episodes give fans of the show healthy, gratifying chunks of material to enjoy: the wedding, and the birth of "little Tuna". These two, naturally, comprise the season's only hour-long episodes, which are both satisfying caps to their relationship and strongly-written bits from the writers. The kick at the end of the wedding episode "Niagara" -- both the sure-to-be-dated pop culture reference and the grin-inducing surprise end -- should be more than enough to send sentimentality into overdrive with long-running fans of the series, while "The Delivery" has a rather good time with labor contractions, insurance claims, and the troubles of breast feeding.
The biggest surprise to come out of this season has got to be Ed Helms, the actor behind Andy Bernard. At first, in season three, he brought Andy to life as a raging, hormonal dirtbag who punched holes through walls and kissed ass as if it was his profession, though that tune changed after he returned for mandatory anger management training. Since, he's slowly found a voice as a chipper, affably repellent do-gooder, who adds a silly but undeniably bright tone about his moments in the show. Helms' success in The Hangover obviously earned the budding star more of the spotlight, and the additions that the writers incorporate give a fresh beat to the series. Combined with Ellie Kemper's Erin, the bashful and slightly crazy receptionist who took Pam's spot, they develop what becomes this season's back-and-forth bashful flirtation -- much like Pam and Jim, or Michael and Holly -- and it's quite possibly the best thing about the whole season. Their quirky lack of jadedness, especially when their talking head interviews focus on the ball being in the other's court for a date, find both an earnest and charmingly comical "will they, won't they" suspense. It's just a shame that it carelessly boils to a head in "Secretary's Day", which unflatteringly overextends Erin's quirk.
Eventually, the plot in The Office's sixth season shifts to an inevitable point that's been teased at since Jan and Michael's very first conversation in the series: company collapse due to financial woes, then camouflaged as downsizing. That's where Sabre comes in, the company that ultimately swoops in to aid money-wise. I hesitate to say too many things about their presence since it ventures towards spoiler territory, but it's necessary to at least talk about them a bit since they change the shape of the season's second half and introduce us to the reason Kathy Bates' name shows up in the credits. She plays Joanna Bennett, a thick-accented Tallahassee executive with a lot of sass and little patience for inefficiency -- points that'll eventually change the way Dunder-Mifflin operates. At this point, with a watchful Sabre stooge named Gabe in their mix, we're treated Michael Scott and the rest of the crew attempting to embrace corporate change, from the management structure (including one necessary move, and another featuring Craig Robinson's Darryl that's sloppy, at best) and a focus on sales all the way down to Scott's time-waster trips to the water cooler.
Essentially, Sabre can be looked at much like a blowing a large heave of hot air into the balloon that is The Office, which extends its life without really changing the overall shape as the sharply-written humor keeps things afloat. At least, for a little longer. It certainly carries us through the latter half of this season, which offers a similar mix of hit-and-miss episodes. That includes an entire arc involving Michael experiencing what can be best described as a rebound to Holly, which helps Michael find firmer footing as a confused character instead of a blatantly asinine one, and some high jinks involving quality control and commission payment underneath the Sabre umbrella -- showing a fertile ground for the writers to use the buyout to their advantage, momentum that'll carry over into the next season. Plus, with that change of regime comes a change in managerial perception, and the hint at a return to form in Jo's final comment to Michael in this season suggests a hopeful shift in things to come. Our fingers are crossed, Ms. Flax, because you've been missed.
A Note about "Koi Pond", aka Season Six's "Halloween" Episode:
When the episode "Koi Pond" was broadcast on October 29th, it featured something at the beginning that's not included on this DVD. The official synopsis included with this season set describes the episode as such:"The office puts on a Halloween haunted house for local children. Michael is mocked after falling into a koi pond during a sales visit. Pam and Andy are mistaken for a couple when they go on a cold sales call." A partly glow-in-the-dark "haunted house" setup in the Dunder-Mifflin warehouse starts the episode, with Darryl guiding a group of kids through a lazily-organized creep show. At the end, however, it features Michael Scott in a "cold open"-level gag that might have later been seen as inappropriate, determined by the fact that it was later excised on the episode's re-run -- and from this DVD.
With its removal, however, it also deems the synopsis a bit confusing since, well, there's no mention of Halloween or the haunted house in the rest of the episode, while this scene hasn't been included in the deleted scenes or anywhere else in the package. That is, except for one photograph in the menu for the second disc (click here to view, look to the bottom left). Instead, the episode begins in Jim's office as Michael rambles on about a garlic festival, with the title cards inserted between Jim's line, "That's what a teacher is, right?" and Michael talking to Jim about what name to call the guy at the location with the koi pond. Currently, the scene can still be viewed on NBC.com, but Universal's choice not including the material anywhere in the set is a shame.
Season Six of The Office arrives from Universal in a nicely-design foldout digipack, with all twenty-five (25) episodes spread across five silver-topped, bland discs. The design work makes the side and inner artwork look like a copy machine, while the inner top artwork features a Sabre water bottle and other nice touches. It's a clever package, though the outer slipcase's top artwork featuring the cast certainly leaves something to be desired.
Video and Audio:
Those who have grown accustomed to Universal's excellent images for The Office will remain pleased with this slate of 1.78:1 widescreen-enhanced episodes, which sport a level of detail and clarity that continues to impress. The crisp, somewhat clinical cinematography of the office environment always looks fresh, sending out a rich palette and skin tones amid a controlled-yet-robust atmosphere, which never leaves one wanting too much for a boost in clarity to high-definition. In fact, it's one of the few shows that's stayed excruciatingly close to the HD broadcasts via DVD, preserving the mockumentary-style shots with a clean range of movement at all times. Some skin tones tend to look a tad red at points, while a few blocks of color show some noise that's to be expected. Other than that, everything's in tip-top shape.
Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks that accompany each episode deliver exactly where they need to -- verbal clarity. There's a full range of vocal levels, from Stanley's "timber" voice Angela's higher-level piercing, and everything in between. Universal's disc preserve the yelling, whispering from Michael, and the roundabout chitter-chatter with fine awareness of the natural bass and treble levels. Sure a few sound effects squeal into the picture -- the squealing of the wheels on Dwight's Firebird, the crashing of water at Niagara Falls, and the clank of a metal water bottle against a window -- step a bit beyond this rigid focus on dialogue and offer a little crisp ambiance. Still, what's important is that everything stays distortion free and able to be heard, which it does from start to finish. English SDH and Spanish subtitles accompany all of the episodes available here.
As with previous season sets of The Office, several select episodes arrive with Commentary tracks featuring the writers, producers and cast members, as well as a few Deleted Scenes for most episodes. On Disc One and Two, two are available on "Niagara", a very good one with Greg Daniels and Paul Fieg and the other featuring six writers, producers, and editors, while "Murder" plops Daniels, Danny Chun, and Erin herself Ellie Kemper in the chairs for a light but fun track.
Discs Three and Four see a light commentary track for "Secret Santa" featuring three of the female cast members, a satisfying discussion-heavy track for "The Delivery" that features the directors, writers, and Jenna Fischer, while B.J. Novac, Matt Sohn, and the accounting crew pile on for the commentary track for "Happy Hour". The third disc also comes equipped with "Producer's Cut" of Secret Santa (29:43, 16x9) that runs a little over seven minutes longer than the broadcast episode, as well as the full "Welcome To Sabre" (:59, 16x9) video used in the "Sabre" episode (featuring Christian Slater getting a little more work in for NBC after his ho-hum run on My Own Worst Enemy).
Disc 5 contains the lion's share of supplemental material, most prominent being the Original Digital Short: The Podcast (9:21). It focuses on Sabre employee Gabe attempting to get a podcast off the ground, which quickly evolves into an involved talkshow-style video podcast when Oscar ruffles a few feathers with his blog. The disc also includes an always-entertaining fixture on the season packages, a Blooper Reel (23:49, 16x9), and a cluster of Canada Games Promos (2:07, 16x9).
The appeal of The Office is nearly unshakable, as it's embedded in pop culture with little dialogue gems and character memes revolving around life "at the grind", but this sixth season loses some of that special ... something (some might say its joie du vivre) that fueled the first five seasons along. Sure, the writers still bring plenty of humorous ammunition to the table, taking the characters and Dunder-Mifflin itself in directions to spice up what this mockumentary's capturing, yet the magic that glues it all together seems to have lost a bit of its cohesiveness -- which can happen in the longevity of a television show. But all's certainly not lost, as there's still plenty of deadpan chuckles and laugh-out-loud gags to indulge in, though they're fewer and far between this time around. It's still The Office and it earns a firm Recommendation, though it's got to find a way to reach back to the perfect blend it struck with its first five seasons to give it the oomph it needs to ride out a few more.