The Office, “Threat Level Midnight”

Inspired by the sprawling, multi-armed conversation about the state of television criticism (see herehere andhere, among other places), I’ve decided to take the next week or so to check in with the series that I watch every single week, but never actually write about. There’s been a lot of discussion about writing longer form pieces on series with more episodes in the tank, so I’m going to try to experiment with that and see how it goes. Today, I check in on The Office.

I haven’t written about The Office since early in season seven when Timothy Olyphant was randomly around for a few fun episodes, and “Threat Level Midnight” felt like a good time to check in. Throw in the criticism discussions and I knew I had to write about this episode and the season’s narrative as a whole. From my five minutes of research, it looks as though there are eight episodes left in this season, which means, somehow, there are only around FOUR episodes left with Steve Carell starring as Michael Scott. This is insane. Though I appreciate the way that within the series, Michael’s exit is going to seem sudden and random, as a viewer, we’ve known this has been coming for so long and to have it not really appear to be an issue yet is just wild. I cannot believe that NBC hasn’t been hyping Carell’s exit for months now, but perhaps their inherent fears of what will happen to the series once he is gone means that they don’t want to market it. But if the man is leaving, you might as well make some business off of it, as far as I’m concerned.

In any event, “Threat Level Midnight” serves the same kind of purpose as a lot of the recent episodes this season: It subtly hints to the viewers at home that this is Michael Scott’s swan song without really bringing it up within the narrative itself. All season, we at home have been trying to pick up on the little moments or beats that could play at part in Michael’s departure from Dunder Mifflin, but oftentimes I’ve felt like I have been straining myself too hard to find something that might not actually be there. It makes the viewing process a bit different and sort of unsatisfying. I don’t think this is a program where suddenly something is going to happen and all these minor things leading up to his departure become re-colored, which means The Office‘s writing staff has basically been biding its time paying lip service to the fans at home without fully addressing why they’re doing so within the actual narrative world.

“Threat Level Midnight” is yet another one of these episodes. It’s perhaps the most overt celebration of the series’ history and most obvious destruction of the diegetic world that supposed to exist in this world viewed through the mockumentary lens. As a long-term fan of the series, I could help but smile and laugh throughout this episode. As person who wants to analyze these things more critically, I couldn’t help but think about the obvious problems with this episode.

Let’s talk about the problems because I just can’t let them go. YES, this episode totally disrupts any sense of realism the series has. Michael’s production of Threat Level Midnight has been going on for 11 years on a very amateur level, but it looks as if it’s been shot with high-definition cameras — even the early scenes that made it through the rounds of edits — by people who clearly know what they’re doing behind the lens. Although I think this could have been a cool opportunity to bring in the documentary crew and show that they had been actually helping Michael complete this task in recent years, B.J. Novak’s script avoids that and instead the episode throws caution to the wind in reference to the believability of this production. There are most certainly moments where Midnight looks stupid and terrible, particularly in the action sequences and transitions, but it’s still too put together for what we expect from Michael, or really anyone else in this office.

And of course, this doesn’t even consider the countless appearances from former characters, like Karen, Roy, Ryan’s hobbit drug dealer friend from New York, Jan and Pam’s mom. I think the episode tries to work in their placement here as well as possible, but in the end, it doesn’t really hold together if you think about it for more than a minute or two. The logistics of it could have worked, but it’s unclear why someone like Karen would have really taken part in this to begin with. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s big enough of one to make me take note.

But perhaps worst of all, I find it totally ridiculous to believe how this film works as a piece for tension between Michael and Holly. I see that Novak’s script is trying to show us that Michael has actually grown up in such a way that he can recognize that the movie sucks and it’s not worth holding on to some childish dream when he has Holly right there in front of him. However, as a member of the audience, I’m supposed to believe that Michael and Holly are this major MFEO couple, one that’s been on hold for too long and will probably serve as the end-game for Michael’s departure from the office. If this is actually the case, and I think it most certainly is, then there is no way that I can believe Michael didn’t share the movie with Holly at all. In fact, Holly should have had a starring role in this damn thing if it’s so important to him. And in general, it feels like something that Holly would love to begin with. This is a perfect thing for them to work on together, but instead, he’s randomly kept it from her and she’s randomly uninterested in enjoying it for what it is, which totally betrays both characters in the guise of creating two minutes of tension with the ultimate sense that Michael has matured. This is a totally unearned approach to an episode that probably would have worked better as a full fan service thing, with little conflict at all.

The only way I can remotely buy into what this episode is trying to tell me about Michael and Holly is if the narrative told me that Michael kept this from Holly because when she’s around, he doesn’t need these kind of childish endeavors. When he was with Jan and Helene, perhaps he needed the creative outlet that he couldn’t get anywhere else. But with Holly, he can get like a total fool on an hourly basis, which, theoretically, could have led to him forgetting all about the movie. But that’s not how this was played. There’s a hint of that in the conclusion where Michael recognizes that he doesn’t need the movie anymore, but there’s really no answer for why he didn’t bring it up in the first place and then continued to work on it after Holly. I would have much preferred to hear the above solution or even that Michael got back to work on the movie because he was alone and missing Holly after she moved away the first time, but again, none of that is present. Instead, Michael gives Holly and us a throwaway line about not getting around to all the conversations yet and we’re just supposed to roll with it. That doesn’t fly with me.

Therefore, I’m not really sure what to think about this episode and this farewell arc as a whole. The first half of the season mostly avoided any sort of direct, larger conflict for Michael that could even remotely send him away from the office and even with Holly back, there isn’t much within the story being told that suggests he’s on his way out. This episode wants to think that Michael letting the movie go and choosing Holly is a big moment of growth for him, but it’s a moment build on a faulty foundation to begin with and one that might not pay off to anything else in the future because there still isn’t a sense of where this is headed. Michael’s learned lessons like this before and then forgotten them the next week, so without the safety net of an obvious and directed closing narrative for the character within the story, it just feels like a normal episode of The Office.

But because we at home know that this isn’t a normal episode of The Office, it makes the events of “Threat Level Midnight” even more frustrating. Even if I was okay with how Michael reached his epiphany this week, I don’t think I’d have much trust that it actually meant anything in the long-term, because it feels like the writers would rather play his departure for more surprise then sustained narrative. While that works in keeping the characters on their toes and the audience from knowing all sorts of spoilers, it’s still frustrating to try to read into things that might not actually be there. This final run of episodes and this episode in particular want us to really celebrate the great characters and moments The Office has given us over the past seven years, but it seems to have no real interest in making sure it can create any of those characters or those moments in the future, which is fully problematic and dangerous.

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One thought on “The Office, “Threat Level Midnight”

  1. Even though I have to agree with many of your comments as a critic, I’m sorry you had to watch it with that lens. I think I watched the episode as the way the office watched michael’s movie – ignoring any obvious illogical plot devices and just enjoying it for what it was. And viewed this way, it was one of my favorite episodes of the season.

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