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The Office: Season Four

(2008) *** 1/2 Unrated
405 min. NBC. Director: Jason Reitman. Cast: Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Craig Robinson, Ed Helms.

/content/films/3209/1.jpgIn the months before NBC's American version of The Office hit the airwaves, die-hard comedy buffs were poised to pounce. Ricky Gervais' brilliant 2001 BBC series was an instant classic, and an Americanized remake seemed doomed to failure. While the American version inherently demonstrates the difference between the limited runs of British television and the long-term demands of American television, NBC's The Office has become a TV comedy classic in its own right and holds the crown of the funniest series on American TV today.

Adapter Greg Daniels (King of the Hill) leads an unorthodox and immensely talented team of writers, actors, and actor-writers to churn out a large quantity of gut-busting comedy each year. The sharp and humane comic actor (and ace improviser) Steve Carell leads the cast as semi-well-meaning, semi-selfish, all-awkward "boss from hell" Michael Scott, who bumbles his way through unproductive work days at the Scranton branch of the  Dunder Mifflin paper company and absurdly unhappy nights with his cracked girlfriend Jan (Melora Hardin). Among the long-suffering office dwellers are love interests Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer), who dream of escaping from their cubicles one day; the repressed, anal retentive Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson); his kitty-loving soul mate Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey); and former intern/current executive Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak), who struggles to maintain his corporate position of power even as his former Scranton workmates belittle him.

Keeping the show fresh has meant a gradual drift from dark comedy to loonier antics more akin to a Judd Apatow movie, but just when you think the show has strayed too far for its laughs, The Office delivers a character-driven gut-punch of horrifying awkwardness (Season Four highlights "Dinner Party" and "Did I Stutter?") or an emotional turn of events so achingly heartwarming that you almost wish the writers won't do the inevitable and smack down the characters to see where the story will lead. Almost. To the writers' credit, they stopped stringing along the romance between Jim and Pam, who come out as a couple at the beginning of Season Four (next step: marriage?); their new arrangement has plenty of interesting consequences to office politics.

As further compensation, the writers continue to milk other problematic romantic dynamics: on-again, off-again Michael and Jan; troubled Dwight and Angela (interrupted by Ed Helms' clueless Cornell grad Andy Bernard); and even Ryan and Kelly (Novak and Mindy Kaling, both show writers), who haven't quite been put out of their misery. By season's end, Michael has a new love interest in Holly (a perfectly winning Amy Ryan), the replacement for his HR nemesis Toby (the hilarious Paul Leiberstein, also a show writer). The strike-disrupted Season Four is a particularly good time to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the crack writing staff.

And I haven't even mentioned the rest of the office workers, funny and lovable to the last: thick-skulled Kevin (Brian Baumgartner), hilariously deadened Stanley (Leslie David Baker), too-accomodating Phyllis (Phyllis Smith), alcoholic Meredith (Kate Flannery), sane observer Oscar (Oscar Nuñez, a master of deadpan), fried-brain Creed (Creed Bratton), and smooth-operating warehouse worker Darryl (Craig Robinson). The Season Four episode "Local Ad" is a good representation of how the best American comedies (Arrested Development, The Simpsons in its heyday) can deliver brilliant ironies, crazy gags, and ruthless character assassination only to forgive their characters' flaws and celebrate their humanity in the end.

/content/films/3209/2.jpgSome critics inanely complained about Season Four's five "super-sized" double-episodes, calling them strained (though they're effectively just two episodes aired consecutively with a bit of well-hidden stitching at the midpoint). While some episodes don't fire on all cylinders, and I prefer the subtler situations, as long as the series can still deliver twisted character stories like "The Chair Model" (in which Michael invests his desire in a woman from the pages of a catalog) and "Did I Stutter?" (in which Stanley's vitriolic resentment can no longer go ignored), The Office will remain deeply funny, deeply felt Must-See TV.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 4

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 9/2/2008

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Universal blesses Office fans with another generous special edition season set teeming with bonus footage to the season's fourteen episodes (five of them double-wide). Disc One includes the first three plus-sized episodes, as well as a ton of Deleted Scenes (40:41) and mock Michael Scott PSA "Rabies: The More You Know" (:22). Disc Two houses the next four episodes; cast and writer Audio Commentaries on "Money" (Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Melora Hardin, Brian Baumgartner, Paul Lieberstein, Michael Schur, and Jennifer Celotta) and "Local Ad" (B.J. Novak, Ed Helms, Leslie David Baker, Creed Bratton, Craig Robinson, Jason Reitman, and Anthony Ferrell); Deleted Scenes (32:37); and "Michael Scott's Dunder Mifflin Ad" (1:23) from the episode "Local Ad."

Disc Three has the next four episodes, Audio Commentary on "The Deposition" (Wilson, Fischer, Hardin, Baumgartner, Helms, Lee Eisenberg, Lester Lewis, and Ryan Koh) and Deleted Scenes (32:37), while Disc Four hosts the season's final three outings; their Deleted Scenes (32:37); an audio commentary for "Did I Stutter?" (Wilson, Fischer, Baker, Kate Flannery, Justin Spitzer, Brent Forrester, Gene Stupnitsky, and Randall Einhorn); a highly enjoyable Blooper Reel (22:39) that's as long as an episode; "The Office Convention: "Writer's Block" (52:53), a cheeky writers Q&A produced for last year's Scranton Office fest; and "Summer Vacation Promo" (3:02), which aired just before Season 4.

Comedy fans (and who isn't?) will get their money's worth out of this jam-packed set,with its collegial commentaries and outtakes better than the finished episodes of most series. Conveniently, The Office: Season Four is timed to tide us over during the seemingly endless days until the launch of Season Five. Go ahead: drop a few Schrute Bucks on this one.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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