Threat Level Midnight, or How I Learned to Stop Caring About The Office S07 E17

ugh.

I tried to watch The Office. Really, I did. I made it through 6 minutes and 39 seconds of this ostensible TELEVISION show before giving up entirely.

The supposed plot of this particular episode is this: Michael wrote a screenplay many episodes ago, it was made into a movie called Threat Level Midnight, there were several years of re-shoots and post, and now the movie is ready to be screened. So the whole episode (I presume, since again I lost patience 1/3 of the way through) consists of Michael’s movie, as well as occasional reaction shots and talking head interviews with Dunder-Mifflin-Sabre employees.

When I googled this pseudo-film for an appropriate image, I found a fake screenplay for it on Scribd, written by an uber-fan almost two years ago. On Twitter, there are numerous references to Threat Level Midnight from various cast members of The Office. Yesterday evening, Rainn Wilson wrote, “The whole cast is over @ Steve’s house watching ‘Threat Level Midnight’. And. It. Is. Awesome.” So this is what I’m wondering about last night’s episode of The Office: is an entire episode devoted to the Threat Level Midnight gimmick a long-awaited gift to fans, or is it shallow self-promotion for mostly talented actors working on a show that’s on its last legs?

Apparently on the NBC website and on iTunes, you can watch the entire Threat Level Midnight movie. Perhaps I’m not a true believer in the transformative powers of television, but it strikes me that this is a particularly effective and underhanded marketing scheme. The Office has transcended the boundaries of mere entertainment to become a brand that’s shilled to unwary consumers. When we tune in for episodic TV about characters in unexpected situations, we get a faux feature film instead. And we will sit through it, because we love The Office and we keep expecting it to revert to the sort of television we associate with it.

I know this could just be my cynical take on a hilarious, uncharacteristic episode of The Office, especially since I enjoyed Community‘s brief foray into mockumentary so much, but I feel like I’m being sold something I never wanted. This episode (all 6 minutes and 39 seconds of it that I watched) just isn’t funny. I get what it’s trying to do, but while Community successfully satirized a form of television, Threat Level Midnight gets it humor from Michael’s character.

There’s no clandestine take-down of the action genre; there’s just Michael, playing a silly character with a James Bond look, and Jim, tarted up in gold face paint. If this episode of The Office is poking fun at anything, it’d have to be its own characters playing action movie versions of themselves. But with this device, it’s easy to slip into two extremes: humor can be created at a character’s expense until s/he has become pitiful–and this often does happen in Michael-heavy plots, or the show can mock so gently and unobtrusively that excessive attention paid to Michael’s vanity project feels self-congratulatory.

Will I bid adieu to my integrity and watch the rest of this episode? Stay tuned!

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