In “Threat Level Midnight” Michael finally reveals his much ballyhooed, self-produced action film to the office. More importantly, the audience finally had a chance to see this oft-alluded to bit of comedy. Unfortunately the end result, and this episode as whole, were a let down. It might be that the expectations for “Threat Level Midnight” were impossibly high. In the course of the show, the audience has had many glimpses of Michael’s misdirected little spy film. In season two’s “The Client” we had our first look at it when Pam discovers the script and instigates and office-wide table read. We’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie since, including Michael reverting to his “Michael Scarn” character during all of his improv classes and off-hand comments about his situation with Jan has reaching “Threat Level Midnight.” With a gag built up this much, it may just have been too much for any comedy show to deliver on.
It’s hard to point out exactly why the realization of “Threat Level Midnight” whiffed so badly, but one thing I can point to, which hurt the routine from the beginning, is that the entire production felt entirely too slick. The logo alone was excessive. I know that “Threat Level Midnight” is Michael’s pet project and so it makes sense that he would spend a good amount of money on production values. Still, the show would have been better-suited to give the movie that fun homemade feel that makes an action movie by a middle-aged paper salesman endearing. A more low-budget approach would have made the entire exercise something sweeter and funnier. It almost felt like the show’s producers just decided to do an entirely separate bit along the lines of “The cast of The Office does some Adult Swim-style sketch comedy” rather than an in-universe piece about Michael Scott making a movie that features his coworkers. Season Four’s “Local Ad” had a similar concept – and while it’s easier to pull off the home movie style for a minute than an entire episode, the execution was much better there than here.
That alone got “Threat Level Midnight” off to a bad start. On the other hand, I would probably have written off those high production values in what is essentially supposed to be a home movie as a conceit of the genre, except for the fact that the comedy fell so flat so often. In principle, the idea of the incompetent Michael Scott haphazardly stitching together a series of clichés seems rife for “it’s so bad, it’s good” territory. It’s a fine line to walk, and The Office veered to far into “just bad” territory. It should have been Michael’s fun but goofy take on action films. Instead, it was something of a tedious exercise that made it seem like the writers were no better at exploiting the clichés of spy films and 80’s movie conventions for comedy than Michael Scott was at exploiting them for drama. I understand what the writers and producers were shooting for, but they missed the mark.
It may simply have been that the entire concept was a good joke simply stretched too far. Perhaps this sort of humor really works best in the “digital short” context a la Saturday Night Live’s “Laser Cats.” In that context, the two-headed parody that pokes fun at both the genre the film is aping as well as the home video style, is quick and punchy rather than drawn out and extended. That helps to make the overall humor click much more effectively. A great case in point is the “heads or tails – best out of seven” joke. I understood what the goal of the scene was. It’s Michael’s weak and ridiculous attempt at building tension in the film. The problem is that Michael’s lack of execution was supposed to be funny, and instead it was just dull, and showed a lack of execution on the part of the show. The bottom line is that “Threat Level Midnight” just did not work.
All that said, there were some things I liked about Michael’s personal spy film. Stanley’s Morgan Freeman-style narration provided the first and biggest laugh of the evening, though I thought the reveal at the end wasn’t particularly funny. The Catherine Zeta Jones photoshops were not only a humorous bit, but a nice continuity nod as well. Even better, the cameos from old characters, plus their bonus reactions, were a hoot. It was a treat to see Jan, Todd Packer, and Karen again. Karen saying “Ever banged a whole bachelorette party?” in Michael’s movie followed by a quick cut to her asking the documentary cameras “Why are you singling out my line, like a million years later?” was a real treat.
Most of all, I liked the subtle touches in the film that showed some of the best and most distinctive character traits of Michael Scott. The scene where a distressed Michael Scarn says, “All I wanted to do was start a family with my beautiful wife” felt very true to the type of character Michael would write for himself. Also, in a blink and you’ll miss it moment, you could hear a conversation where Pam, playing a hostage, asks Jim’s character, the evil “Goldenface” why he gave himself that title. Goldenface replies, “I worked in a gold factory where the boss only cared about money.” In that same vein, this seems very true to the type of behavior Michael would find villainous to drive someone to a life of crime. It’s this sort of consistency of characterization and the little touches to cement it that raise “The Office” above other sitcoms on television right now.
In a bonus piece of character consistency, I loved Michael’s treatment of Toby in the film. Toby’s death scene, followed by Michael indicating that “It was the most expensive shot in the film, but it was integral to the story” was superb. It’s hard to put my finger on why, but Michael’s irrational hatred of Toby is a well the show has gone back to many times without the joke getting old.
Oddly enough, many of the funniest moments of the episode did not come from the movie itself, but from the talking head segments. I loved Daryl explaining why he agreed to be a part of the movie, punctuating it with “what a stupid waste of time.” Andy wanting the movie to be put back in during his scene because “some people are popping on screen” was fun as well. The talking head of the night, however, goes to Michael Scott for his entire discussion of Woody Allen, “Antz,” and “A Bug’s Life” that absolutely cracked me up.
Ironically, the part of the episode I most enjoyed wasn’t the trumpeted unveiling of “Threat Level Midnight that had been years in the making, but rather the subplot about Holly’s reaction to the movie, and the effect it had on Michael. Given that the “The Office” has Amy Ryan for such a short time, it’s quite the balancing act for the writers to have to not only build up to Michael and Holly getting together and show them dating, but to also introduce and resolve a little conflict along the way. This was a perfect opportunity, and they pulled it off flawlessly.
Again, it was subtle, but I enjoyed how Michael picked up on the vibe that Holly did not enjoy the film. His response to her that “If you don’t think it’s great, you don’t believe in my dreams,” felt very real. Michael may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but the film was clearly something he had worked hard on and believed in, and even though the movie itself was undeniably awful, you could easily understand why Michael was so hurt by the fact that Holly didn’t appreciate it.
Of course, the subplot was bolstered by the fact that the interactions between the two characters are always stellar. This is especially true when they include lines like, “I’m sorry I called you a pain in the ass. I’m angry and I love you.” Other moments like Michael saying that his movie-making dreams were all he had, with Holly understandably offering a retort of “you can’t think of anything else you might have?” set up the conflict beautifully.
But the resolution was even better. I liked the conspicuous empty chair next to Michael during the second half of the movie, and the obvious effect it had on him. Michael being able to find fault in his own work because Holly didn’t like it was just tremendous. It shows that Holly has been able to give Michael the one thing he’s been painfully lacking the entire series – self awareness. His ability to laugh at himself at the end of the episode shows as much character development as we’ve seen for Michael Scott.
Overall, this episode was a mixed bag. Michael’s completed version of “Threat Level Midnight” had its chuckle-worthy moments, but it was generally quite weak in terms of the comedy. This underwhelming execution was particularly disappointing given that “Threat Level Midnight” is something The Office has teased and used for great comedy fodder for ages. On the other hand, the Michael-Holly part of the episode was excellent, and the little character touches in Michael’s film were good as well. At the end of the day, the main attraction of this episode failed to deliver, but there were enough good jokes and some great character development in the overall package to make this an uneven episode instead of just plain bad one.