Maybe this is just the pattern for The Office: alternate the stronger and weaker episodes. Last week's "Sabre" was an unfunny slugfest that dared you to remember why you cared about these people, but last night's "Manager and Salesman" was a chance to enjoy the characters in their natural setting, playing off each other with a casualness earned over six years. That's one of the reasons this show can be so confounding: Just when you think they've run out of energy, you realize they've still got some to give.
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After a quickie cold open helpfully plugging NBC's upcoming Olympic coverage (and the first [I think] appearance of Ed Helms in the main credits), the main plot kicked off. The episode was entirely confined to the Dunder Mifflin office over the course of one day, which usually makes for a stronger premise since there's no place to escape. Written by Mindy Kaling and directed by (500) Days of Summer helmer Marc Webb, the episode managed to tie together three plot strands. In the first, Michael and Jim are told by Jo, the new CEO, that one of them will have to become full-time manager while the other moves back down to sales.
This led to some predictable head-butting as Jim and Michael both wanted to stay manager, then both wanted to be back in sales when they realized that Sabre doesn't cap commissions for its sales team. Jim's deadpan to the camera, "I'm definitely in it for the money, and, quite honestly, the women," was a great line that stuck to the root of his character. He's good at his job, but he ultimately is only at Dunder Mifflin to pay the bills and be with Pam. Michael got to play salesman for a day while Jim stayed manager, which was kind of like -- no, exactly like -- when Zack and Mr. Belding switched places, only not quite as tubular. Michael, realizing he'd have to do actual work, arranged to switch back, and so now all's right with the world again and things are back to the way they were at the beginning of this season.
The B-plots dealt with Andy's wussy attempts to woo Erin and the strangely compelling duo of Dwight and Ryan plotting to take down Jim. Andy's plan to cover his affection by giving everyone in the office a valentine backfired when Kelly got a brief crush, but he sorted it out by eventually revealing he has feelings for someone else, though he didn't say it was Erin. (Dude, come on already.) Dwight and Ryan are perfectly clueless together, and their egotism makes them soulmates. Ryan's scarf alone puts him in a whole other class of tool. The kicker at the end, as they went for a drink but wound up bickering about where to get it (martini bar vs. homemade beet vodka), was wonderful for the way it took two characters that used to quietly despise each other and gave them whole new sides.
On another note, though: Will The Office ever follow up on its documentary premise, like the original BBC series did? Everyone interacts with the camera guys, and it's acknowledged the workers are being filmed, but for what? Will the doc ever air? Will it ever be honestly folded into the narrative? Did Sabre know they were buying a film set? I'd love it if the show went the extra step and addressed this. Otherwise, what's the point?