by Tony Dayoub
(Warning: For those who still have last night's episode of The Office sitting on their Tivo, there are spoilers below)
The Office returned from it's strike-related hiatus last night for a six episode run. It was a great showcase for Melora Hardin's kooky portrayal of Jan Levinson. Since her first appearance as the then-Jan Levinson-Gould, supervisor to Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and his crew, her increasingly unhinged performance has grown from a small recurring role to an unofficial regular, as Michael's live-in girlfriend. Last night's episode revolving around a dinner party at Michael and Jan's apartment reached a new high in discomfort.
First, Michael stages a critical late assignment for Friday evening, only to cancel it so everyman Jim (John Krasinski) won't have an excuse to blow off another of Michael's invitations to dinner. Dwight (Rainn Wilson) wants to go, but alas the party is couple's only. This does clear the way for Dwight's rival, Andy (Ed Helms), to attend with Dwight's ex, Angela (Angela Kinsey), however. When Jim arrives with girlfriend Pam (Jenna Fischer), they bring a bottle of wine as any good guest does. Jan sets the tone for the rest of the night when she spirits the bottle away saying, "This will be great for cooking."
The episode truly captures the essence of the positives and negatives of being in a relationship. Jan needs to keep Michael's self-esteem low to enhance her own, now that she's unemployed. As we find out, she relegates Michael to sleeping on a bench at the foot of their bed because of her "space issues." She does cling to Michael like she would a life-vest: the truth behind the dinner party is her hope that Michael can convince his friends to invest in her fledgling candle-making business. Jim and Pam have a healthier relationship, supporting each other through the awkward party peppered with Michael and Jan's bickering. Best reaction shot: Jim's and Pam's faces as they find out the main course of Osso Bucco has three hours left to braise. Jim and Pam are excited when he comes up with a great excuse to leave the party. He claims his apartment has been flooded, and Pam and he have to leave. When Michael points out that both of them are not necessary to check out his stuff, Jim seems ready to go without her. It's only Pam's look of dismay (and possible flak for Jim later) that stops him in his tracks. Has any couple out there not experienced these situations firsthand? Well, maybe not the bench...
Jan's jealousy of Pam escalates the awkwardness. When she makes Pam aware that Michael has told her of how he used to date Pam, an outright lie, Pam is taken aback. The Osso Bucco is finally served. As Michael frets that it may be poisoned, cut to Pam talking to the camera, "I know Jan didn't poison the food. I know that. But if she was going to poison the food of someone at that table, wouldn't it be me? Michael's former lover." Michael has always had the corner on making the viewer cringe. But in this episode, it is frequently Melora Hardin's Jan that drives the discomfort. And every time the discomfort escalates, it is she that passive-aggressively initiated the escalation.
This is definitely a noteworthy return, and one of the series' best episodes if you can stand the escalating awkwardness.