Periscope Depth

I’m Michael Scarn and I’m here to say

I needed to kill 22 minutes while eating dinner last night, so I turned on The Office for the first time in years and watched “Threat Level Midnight.”

Quick question: has the entire cast been paired off by now? Jim and Pam I knew about, but Michael’s apparently made good on his crush with the HR lady, Ryan and Kelly are a thing, and even Ed Helms’s character and the much younger receptionist are an item. I know the tendency to prolong tension by forestalling obvious romantic connections is one of the worse things about sitcoms, but the alternative isn’t much more interesting.

That said, “Threat Level Midnight” is a work of genius.

While making a good show is hard, making a bad show is really hard. Deliberately bad, that is. Everyone can agree on that The Room or From Justin to Kelly are bad movies, but it takes effort to parse out just what makes the movies bad. Why is it bad that the mother says she has breast cancer and then the issue is abandoned? What’s a better way to shoot Johnny’s internal tension than by having him walk onto a roof, mutter denials to himself, and then greet another character in the same shot? And so on.

It also takes effort to parse out what makes a good movie good – why is the shootout at the ranch so tense, etc. But there’s a greater payoff there. With bad movies, the stunned laughter is usually enough of a diagnosis.

But the writers on “The Office” has always been very good at diagnosing what makes bad art bad and then replicating it with unapologetic sincerity. They did it with Michael Scott’s improv class. They did it with the Dunder Mifflin paper commercial (“You have a son and it’s me”). And now they’ve done it with Michael Scott’s masterpiece, ten years in the making – “Threat Level Midnight.”

What makes “TLM” genius isn’t just the parts of it that are bad (“have you ever banged an entire bachelorette party, ba-by?”). It’s the parts that are bad that still happen all the time in major Hollywood releases. Artificial means to draw out tension. Heroes who are brutal to innocent people for no good reason. Telegraphing the protagonist’s character development (he’s cool, he’s successful, he’s conflicted, women love him) instead of showing it through action. Forgetting what’s at stake and when (so if everyone knows where the bad guy is, when he’s going to strike, and what his plans are …).

You’ll see shit like that in Taken. You’ll see it in every Nic Cage movie and most Jason Statham movies. And yet Hollywood keeps producing it, since it’s so hard to figure out what exactly makes a bad movie bad.

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