When a Long-Running Series Does a Cheesy Clip Show!

Okay, so The Office came back last night with its first new episode in well over a month. And what they came back with was… a clip show. And not one of those clip shows that tries to pass itself off as a special or something; it was a full-fledged traditional clip show, where there is some kind of story that makes it look like a real episode, but the story is just an excuse for the characters to talk about past adventures. There’s something kind of charming about seeing this kind of thing again; there haven’t been a lot of clip shows on the big networks, because the competition is so fierce that a show usually can’t afford to write off an entire week like this. (That is, when there were only two other shows competing for attention in the same time slot, there was a greater chance that viewers would rather watch the clips than switch channels.) But it’s really not that charming to encounter this after a six-week drought; it’s like the time Moonlighting promised a “new episode next week” — at the end of a clip show, in fact — and the new episode turned out to be one that Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd didn’t appear in.

The Office has been doing some things this season that have annoyed its fans; I’ve liked some of what they’ve been doing, but enough people are P.O.’d at episodes like “Scott’s Tots” that even Ricky Gervais tossed off a joke about how the show has “jumped the shark a bit.” This probably isn’t the way to win the fans’ hearts again, unless the ‘shippers’ were pacified by the mushy Jim-Pam montage.

I should add, though, that the episode still did better than the rest of NBC’s fine but otherwise low-rated Thursday lineup. So perhaps there’s no truth to the idea that a hit show can’t get away with a clip show in the modern multi-channel universe.

Also, I wonder what it must be like for a writer to learn that his assignment is to write the clip show? Unless he’s thinking “yay, I get paid for a script despite writing less original material,” it’s probably not a happy reaction. The writer of this particular episode, Jason Kessler, got his first script assignment on this one, but it’s not always the junior writer who gets stuck with these things; The Simpsons assigned no less than three clip shows to one of its best writers, Jon Vitti, who wrote two of them under the name “Penny Wise.”

Another clip show tradition which this episode followed is to have an outsider come in to learn more about the workplace and/or family around which the show revolves. Many, many clip shows do this, often to create a fake sense of suspense or plot motion. For example, Night Court had a dude come in to the court to evaluate all the crazy damage claims he’d been getting from them, accusing them of filing fraudulent reports. Each clip was an attempt to explain away some insurance claim.

That particular clip show also included another clip-show trope: the “we’re all going to die!” framing device. Because in the second half of the episode, a killer clown played by Jack Riley held everyone at gunpoint. And you’d be surprised how many clip shows have the characters threatened with violence or otherwise about to be killed: they get trapped in a freezer, or kidnapped by a gun-wielding maniac, and they assure each other that they’ve been in much worse jams than this. South Park did a perfect parody of this kind of show in the episode where everyone is trapped on a teetering bus (“Now that’s what I call a sticky situation!”).

Finally, a clip show can be used to launch other shows or promote stuff that couldn’t be promoted in a regular episode. Happy Days used a clip show to promote another show from the same producers, the atrocious Blansky’s Beauties, which was just about to start on the same network. It wasn’t a spinoff, but Nancy Walker appeared on the Happy Days clip show before her show aired, so people would get introduced to her character. It didn’t work, but a year later they did the same thing with Mork (bringing him back in a clip show so they could set him up as a spinoff character).