rating: 4If this is what happens when cast members (aside from regulars B.J. Novak and Paul Lieberstein) take the reins then the writing and directing duties should be kept in house much more often. Christmas Wishes is among the season's best so far not only because it had me laughing consistently, but because each of its multiple stories had clear climaxes and resolutions that I felt emotionally invested in and on top of that, they all felt connected. I know this is easier to accomplish during an episode where all the characters are attending the same party, but Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapoor) still deserves much recognition for writing a hilarious episode that featured the most natural dialogue true to the characters all season. This is of course due in no small part to the familiarity Kaling has with the characters she's worked with since she was originally hired as the only female writer for the series at the time of its inception almost seven years ago. It's no wonder Kaling has received so much praise for the play Matt & Ben she co-wrote with Brenda Withers, her memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), and will be writing, executive producing (along with Office developer Greg Daniels), and starring in an upcoming animated sitcom for NBC. The Nard-Dawg definitely deserves a nod as well for a deftly directed episode which was a proper send off for the holiday break. I loved Jim's face during Stanley's meta-rant about the politically correct, ineffectively vague labeling of Christmas as the holiday as well as the Mo Rocca and Lewis Black shout outs. I hope The Daily Show felt all the love they got this episode. Ironically, it's comforting to see Stanley get so upset as he's been a bit too relaxed lately. In the primary story of the episode we finally got to meet Andy's super serious, long time girlfriend, the assistant cross country coach Jessica, which I was grateful for as she was starting to feel noticeably absent for being so influential on the ongoing story of Andy and Erin, which for the first time since probably Secretary's Day I actually bought into caring about. I'm happy Andy is continuing to be allowed to be himself as opposed to LOOK EVERYONE, IT'S MICHAEL SCOTT'S REPLACEMENT as we all know he doesn't work well under pressure. In typical Andy fashion, the episode saw him attempting to make everyone happy by granting the staff's individual Christmas wishes. I wish we got to see more of these wishes granted as Dwight's desire to own property on the moon was very funny. The story is also notable for showing us unprecedented sides to both Erin and Robert. Regarding the latter, I found it disarmingly amusing that Robert was so welcoming of Kevin's giant gorilla hug as the kittenish Robert is lonely for the intimacy since his wife, Maura Tierney's Susan California, left him after last episode's entertaining marital communication breakdown. Robert's despondency also seemed to be the source for the most side splitting analysis of the Black Eyed Peas I've ever heard so I kind of hope things don't work out well for Robert anytime soon. I was extremely relieved Robert did not end up attempting to take advantage of Erin's inebriated state because it definitely looked like he wanted to and since we're still getting to know Robert, this was a genuinely suspenseful development. Thankfully, not only was Robert ultimately a gentleman, but Andy appeared to be much more concerned than jealous which is a refreshing subversion of the typical direction this episode could have gone. Plus, as it turns out, Erin is an adorable, if not extremely touchy-feely and frankly specific drunk (I wish Jessica were dead in a graveyard, under the ground, with worms coming out of her mouth.) Allowing myself to become invested in the Andy and Erin romance once again, however, presented a potential problem for the writers. I like Erin as a character, but her silliness and naivety are borderline absurd to the point of being virtually unbelievable. Andy on the other hand, feels more mature, (not to mention much older), relatable and realistic to me. I'm not sure if I can be sold into continually being invested in their romance if the writers don't bring these two characters closer to being on the same plane of maturity like they were in season six. I also enjoyed the second romance story of Christmas Wishes, that between former warehouse foreman Daryl and current foreman, Val. This story was pretty straightforward but that's okay as it didn't take up much screen time yet developed Val as an intelligent and sweet object of Daryl's affection (whom I'm betting on to convince Val to forgo her previously stated rule prohibiting dating coworkers). Plus the story introduced us to the first of the new warehouse workers we've met besides Val. I didn't catch the man's name, but his eagerness to be so handsome for Daryl coupled with his interpretation of the office workers' label of popsicles as a name given because they're so rich they can afford to eat popsicles everyday has won me over. The other secondary plot was a very clever and dare I say even triumphant return to the glory days of Jim and Dwight's rivalry. Early on Andy put on his Hard Ass Hat (literally) and informed the duo that Kathy (Pam's replacement, whom was barely seen and not once actually heard throughout the episode) has complained about their constant pranking and under threat of having their bonuses awarded to their victim, both men begin a subtle prank entrapment battle that was an extremely refreshing take on the time weathered conflict in which Jim couldn't drink since he knows how pranky he gets when he drinks. The skirmish included, but was not limited to, $200 bouquets, porcupines named Henrietta, a defaced baby photo, and two more instances of graffiti. This reminded me of last Christmas' extreme, psychologically disturbing snowball fight and I'm quite thankful for it. Once again, although I'm a big fan of Pam when she's not being annoying or nonsensical, her presence was not missed. One of the best parts of The Office is its largely talented ensemble supporting cast and the best episodes seamlessly showcase many of their best comedic performances and Christmas Wishes achieved this very successfully. Not only did we get a Stanley rant, but also a recipe for oatmeal from Kevin that sounds absolutely delicious, the chocolate shaving strewn alcoholic stylings of Oscar (whom is clearly a fan of Cocktail), and perhaps most exciting for a noir fan, Toby's fictional alter ego, Chad Flenderman, the easy going black guy who is chased by women though he misses his wife, is an Oxford graduate and noted Egyptologist (pretty sure that's not a real occupation) who's as comfortable on his motorcycle as he is on Air Force One. And drunk Meredith is always a welcome performance, especially if someone messes with her treasures. I loved Christmas Wishes and it keeps my hope alive for a much better season than the rocky start season eight began with. This was the last episode before the holiday break so I'll be looking forward to providing further Office related insights next month. Until then, my sincerest best wishes to all those who I know, like me, will be moshing to the Transiberian Orchestra.
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