Sometimes, it worked. (Remember the premiere of The Wonder Years in 1988?) And sometimes, it didn't. (Remember Davis Rules in 1991? Anyone?)
Then later began the super-sized, "special" episode phenomenon. Following the big game in 1996, Julia Roberts turned up on Friends. People at the time criticized the episode for being overblown, overwrought. Me, I still kinda liked it.
But tonight's The Office? The weakest episode of this normally amazing series I've ever seen. I had read interviews with some of the show's producers, who claimed that they wanted tonight's one hour installment to be more of a "standalone" episode, so as to draw in fans who don't already know, for example, the saga of Jim and Pam. But what they ended up getting was a meandering and overblown (not to mention not very credible) storyline, with its non-sequitur elements pressed together with so much adhesive tape.
It must be hard to write a show like The Office, to find new ways for Jim to torture Dwight, for Dwight and Michael to show their social ineptitude, without going over the top. The show has approached -- and maybe even crossed -- that line before. Remember Michael's atrocious behavior at Phyllis' wedding? At the time, I didn't believe that even someone as socially retarded as Michael would make such a scene.
Now tonight -- and this is my largest problem with the episode as a whole -- I think we have the clearest example of The Office going too far. Dwight has officially crossed the line from inappropriate to murderous and sociopathic. Luring Phyllis several miles away from the office and leaving her there, so as to force her to walk back (as Dwight did earlier this season) is one thing. But setting the building on fire, and jeopardizing his coworkers' lives?
And here's the other thing you learn about corporate America: it's very hard to get yourself fired for cause. If you're hard-working and competent, you'll often get screwed, blamed for something, laid off. But if you're crazy, or if you drink, you're pretty much safe. UNLESS: you do something like set the office on fire. If your actions leave the company vulnerable to a lawsuit -- and it's an amazing oversight that Stanley, as he mentions not being able to afford to retire, doesn't even THINK of suing -- you would definitely be fired. David Wallace would never have given Dwight a second chance. And DEFINITELY not a third, after he stabbed and disemboweled the CPR dummy with a concealed knife in the workplace. Another big no-no.
And then suddenly, after all that, tonight's storyline morphed into being just about Michael and his sudden self-knowledge. For one thing, did anyone not see it coming that Michael would be offended by the roast? And that would be forgiveable, had the roast been at all funny. The Office excels in a combination of awkward-funny. The roast was just plain awkward.
All that said, there were moments I loved -- Dwight's tricking Phyllis into giving her signature, and anything involving Cloris Leachman, of course.
But what did you all think? (And by the way: Hilary Swank: hot, or not?!)