Has B.J. Novak Saved The Office?

Tonight brings the penultimate episode of this season of The Office, which may or may not include a secret wedding

Tonight brings the penultimate episode of this season of The Office, which may or may not include a secret wedding between two beloved characters (hint: Jim and Pam). If you’re sitting there thinking this season has gone on forever, that’s because it kinda has; the episode, titled “Café Disco,” will be the 25th of the 2008-2009 campaign. Talk about oversaturation: It’s no wonder we’ve been down on the series for the better part of a year! Count us among the people who thought The Office had lapsed into borderline DVR-removal after too many lackluster episodes and lame plotting—Dwight and Andy literally dueling over Angela will end up being the show’s nadir. But then an intriguing series of events unfolded over the course of the last six weeks: Michael quit Dunder Mifflin and started his own company (which subsequently folded), Stringer Bell (guest star Idris Elba) showed up and put Jim in his place, Dwight became a preening jerk, and, most important, Ryan came back to work not a moment too soon. And just like that, The Office got good again.

B.J. Novak, the diminutive actor who plays ne’er-do-well Ryan, missed a large chunk of this season so that he could film a key role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Mr. Novak was dutifully floored by the experience—he told Entertainment Weekly that filming Basterds was like a “movie version of making a movie”—and though we’re happy to see him find success outside of television, his absence from our telly was clearly noticed. Ryan is not only a hilarious construct—a repellent and petulant man-child whose recent put-downs to Pam have reached epic proportions—but a character that perfectly bridges the gap between the grounded Jim and the obtuse Michael. That he’s also one of the few supporting officemates who acts like a real-life human being doesn’t hurt, either. (And please note: Ryan went to jail for embezzlement, dyed his hair blond, worked at a bowling alley and, now, lives with his mother—and yet he still ranks high on the humanity scale when placed aside everyone else. This should tell you all you need to know about why the series had taken a dip.) Since he returned to The Office in March, Mr. Novak has been a constant source of surprise—and for a series that is airing its 90th episode later tonight, surprises have become somewhat of an endangered species.

Perhaps Mr. Novak’s return and the series’ rejuvenation are just a happy, unconnected coincidence. (Frankly, they probably are.) The writing has certainly picked up a bit—in a recent interview with USA Today, John Kransinski said that these late-season episodes were the best since season two—and the show seems more focused than usual. But we’d prefer to think Mr. Novak is the cause. What can we say? In Ryan we trust. Has B.J. Novak Saved The Office?