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The Office Recap: An Ugly Homecoming

At its best, The Office remains true to its environment. When gimmicks don’t trump story line, when characters aren’t stretched tiresomely thin, and when the simplest development — an employee’s new computer — leads to a mini-drama, that’s when we end up with an episode like last night’s, which was so much more satisfying for battling ridiculousness rather than indulging it.

Of course, the return of traveling salesman Todd Packer (the wonderfully obnoxious David Koechner) didn’t hurt. Loathed by everyone except Michael, he focused the staff’s energy and, best of all, brought about the uneasy truce of Jim and Dwight. Sometimes, there’s no greater pleasure than two adversaries banding together, especially when the alliance is still fraught with the usual negs and nudges.

The day started out like any other, with Dwight gobbling pickled okra and tomatoes (if this is the apocalypse diet, consider Brooklyn restaurants prepared) while Jim goaded him into considering the many possible timetables for the end of days. Enter Packer, whose years on the road and “bumps on [his] ding-dong” have left him wanting a desk job — Dwight’s desk, to be precise. Jim, Pam, Meredith, and Kelly appealed to Holly. The first of two great exchanges here was Meredith’s spiteful opening salvo: “You think you’re so cute with your pretty blond hair.” And then Jim: “Whoa, whoa. Pull it back.” When Holly pointed out that she can’t just fire Packer because they don’t like him, Ryan chimed in with a fashionably liberal but nonsensical zing, “Right, this isn’t the U.S. government.” A surprisingly shrewd return from Kelly: “What are you referencing?” Ryan, off his game for once: “Everything. Just … everything.”

But when Packer called his own daughter a “bitch” and, in a stinging scene, insulted Kevin’s intelligence and weight, Holly joined the detractors. She ruffled Michael’s feathers by ranking him below Bill Cosby and viral video sensation “Charlie bit my finger” on her funny scale. During this debate came several increasingly frustrated interruptions from Erin, who was worried because Holly wasn’t taking Dwight’s ant farm to him quickly enough. Though she’s no longer verbalizing her hostility, it’s clear that Erin’s dislike of Holly persists. That it here involved hungry ants awaking from slumber made this all the more amusing (and the ditching of the Zen garden for the ant farm felt right).

Meanwhile, Dwight tried to push some of his homemade laxative-spiked hot chocolate on Packer and, like the employee who calls in sick for work with a stomachache and a sprained ankle and a dead grandmother, he overdid it. Jim caught on to the doctored cocoa and they hatched a plan — but, first, they bickered. Dwight dismissed Jim’s idea to redirect Justin Bieber concert-ticket winners to Packer’s phone. Dwight: “Who’s Justice Beaver?” Pubescent pop stars have no place in Dwight’s world. Replied Jim: “A crime-fighting beaver.”

So Packer attempted to apologize to Kevin with, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” Leave it to our girl Kelly to immediately sniff out the "I'm sorry if you … " non-apology apology construction, like a girlfriend who has heard this lame line one too many times. Yet some version of his mea culpa passed Michael’s standards and he proclaimed, “Packer’s going to be here until the day he dies, just like the rest of us.” A telling forecast, one that reminded us of a scene between Jim and Michael from several seasons ago where Jim confessed that Dunder Mifflin was a short-term plan for him and Michael said he felt the exact same way when he started — a decade earlier. Obviously, one of the darker themes of the series is how deadening corporate existence can be and how scary it is to find yourself unfulfilled for months that turn into years that turn into the rest of your life.

Eventually, Dwight and Jim managed to trick Packer into thinking he had a job in Tallahassee, a scheme Michael threatened to reveal until the veil was finally lifted. Packer insulted Holly, and thus Michael allowed him to speed off down the road. And this led to some bantering between Holly and Michael that sounded like a mix of dialogue from Good Will Hunting and Scent of a Woman — yes? No?

The subplot about Andy’s jealousy over Erin’s new computer doesn’t invite a lot of detail here, but we appreciated its truthfulness. The politics over who gets what in the workplace can transform anyone into a petty child demanding equal treatment from mom (i.e., Pam). The “mods” lingo fit and perhaps unintentionally drove home the bleakness of having one’s time so rigorously divided. The Office isn’t particularly known for subtlety; the writers don’t leave Easter eggs for their audience — but this episode managed to play its characters without exaggeration, relatively speaking. Like last week’s “Threat Level Midnight,” Packer’s return seemed like a gimme for Michael. It was just something that had to happen before he left. But unlike that episode, this one moved the story forward emotionally. Michael cut the cord with his old friend. He doesn’t want to be like that jerk anymore. In the two-part farewell, we’ll finally learn who exactly he does want to be.

Photo: NBC