Last week’s episode was such a bummer. Andy was indecisive; Robert California was absent; and the long-term story, it seemed, was going nowhere. However, a handful of optimistic commenters cited the slow starts of recent seasons — which built to genuinely solid episodes and even arcs — as evidence that the show could still turn around. Defenders of Dunder Mifflin, you should feel vindicated this week. Obviously it’s way too early to claim whether or not The Office is 100 percent back on track, but I can say this: “Garden Party” is funny, weird, touching, and unpredictable. A gem, really.
Well, sort of. The cold open was one strange dong joke. But hey, everything else worked.
On a technical level, the episode coalesces in a way its predecessors couldn’t. For three weeks, we watched Michael Scott replacement Andy Bernard do the lost puppy dog routine. Not this time. Andy Bernard is throwing a garden party at the Schrute Farm, full stop. He’s very clear that there’s no room for discussion that this is not a barbecue or a picnic, and that everyone should come.
The gang assumes the shindig is Andy’s not-so-subtle ruse to win the adulation and respect of Robert California, but the new CEO takes backseat to the real stars of this episode: the Bernards. The casting is pitch perfect. Andy’s father is played by Stephen Collins (7th Heaven), his mother by Dee Wallace (E.T.), and his brother, Walter Bernard Jr., by none other than Josh Groban (Josh Groban). It doesn’t take a Cornell grad to see whom the party is really meant to impress.
Despite their beautiful, sweet faces, the clan treat their eldest son like they’d treat a head cold, with aversion, only paying it enough attention to make it go away. Andy’s clutching for approval is tough to watch, even for a show that prides itself on channeling life’s more uncomfortable and humiliating moments.
As for the ensemble, they have high jinks! Crows steal Erin’s garden hat. Dwight’s potentially inbred relative Mose (Parks and Recreation showrunner Michael Schur, donning the fake beard again for old time’s sake) takes the cars for a joyride. Pam and Angela argue over their baby’s name. Yeah, they’re goofy and only the latter really goes anywhere, but they’re also a welcome departure from the “Kevin’s mentally handicapped” and “Oscar’s gay” chestnuts.
Meanwhile, Dwight genuinely believes he can spin the farm into a full-time commercial venture. He even bought a book, Throwing a Garden Party by James Trickington Jim Halpert’s nom de plume. Don’t ask how Jim wrote an entire book or convinced Dwight to buy it. The story is just an excuse to watch Dwight follow Jim’s bad advice, like announcing guests by screaming so violently that his temple nearly pops. And performing a Last Supper tableau.
Speaking of awkward meals, once everyone finally sits down to eat, Andy calls a toast. This is his chance to flaunt his boss rank. But no, he’s immediately outdone by a humble speech from California and a duet between his brother and father. This turn is telegraphed a mile away, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. There’s something about seeing an upset Ed Helms that really gets me.
Andy storms off to the coatroom, where he’s left to chat with baby Cece Halpert. Even she doesn’t give him much respect. The scene you expect to see next is the reconciliation, in which Andy discovers, via some trinket or old diary, that his father has loved and taken pride in him all along. But that’s not in the cards. Walter Bernard Sr. does show up, but only to belittle his son, as the entire office, stationed downstairs, awkwardly overhears the mess over Cece’s baby monitor. It’s upsetting because it feels believable. In fact, the whole episode seems plausible, despite all its craziness. When California shows interest in contracting the Schrute farm for his birthday, Dwight talks about goats, and hippo steaks, and California reacts like a normal person would: by walking away. The problem with recent episodes of The Office wasn’t that the characters were acting crazy. It was that nobody noticed.
After the Bernard parents and their favorite son make an early departure — for a showing of Moneyball, no less — Andy mopes his way down from the coatroom. He finds the only stragglers are his office mates. They have a barbecue grill, some beer, and picnic blankets — not the trappings of the garden party, but a quality blue-collar get-together. When the camera goes in tight on Andy, you get the sense that he’s discovering his real social status. He is not the one percent. That Helms face combined with a drooping sun? Yeah, I’ll be honest, my cold heart thaws.
Then Dwight, the hosts, and the maids march onto the dirt road, all carrying torches and dancing to the rumble of a drum. Closing ceremonies, Jim “Trickington” informs us: a garden party must. Everyone watches in disbelief. Like I said, it’s crazy, but the ensemble recognizes that, which makes all the difference.
I think episodes like “Garden Party” are why we still watch the series. They are proof that our devotion to these characters will be rewarded with human stories that pluck at our anxieties about work and family and identity. That is why “Garden Party” clicked. Because it came from an honest place. And because it had some dong humor.