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The Office Recap: The Battle of Schrute Farm

The plus side of Michael Scott’s departure is an abundance of screen time for an ensemble that proved itself with some of the funnier C-stories in the last decade. The eighth season has, for the most part, met our expectations, fleshing out these people that were, for nearly seven years, walking punch lines. No episode has done the ensemble work better than “Gettysburg,” a kind of sitcom buffet, its many stories giving the audience a small taste of every personality.

That isn’t to say every character has been fleshed out well. This week Andy does his Michael Scott impression, cooking up a high premise field trip to inspire productivity. Work is like a battle, he says — and he half believes it. So to Gettysburg the willing members of the office go, pulling on the hot pink hats Andy custom ordered and filling into the tour bus Andy contracted for the day. Before they even hit the highway, trouble strikes. Andy wants to watch Ken Burns. Daryl has Limitless. “Or as they call it in France, The Man With Many Capabilities.” One of many funny lines from Gabe. (Yes, Gabe! Finally!)

Jim tries to get a map from the Gettysburg visitor’s center, before being admonished. Duh, Jim. Andy special ordered trucker hats; of course he planned his own tour ahead of time!

Back in the office, Robert California arrives, a fish out of water in his gaudy sunglasses and slicked back hair. (Who is Robert California? Despite boasting more airtime than the Republican presidential candidates, he’s an enigma. This isn’t Lost. I want to know who this guy is. Not knowing his history, that’s fine. Not knowing whether he’s a genius or an idiot, that’s annoying.) He strolls into Dunder Mifflin to find the remaining half of the office leafing through home décor magazines (Pam) and napping with their skirts unzipped (Meredith) and delivers the B-story like a dry-reading off a beat sheet. They will brainstorm innovation. To what end? It’s Robert California, let’s just assume we’ll never know. Andy and California are the most inexplicable characters on the show. Confidence paralyzes one and stupefies the other.

Dwight is “respectfully” uninterested in the historic grounds, bemoaning history’s dismissal of the Battle of Schrute Farme, purportedly the “real” northern most battle of the Civil War, according to Dwight Schrute. Erin is sold, but Oscar is suspicious, and the three become a nice trio: Dwight is insane, Oscar is skeptical, and Erin is gullible, ricocheting between the two stronger personalities like a badminton birdie.

Around this time a child mistakes Gabe for Abraham Lincoln, because he’s tall, overdressed, and stooped over. He sheepishly balks, but then an entire tour group thinks he’s beginning a solo performance. The much-maligned Sabre employee, suddenly lavished in attention and, more important, laughs, cannot resist the opportunity. “Perhaps a trip to the theater might liven my spirits,” he says. “Nooooooo!” shout the kids. (See! Gabe! Funny! Loving it!)

Across the field, Andy gives a performance of his own, dramatically spinning the tale of a Civil War solider who fought to his death for the flag of his squadron. The manager then presents a flag he commissioned: the central image, a piece of scratch paper with a big tree on it. Reactions are muted. Jim finds the comparison offensive, and his dismissal of Andy’s efforts upsets the regional manager so much that he drops “Big Tuna.” Which, whoa, we haven’t heard that nickname for Jim since Andy was a hyper-aggressive douchebag working at the Stamford branch in season three.

Crushed, Andy marches on, all alone.

About Robert California’s meeting. Kevin’s big innovation idea is that the chocolate-chip cookies in the vending machine should be at eye level, and California thinks this is a brilliant metaphor. Mind you, California has been around for weeks. He knows who Kevin is. He knows — at least I hope he knows — that “the Kevin” is basically a crude joke on mentally handicapped people that gets rolled out for the occasional D-story or mean-spirited zinger. And yet, we’re supposed to buy California thinks he’s a genius. Not just for one scene, but a couple. What clues California in: Kevin’s only slightly more crazy idea about conserving the ingredients of Big Macs.

Dwight locates a guide who just so happens to have a video on the Battle of Schrute Farm cued up. Dwight is vindicated! Until, revelation: battle, Dwight and Oscar learn, was a codename. The land was actually a safe haven for pacifists on both sides. “Dandies and dreamers,” a voice-over puts it. But the sepia photos of men sketching each other nude, says it all. This was the gay mecca of the 1860s. Oscar is downright gleeful.

Jim catches up to Andy to sort of apologize, but fed up Andy dishes out an earful about the employees’ sarcasm and mean-spirited streaks — they make people who care about stuff (read: Andy) feel lame. Jim, level-headed, in the nicest way possible, points out the inherent uselessness of the trip. They wore the trucker hats. Could it not be more obvious they like Andy already?! Is that what it takes to get Andy to behave like a confident, active character not prone to pouting and inaction? If so, send out the hats, NBC!

The jokes came from the characters throughout the episode, so although its story had a case of the hiccups, the half-hour was still worth some good laughs. Seeing all the characters behave like themselves, not deliverers of generic punch lines, also afforded a chance to see which of these characters is worth seeing more of. Like I said, Andy and California seem off point. And so does Kevin. This mush-for-brains shtick is so far past the line of good taste, I doubt he can find his way back.

On the flip side, Dwight is great when given a foil like Oscar. And Erin is loud and terrifying and funny when taken to her most neurotic extreme. And Gabe. Come on, NBC. Just give Zach Woods a pilot.

Photo: NBC