If you plan to continue watching The Office, here’s my advice — unsolicited, sure, but I think it will help: You need to forget the negative energy this show attracts. Start thinking of season eight like a reboot — and not just because its ratings are eerily similar to those of season one. The show is finding its legs. Slowly. Week after week. This episode Andy is welcomingly active. Remember a couple of months ago when he promised Robert California to double the branch’s profits? He’s only $800 short, and he is determined from the get-go to get that money by day’s end. Andy’s desperate, stumble-upon-a-solution style of problem solving is beginning to click. He’s beginning to feel like the rightful center of the show, in part because Robert California is fading into the background where he belongs.
About the $800. First, Andy flat-out asks the employees to buy $800 worth of paper (he bought $2,200). When that fails, he begs Oscar to cook the accounting books, but Oscar declines. Not out of principle, but time. He has to leave work early for trivia in Philly. There will be friends, booze, and a $1000 first place cash prize. My emphasis, but you can see it plainly in Andy’s eyes. Kevin offers to fudge the accounting numbers, but Andy decides that traveling to Philadelphia, competing in the trivia competition, and winning the cash prize has better odds of success than poor Kevin. Which I believe. Season eight Kevin has been borderline Rain Man (except bad with numbers).
Meanwhile, Dwight goes to Florida. There’s a new managerial position at Sabre, and Mr. Schrute wants to pitch Robert California. Robert California lives in Florida. Not because it’s funny for a man named California to live in Florida, but because the state houses Sabre HQ. Also working and living part-time in Florida is Gabe. “Monday, Wednesdays, and Friday,” says the corporate beanpole, “I can think of no better way to confront my deathly fear of flying.” (The petition for a stand-alone Gabe spinoff stands.) In classic Robert California fashion, the character sets up the story conflict (he doesn’t actually want to interview Dwight) then leaves. Fine. I’d rather spend time watching Gabe anyway.
Andy arrives at Oscar’s bar in Philadelphia. It’s a gay bar, a surprise to no one but the employees of Dunder Mifflin. All of them. You guys, how did Dunder Mifflin double its profits? No one works!
Thankfully the gay bar is not a cliché gay bar, but a generic sports bar with a mostly gay clientele, which is to say a pretty average gay bar. Also, the trivia isn’t cliché gay trivia. The writers were careful not to load the script with winky questions about Watch What Happens Live! and Rufus Wainwright. Though we do get a Grindr joke!
The entire office participates in the contest, splitting into three teams: A-team, B-team, and the Just Here to Have Fun team. Once again, Andy shoots down Kevin’s hopes to lend a hand. Though Kevin’s relegated to the dud team, we know (1) The duds will win. (2) Kevin will deliver the winning answer. And (3) that answer will be followed by a monologue in which the mentally fragile bald man says either not to underestimate the underdog or absolute nonsense or something that splits the difference.
Back in Florida, Gabe hears out Dwight. Schrute has tricks played on him daily, so he quickly sees through Gabe’s charade. No one, not Robert nor the COO, is coming to receive the pitch. Dwight twists Gabe’s arm, literally, and orders they visit California’s condo. He demands to be heard.
California’s condo is a sad, sterile place. The place Michael Scott would have considered a fine investment. Huh. So, this is where California disappears. The phantom zone. I half expect to see thousands of pairs of missing left socks. California has no interest in Dwight’s pitch let alone him becoming a manager, though he won’t say so directly. He goes so far as to offer Dwight a choice: a job interview or Grandpa California’s cherished war medal. Are we supposed to believe it was a real war medal? That California doesn’t have a closet full of these to get pesky houseguests to leave? What a bizarre thing for this supposedly powerful and persuasive man to do. Whatever the case, Dwight smartly chooses the interview. To which California says Dwight’s not right for the job, but he’ll call him if anything else turns up. And Dwight smiles. A vindicated smile. A smile that makes no sense, really, but wraps up the story anyway.
Andy’s A-team is losing. But the losers, they’re winning. Kelly, Erin, Meredith, and Kevin know the answer to nearly every question. Even tough ones about sports (Kelly) and adolescent mental disorders (Meredith). The final question comes and you know who wins. Even though the question pertains to foreign films, Kevin (in true Rain Main fashion) knows the answer because it’s the film in which, as he gracefully puts it, “Marion Cotillard exposed herself.”
Cue the monologue: “Look,” says the perpetually slobber-mouthed Kevin, “I know it's easy to say tonight was just a fluke and maybe it was. But here's a piece of trivia: The fluke is one of the most common fish in the sea. So chances are if you go fishing for a fluke, you just might catch one."
The Office is not irreparable. It’s not great, either, but there is some marked improvement here over the worst episodes from the first half of the season. Andy is decisive now. He’s taking action, not asking the employees for ideas — though they still ultimately solve his problem for him. California is absent, as always, but Gabe is a totally worthy stand-in. And the gang, well, they’ve always been funny. And they still are.