As of late The Office has been taking it’s fair share of critical lashings, both here and elsewhere, and deservedly so. Listing all of the problems with the current season would take longer than it’s taken to resolve the Andy and Erin plotline, so let’s go with the top three. (1) Without a strong ongoing plotline, there’s no forward momentum on this show, and every episode feels too samey. That may be a more realistic take on the character’s lives and drab situation, but it just doesn’t make for very memorable television. (2) The characters' inner lives and motivations are too often ignored for the sake of a joke, and no one seems to grow anymore. (3) Despite James Spader’s considerable ... I guess charisma is as good enough word here as any, Robert California has yet to become anything more than a plot device and an enigmatic blank who is not as fascinating as the writers think he is.
It’s also worth noting that The Office is often still very funny on an episodic basis. It rarely sinks below a baseline of watchability (feel free to use that as a pull quote, NBC Promotions Department!), and can occasionally still have an inspired moment. And now, it’s had two inspired episodes back to back. If you ignored the conceit that everyone at Dunder Mifflin would have nothing better to do than drive five hours round-trip to attend a trivia night at a gay bar (I’m sure Pam Halpert was happy to have even more time by herself with the kids) to placate a boss they know they don’t have to suck up to, then last week’s episode was the season’s strongest, and this week’s was even better.
We started with one of the better cold opens in recent memory, a bit about Jim pulling Dwight pranks (the Dwight Dog was cute overload, in a good way) to make Stanley laugh, as he needs a new audience now that Pam is on leave. It looked like this bit was about to veer into a metacritical take on the subjective nature of humor (not sure why the writers would have that on their mind) before the reveal that Dwight and Stanley had teamed up to hustle meatballs from Jim. From there, we get evidence that maybe the writers are starting to pay attention to recent complaints, because we’re starting to get inklings of character development for California and a tentative push for an ongoing plot.
California is looking at the mansion he will have to sell as a result of his impending divorce when Jim unknowingly makes a Shining crack about his boss’s abode. His pride wounded, California goes on to explain that he bought the house “hot on the heels of Eyes Wide Shut,” in hopes of turning it into Pennsylvania's answer to the Playboy Mansion before he married a beautiful monster who cost him his forties. For reasons that could be described as “something needs to happen, and they already went to a garden party, a trivia night, and a Gettysburg this season,” Kevin suggests that everyone should use California’s pool one last time before he sells it, and a private man who has shown very little affection for his employees agrees because … he has to so this episode can have a plot. “Let’s say no food.”
Meredith offers Erin a ride to the party, and then reveals her and Andy trailed her a few episodes back when California drove her home, as Andy “wanted to make sure California didn’t put it in you.” (Kate Flannery’s matter-of-fact delivery and Ellie Kemper’s disgusted reaction was perhaps the episode’s highlight.) In her camera interview she gleefully wonders if she should get a restraining order, delighted to know that Andy still cares at all.
Once the party begins, Erin begins flirting with Andy in her unique fashion, telling him “funny how you can be surrounded by people and still feel so lonely” in a delivery that Erin probably meant to sound sultry and came out inappropriately perky. Andy ignores her to attend to his girlfriend Jessica and fidget with the engagement ring his parents gave him after meeting her. “I’m just carrying it around, see how it feels. I haven’t proposed to anyone in years.”
It’s clear that Erin’s attempt to win back Andy is going to be one of the driving points of the back half of this season. And while this might seem too much like a rehash of the Jim and Pam plotline that put this show on the map, at least it’s something, and it’s not as if the writers can sell Dunder Mifflin again. Ed Helms and Ellie Kemper’s brands of well-meaning, oblivious naïveté help make these two a much different pair than the Halperts, and they’re undeniably cute together.
The problem is that it’s entirely unclear why they’re not back together already. In fact, when thinking about this episode, it took me far too long to remember why they even broke up in the first place. (Erin was mad that he hadn’t told her about Angela. Doesn’t really have much juice, does it?) If Andy is going to be caught between her and Jessica that’s fine, but first they’re going to have to make Jessica a character, because I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who mistook her for Kathy, Pam’s replacement (who needs to cool it with her “subtle” attempts to check in on Jim all the time). One of the reasons the Pam and Jim plotline was so rich was because there were just as many people rooting for Ann Per … Karen Filipeppli as their were Pam. They’ll need something similar with Jessica for this to work, though it’s a safe bet that Andy’s Waspy family will push him away from Erin, whom even Dwight felt comfortable calling a hick.
As Erin flirted with a game Dwight to make Andy jealous, Andy searched for the engagement ring that fell out of his pocket. (That it ended up getting a Viking funeral from Kelly and Phyllis was The Office at it’s most irritatingly cutesy.) California took the men on a tour of his mansion that amusingly mirrored the seduction ritual he had in mind when purchasing his lair, starting at the pre-orgy room, where “you enter a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a judge, but beyond it you are simply a penis, a vagina, a hunger, an ache.” While Jim tries, and fails to escape, Ryan and Gabe try to see who can be the bigger sycophant, a character dynamic I can’t believe it took the show this long to hit on, and Toby is too get-along to tell Oscar he’s not a fellow wine snob (“A note? It’s a symphony”). All of these humorous asides are nicely character-based, which is more than I can say about Darryl’s attempts to woo Val, because there’s been no attempt to give her a character yet.
But they’re starting to give one to California this episode. Namely, he’s a sadsack version of the perv type that James Spader does so well. Again, it’s not the most original idea the show could have had, but you either try to nueter Spader’s sleazeball appeal, or you lean into it. And clearly, Spader’s game as ever. In a move so reminiscent of the classic Party Down episode where Thomas Lennon just couldn’t get his “fuck actives” to get down to business that I assume it was meant as a homage, wine-happy Spader ends the episode by disrobing and getting in the pool, followed by Gabe and Ryan. What, no Meredith? While Erin, after a few intense games of pool chicken, gives Andy back his engagement ring, which she recognized by the Bernard Seal. He owns up that he’s not sure what he’s doing, which she takes as a small victory. “I can live with confused. I get confused. I totally get confused.” She ends the episode hopeful for their future, and we end it hopeful that we’ll get the ongoing plotline the show has desperately been needing.