It’s been a confusing week in Office news. Kelly Kapoor will almost certainly be leaving the show, and NBC, to get her OB/GYN license when this season ends. Mindy Kaling’s departure was long-rumored and almost inevitable, given her rising stature. It is not an overstatement to wonder whether NBC not keeping her in house will one day be seen as an “HBO passes on Mad Men”–level blunder. Now there’s talk of spinning Dwight Schrute off to his own Beets and Breakfast–centric show, which on its surface seems like an unfathomably stupid idea on the part of the network, since there’s simply no way The Office could survive the loss of Steve Carell, Kaling, and Rainn Wilson in such a brief period of time. And based on the ratings from last week’s Office-less 30 Rock–burn-off fest, NBC is not in a place where they can mess with one of the only hits they have. However, there's also the chance that The Office is ready to go (John Krasinski may also be itching to leave to switch full-time to movies, whether rescuing more whales or otherwise), and the Schrute Show is the network's best chance to hold onto Office fans, à la Frasier.
But if the outside news is disconcerting, creatively the show is continuing to perk up a little after the uneven first half of season eight. Let’s not get too excited, but just like last week’s Erin-and-Andy-centric episode, “Jury Duty” had both a suggestion of plot momentum and humor that felt like a natural outgrowth of the characters rather than the put-some-people-someplace-wacky-and-see-what-happens approach of late. There were still lazy moments, as the cold open seemed like it came about when some stumped writer said, “I don’t know. Maybe Andy could dance or something.” (To be fair, the giant roll of Bubble Wrap did look fun.) But overall this episode felt more tightly written than we’ve come to expect recently, even if the "miming a chill pill" thing is proof that the show’s writers haven’t ridden themselves of their terminal cutesy syndrome just yet.
The plot revolved around Jim and Andy trying to “Connecticut Cover-Up” Big Tuna’s lie about attending jury duty and leaving his co-workers in the lurch. It’s not that he didn’t go, he just got dismissed on the first day at noon, and stayed home with Pam and the kids for the rest of the afternoon. And the next day. “And then three other days happened.” Dwight begins to suspect something is amiss when Jim makes the deadly mistake of referring to an empanada stand as a restaurant, and Dwight is determined to catch Jim in his lie and defeat him once and for all.
It’s to Greg Daniels and Paul Lieberstein’s immense credit that they’ve never tried to imperil Jim’s marriage for drama’s sake, but ever since he had the kid there hasn’t been much growth for him. The Office long ago backed away from the Jim-Becomes-Michael subtext of yore, and Lieberstein is understandably not willing to let Jim mature beyond pranking Dwight. (Nor should they. This is a comedy and funny things need to happen, and dressing a dog as Dwight last episode was superb.) I’ve never personally bought the “Jim is unlikable and smug” argument (I’ve mostly chalked it up our culture’s free-floating anti-hipster paranoia), but parts of this episode seem like a response to this idea and an attempt to shed some light on who he is now. Jim as a stressed-out dad doing his best to get by while putting on the front that he’s still the same aloof prankster is not a bad area to explore, creatively, if the shows decides to commit to it. Either way, Jim is always at his funniest when he’s at his least cool.
He obviously feels terrible that his absence made life harder on everyone (poor Stanley had to watch “damn Rizzoli and damn Isles” because of him), and his confession to both Andy and later his un-amused co-workers was some nicely understated work from Krasinski. So to dig his way out, Jim called in the wife and kids. As a critic working for an esteemed, erudite website, let me just point out that Oh My God CeCe Is Getting So Big and Is So Adorable Awww. And, uh, good to see you again, Pam. Though CeCe’s drawings failed to win anyone over (should have cooled it with the crosshatching, mom), Jim’s reaction to her crying fit at least turned everyone’s resentment into pity. Daryl even used his best “poor bastard” look for the occasion.
In the B-plot, Angela had her baby, and because we’re long past the point in this show at which it wouldn’t be weird for her co-workers who don’t like her very much to visit her, Gabe, Erin, Kevin, and Oscar head to the hospital. Kevin and Oscar feel obligated because “accounting is its own little family,” while Gabe loves maternity wards because they’re “the perfect blend of love and horror.” Gabe is a problematic character, but Zach Woods keeps finding new shades of creepiness for him to play; the slight licked lips were particularly disconcerting.
Though Oscar was expecting a preemie, he discovers nine pounds and seven ounces of what Kevin delicately terms “a big giant fat baby.” After hesitantly accepting compliments on his wrapping paper from an otherwise underused Jack Coleman, Oscar confronts Angela about lying about the baby’s conception. She blames a viewing of Thor and chicken piccata for her and the senator getting busy before their wedding. But Dwight, visiting the maternity ward in search of Gabe so he can finally get Jim fired, makes an even more shocking discovery. After observing the newborn’s prominent forehead, short arms, and tiny nose, Dwight declares the baby is a Schrute. “And unless somebody taught Mose sex, that baby is mine.”
Angela denies his claims that the baby was conceived in the office after he put his penis into her vagina (the season of the vagina rolls on!), but Dwight won’t be swayed, and thus we have our second compelling ongoing plotline to get us through the rest of the season. We’ve grown accustomed to Dwight’s oblivious bluster over the years, but Rainn Wilson delivered a strong reminder of how dexterous an actor he is, moving from a manic commitment to foiling Jim to a cocky pride in what he’s created, mixed in with a touching note of tenderness when he first holds his son. By the end of the episode, he’s so overjoyed that he even lets fellow dad Jim off the hook. Looks like Dwight may have some indentured labor if he moves to Schrute Farms. Maybe he can bring Meredith and Phyllis to be his nannies?