Last week was filled with lots of plot development for The Office, both in-text and real world. Compared to Dwight possibly becoming a father and Jim possibly growing as a character, the main story line in last night’s episode — Andy and Dwight fighting over who got to go on special assignment in Florida — felt like wheel spinning, but there were also story elements being put in to place that should pay off later. Also, it was pretty funny, which always helps.
The writing staff of The Office loves to take their time with story lines (it took Jim and Pam three years to get together, Holly was absent from the show for more than a year, etc.), and one would assume they hate burning through an overarching plotline too quickly and having to struggle to fill space. (It’s happened more than once. But let’s not talk about the Café Disco or Dwight’s Gym.) All worthwhile shows need to find a balance between long-term storytelling that makes the audience invested in the emotional development of the characters and episodic intrigue, but The Office especially suffers when there’s a sense that it isn’t going anywhere. (A fine subtext for a program about the banality of the modern work experience and a terrible feeling to have when you’re actually watching.) As such, it was both frustrating and deeply out of character that last week’s revelation about Dwight’s baby/"the collective Dunder Mifflin family baby” was confined to a few one-liners, as there’s no way that that Dwight, never known to observe social niceties or be timid when everything else is going perfectenschlag, wouldn’t have already stolen some of Philip’s DNA for a paternity test. Clearly, we have to wait until later in the season when Angela brings the kid in for that. (I’ll bet a Sabre printer he steals a diaper.)
The second half of the season has not only seen a renewed attempt at character and arc development, it’s just generally been funnier on a joke-by-joke basis. It can’t quite shake the cutes completely and went a frog too far last night, but there’s a real sense that the writers are starting to find their footing a bit in the post–Michael Scott era, and Amelie Gillette’s script landed some solid bits, perhaps none better than Ryan’s dickish insistence that he and Kelly not have to go to Florida together. Though Kevin’s “sometimes Batman’s gotta take off his cape” comes close. The main story line involved Dwight getting sent to Tallahassee to help Sabre set up a series of shops. It’s unlikely that Dwight would get this assignment after he was blown off by Robert just a few weeks ago, and Sabre-based plotlines usually feel like halfhearted attempts to shake up the status quo, but let’s just go with it.
Dwight picked the team he wanted to take, Andy insisted on another team, Dwight got mad, and then realized his team wasn’t so bad, as Ryan, “is capable of surprises” and Erin is “an excellent follower.” That was about it, really, but it was worth it for Dwight’s attempts to bully the doo-nothings and idiots off his team via forcing them to confront the old-person filled hell that is the Sunshine State, even if noted Tommy Bahama/Burn Notice fan Stanley would not be intimidated. As a native Floridian, I was thrilled to see the cultural luminaries (Casey Anthony, Katherine Harris) and achievements (“Florida facts: Scarfaces, Heat Strokes, Theme Parks, Brooke Hogan, Sink Holes, Morbidly Obese People, Geriatric Capital of the World”) of my birthplace so well represented. The preparation for the Florida field trip was slight but amiable enough, and it looks like it’s going to push along two bubbling plot points.
The first is that Erin, still sad that Andy is with still-not-a-character-Jessica, decides that she’s going to go to Florida and stay there. As always, Ellie Kemper does a fine job of playing her character’s need to stay upbeat at all times against a frustration and sadness she doesn’t know how to acknowledge. Though it’s still doesn’t feel emotionally true that Erin, after years of back-and-forth, would still have a torch for Andy, her understated wince at his suggestion that it wouldn’t be hard to find somebody to fill in for her was pretty heartbreaking. I wonder how long it’s going to take Nard Dog to come down to Florida to bring her back? (I’ll go ahead and guess about six more episodes. Eight if the season gets supersized.)
Secondly, it looks like the writing staff, after realizing that Lindsay Broad is still on the payroll, have decided to actually do something with “probably not a totally useless enigma” Kathy after a series of lampshade hangings about her superfluous nature. (Meredith’s outrage that “Kathy gets to go? Why does she even still work here? Pam is back!” being the best, with Dwight’s simply asking her what her name is being perhaps a bit too meta.) As first noted back in the pool orgy, Kathy has a thing for Jim and looks intent on jumping his bones while in Tallahassee, as she has the inside scoop on his marital woes and there isn’t anything else to do there. That Kathy would have to be pretty dumb to say that in front of a documentary crew, and will have to be even dumber to try to seduce him in front of one is the sort of thing you just have to learn not to think about too hard in this show, unless she’s purposely being set up as one of those people that likes being the villain in a reality TV show, which would at least be a novel twist.
Over in the B-plot, Daryl’s awkward dance with Val continues, even though there’s no way he wouldn’t have just made a move at this point. But as contrived as this drawn-out courtship is, this story gave Craig Robinson the chance to show how adorable he can be when he’s acting all shy and mooney and bewildered about what the beanie Val knitted for him Really Means. Turns out she just likes to knit, don’t hate. (Or really?) After Daryl realizes that Val gave everyone in the warehouse a hat, he impulsively gives her gift to Nate, who almost steals the episode with his reaction. (“It’s so elegant, how did you know?”) Craig Robinson has had to make a lot of “Daryl is frustrated and annoyed” faces over the years, but he really hit a new plateau when Nate offered him a Natpon for a Tickle Monster Attack in return for his thoughtful gift. Daryl is distraught when Val’s boyfriend calls to get the address for where he can send flowers (way to wait until the last minute, dude), and perks up when she denies having a boyfriend, only a mom with a deep voice. Just get these two together already. Not every ongoing plotline needs to last all season.