After several strong, character-based installments in a row, The Office delivered their weakest episode since the mini-comeback that started with “Trivia.” As is often the case when The Office isn’t working, “After Hours” was overstuffed and too broad, and showed a frustrating lack of follow through on some intriguing story ideas. But unlike failed episodes from when the show seemed to be struggling to find itself in the post-Carell era a few months ago, enough of “Hours” worked to suggest that the recent run of strong episodes has not been a fluke. Also, the circle of two-against-one bitchiness cold open was probably the best of the season. “There is nothing harder than taking care of a sailboat.” Indeed, Andy, indeed.
What hurt this episode is that the main storyline centered around a flat character dynamic, in which Dwight competes with Todd Packer for the vice president position, and then for Nellie's affection (“if anyone is going to have sex with Nellie for personal gain, it’s going to be me.”) Dwight is the show’s broadest character, which is not an insult. He can usually be relied upon for a funny bit about his cluelessness and power lust (though the part about him thinking his ancestors are time travelers stirred up questions about just how naïve we are supposed to believe he is, and felt strained to boot), his unbridled mania is useful for pushing the plot forward, and Rainn Wilson can be counted on to pull it back when need be.
The problem is that Dwight competing with Todd Packer (whose character is a jerk that … actually that’s all that needs to be said) for the affection of Nellie Bertram (who has not been fleshed out past being another comedic boss figure that doesn’t realize how sad their power trips make them look, though we did learn that she can’t be hypnotized) is too many big characters crashing against each other. It might work as a c-story meant to deliver laughs and nothing else, but without one of the more normal characters around to ground the action in something a bit more human-scale, you’ve got three actors seeing who can be the most oblivious, and it sucks all the air out of the scene. It’s just too many big performances knocking against each other, drowning everything out. This problem is amended somewhat towards the end, after Gabriel Susan Lewis takes out the competition and Dwight shows that there’s some lines he won’t cross to get what he wants.
The Ryan and Erin storyline generated some heat, despite feeling like it had been shoved into an episode that already had three plots in order to fill some time. There’s an interesting interplay to be explored between the most innocent and the most jaded characters in The Office, and B.J. Novak is an old pro at squeezing jokes out of pretending not to be a douche. So to cut off this courtship as soon as Ryan realizes it’s going to take 60 days to get what he wants seems like a wasted opportunity to both see how naïve Erin is (her slowly realizing what a tool Ryan is would be episodes worth of material. It worked for Gabe, right?) and show Ryan’s exasperation at how long his seduction is taking. Think of all the weird Erin obsessions he could feign interest in?
The other two story strands were more thought out, and played off long-term developments and well thought-out character relationships, which is usually the case when The Office is working. Everyone left behind in Scranton has to pull an all-nighter in order to get caught up. At first, Kelly is so bored she wants to scream … and does so. But then Andy brings the Jamaican food (much to Phyllis’s disapproval) and things start to get interesting. Val’s boyfriend helps drop the food off, and promptly accused Daryl of sleeping with his girlfriend, pointing to a series of incriminating texts to Val that he “found” as proof. Daryl denies it, and Kelly sensibly argues that the only thing to be done is to read the texts. “Getting My Fry On,” “The Moon Is Huge Tonight” and the classic “You’re Such A Great Friend … ” (That Daryl wouldn’t mind doing this in front of his co-workers is just one of those things you learn to accept in this show.)
This Val plotline has helped show a new side of the show’s coolest, and most guarded, character and actor. We’ve already seen how delightful Craig Robinson is when playing shy, and this episode we learned that he’s just as adroit at playing mortified. (We’ve long known that he can show a lot by barely changing his eyes, but it’s continually surprising how many different emotions Robinson can express with this technique.) It seems odd that we’re in our eighth season and this is the first time Daryl has been dragged through the humiliation routine that every character on this show has spent quality time with. (The Kelly dating thing didn’t really pop the way this storyline does.) Better late than ever, and the pep talk Pam gave him at the end is proof that this show still knows how to do warmth without getting cloying.
If the writers are just now realizing how much comedic mileage there is in watching Daryl squirm, they’re ratcheting up their commitment to making Jim as uncomfortable as possible, always a good look for John Krasinski. The writers finally pulled the trigger on the Kathy The Homewrecker Plot, though it’s still frustrating that this is the only thing we know about the character, and we don’t even know why she likes Jim so much beyond the fact that he looks like John Krasinski. But still, Kathy’s increasingly preposterous efforts to get herself wearing as little clothing as possible while crashing in his hotel room, and Jim’s increasing level of anxiety and attempts to be as far from her as possible was practically vaudevillian in its commitment to physical comedy. Good work by guest actor Lindsey Broad, her bald-faced denial that anything was going on alone should net her a sitcom role in the future.
In a rare case of Jim using one of Dwight’s weird pathologies for good, he calls him in to take care of the arrogant bed bug he saw, thus killing the mood, and almost killing Kathy in the process. How Pam will react to all this, of course, remains to be seen, but hopefully the show’s writers will take time exploring how Kathy’s crush affects the dynamics of the office when everybody gets back from Florida.