The Office Recap: ‘Special Project’

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“Have you ever tried to use a chain with three weak links? I have, and now I no longer own an Arctic wolf.”

2012 has been a year of constant shakeups on The Office. The Dunder Mifflinites are doing less actual work than ever – they went from a gay bar trivia night to Robert California’s lavish mansion pool party to Angela giving birth to Dwight’s maybe-baby. It’s as if the show is afraid of what might happen if these people are forced to sit at their desks and work a semi-normal day, but that wouldn’t be interesting. What is interesting, at least according to The Office, is trying to duplicate the same excitement and unknowing tension we felt last year during the episodes leading up to Steve Carell’s departure, but that kind of magic is worthless if you don’t have a leading man who we all know isn’t returning next season. And sure, I’ve seen reports about the Dwight spin-off, but can this show spread itself thinner than it already has? Sending half of the office to Tallahassee is an easy way to create some fresh conflict, especially when Ryan’s doing it to get away from Kelly, Erin’s doing it to get away from Andy, and Cathy’s doing it to hook up with Jim (in Stanley’s case, it’s because he’s the only one in the office who watches Burn Notice). Wait, Cathy’s doing what?

“Special Project” left the impression that The Office wants to prepare itself for some real-life shakeups. We already know Mindy Kaling might not return next season, so it seems logical that one of her cast mates could follow suit. I mean, it’s been eight seasons! That’s eight seasons of Leslie David Baker playing sudoku, of Kate Flannery as a drunk, of Angela Kinsey scolding people and oogling at photos of kittens. The UK Office only had twelve episodes and two specials, and “Special Project” makes one hundred and sixty six Office episodes on the other side of the pond. That’s not to say I don’t find these episodes enjoyable, but how many more character combinations should be explored? How much more can Jim and Pam be exhausted?

And Cathy – The Office has ignored Cathy since her first appearance way back in the beginning of November. Aside from being the butt of a few of Dwight’s insults, Cathy has done nothing that warrants attention. She gets next to no screen time (I accidentally said Angela attended trivia night a few weeks ago when it was really Cathy, so it works both ways), and she’s not funny, so what’s her purpose? And now that Pam has returned from her eight-week maternity leave, why is Cathy not only still employed, but also chosen to help Dwight and the Florida franchise? Also, how can the office run effectively with six employees gone anyway?

At first I viewed Cathy as another expendable female temp-type like Jordan from last season, who disappeared without explanation when the eighth season began in September. But unlike Jordan, I found some (tiny, but worthwhile) moments that made Cathy’s character come to life in “Special Project,” whether it was her split-second look at Jim while she opens the fridge or her private phone call to her friend at the end of the episode which tells us she has plans for Jim in Tallahassee: “Definitely we will. It’s three weeks in Tallahassee, what else is there to do?” That’s not to say Jim would give in and Pam’s already picked up on the attraction, but win or lose, I’d still appreciate a taste of the old awkwardness that was the Pam/Jim/Karen love triangle.

More than that, I’d just like some new tension. I did enjoy the slow buildup in the conference room when Dwight goes from resentment to excitement over his team members (he calls Erin “an excellent follower” and Cathy “a probably not totally useless enigma”), and with the the exception of Robert California driving Erin home after the Christmas party, that’s the only genuine moment of discovery this season that wasn’t double-candy-coated with cynicism and time-tested workplace smugness. We do get a handful of well-played little moments like Ryan’s Powerpoint presentation on “youth knowledge” and “Florida Stanley” in his pink and white ensemble, but Cathy’s phone call is a glimmer that there might be a whole different show going on right outside the Dunder Mifflin doorway, and that there’s a homewrecker in our midst who can rock the boat more than any amount of mosquitoes and photos of Casey Anthony left in the conference room to simulate the rough and tough Florida landscape. Maybe with all the heat, hurricanes, and misplaced Scrantonites, The Office will find a fresh way to start taking some risks again?

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.