Toby Flenderson portrayer and Office showrunner Paul Lieberstein gave an interview with Vulture this week that laid out plans for the rest of the season. It’s a great read — unless you’re not the spoiler type — and it’s a nice reassurance that the people behind this show have a plan in mind, even if it feels like they didn’t get around to doing more than just keeping their heads above water on an episode-by-episode basis until deep into the current run of episodes.
Viewed in terms of the overall arc, “Test the Store” was a funny enough but slight installment that mainly served to further move Nellie Bertram and Dwight into position for the power struggle that will occupy the rest of the season. But if piece moving was the primary goal of this episode, there was also some needed shading added to Nellie. We learned of her hardscrabble, loamlike roots, her cockney accent and humiliating Spice Girls audition. We also got to see parts of Nellie beyond self-involvement and vanity this episode. Turns out she can also do uptight (especially when her employs don’t use their ridiculous triangle phones) and even joyful; so happy was she that the Sabre Store launch went okay that she didn’t seem bothered by newly minted Vice-President Schrute’s multiple air punches to the gut.
One of the points Lieberstein made in his interview was that after Steve Carell’s departure, the show took a “rotating center” approach that allowed various characters to take the spotlight. It took a while for this approach to pay off, and most of the first part of the season seemed focused on ramming home the idea of Andy as boss. But once the show backed off this and found its footing a bit more, this approach has helped explore who these characters are and how they’ve grown as we’ve known them. Ryan Howard was the main character (if you go by who gets to be in the credits) that needed to show some growth, as ever since he got rehired by Michael he’s had such a minimal presence that he seemed to be on the show because B.J. Novak was one of the head writers and his character could usually be counted on to say something dickish. He was supposed to give a presentation about the ridiculous new Sabre Triangles (at least they have USB ports), but had a total breakdown instead. It didn’t help that Dwight’s idea of a pep talk was “So much rides on this. You have no idea.” It also didn’t help that his favorite color sports drink was unavailable.
Before Ryan split to be with his mommy, he mentioned that he wished Kelly were here. In one of the stranger scenes The Office has done lately, Dwight does his best Kapoor and tells Ryan how he’s smarter than all those other wiz kids, only to be shot down. “You’re so ignorant, you barely know what you’re talking about. You really need to read a couple of books,” he says with a gleam in the eye, revealing just how much he defines himself by feeling superior to the one person in his life still willing to take his shit. The stark, sudden reveal of just how fake Ryan’s all-consuming narcissism really is, undercut by his preening takedown of “Kelly,” was one of the darker laughs the show has gone for in a while. Novak has shown little interest in having his character be likable and has generally bucked any attempt to soften his edges, but it’s still a pretty brave choice to go this pathetic.
The “rotating center” approach has also helped chip away at Jim’s smugness. (Always overstated, in my opinion, but I concede that it’s a popular accusation.) From uncomfortable hotel advances to inescapable orgy tours, this season has delighted in putting Jim in the most uncomfortable positions possible and watching Mr. Cool sweat. This time, Jim was forced to fill in for the big Sabre presentation after Ryan bailed, even after Jim did his sweetest impression of what he assumed Ryan’s mom is like.
Dolled up in eyeliner and dressed in what one might call New Age Business Casual, Jim delivered Ryan’s speech. Which was split, predictably, between buzz-word soup (“time.space.gender.there are no.all boundaries are breaking down in the wake of the infinite future”) and overshares likely absorbed from Kelly’s self-help collection that nonetheless offered a fascinating look into that broken man boy’s soul (“never being able to accept that love drove the pain”). John Krasinski pushed Jim to new levels of unease, all stumbles and please-God-no faraway looks. But a brief moment before the presentation showed us even more. Dwight begged Jim to do the speech, mushing their heads together in a way that probably got the Jim-Dwight fan-fiction boards all aflutter. And Jim went along, eyeliner and all, because he cares more about his favorite practical joke victim more than he would ever admit.
Back in Scranton, we got another indication that everyone is just goofing off until they’re involved in the main plotline again. This time, Andy got beat up by a girl in the parking lot when defending Pam from pine-cone-chucking youths, tried to pretend it was a real gang, and took no small amount of grief when Tig Notaro showed up (apparently security just let her walk right in) to make her daughter apologize and compliment the paper. In fairness to Andy, it wasn’t like he could really hit back or anything. But it still led to lots of nice physical comedy courtesy of Toby, who seemed flattered that anyone remembered he taught self-defense and led the office in a round of palm-strike calisthenics. After offering some practical advice (“if an attacker is willing to defile a corpse, stop playing dead right away”), Toby defends Andy (“there’s no shame in getting beaten up by a girl, my ex-wife used to demolish me”), which brings on both the verbal and physical wrath of Kelly. Andy breaks up the fight and takes it in the good eye and gets another round of grief from everyone. But he ends the episode just fine, sloshed on wine and painkillers, pants off, and waiting to get involved in a real story line.
In his interview, Lieberstein sounded optimistic that he would get most of the cast members back for at least one season, but it seems very unlikely that Mindy Kaling won’t be leaving with James Spader in May. She wrote this episode, and it was a good reminder of what we’ll miss as well as her usual troupes. Besides Ryan being dickish and the above mentioned physical gags, there were the cartoonishly blunt skewerings of relatively up-to-date pop-culture targets like hipsters (Erin sure did enjoy the Cattora festival) and my colleagues (“Bloggers are gross, bloggers are obese, bloggers have Halitosis”). There were also her beloved goofy sight gags, like Stanley pulling a pizza slice from his triangle pack, and a tendency to go for a ten in the quirk department when an eight will do. (Let us speak no more of Toby’s latest Chad Flenderman Novel, starring Dr. Lucifer Woo.) I don’t doubt Lieberman, too much, when he says that there’s at least one more season’s worth of material to explore on The Office, but Kaling’s voice will be deeply missed. Let’s enjoy it while we still can.