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The Office Recap: Remarkable Erections

“I am in love with Kelly Kapoor. And I don’t know how I am going to feel tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, but I do know that right here, right now all I can think about is spending the rest of my life with her. Again that could change.”

The cold open of this week’s episode of The Office isn’t the funniest one we've seen recently (it would be hard to top Jim’s murder scene prank), but it’s still pretty amusing. If Phyllis says all twelve of the expected clichés about the rain that she normally does by noon, Jim will buy everyone hot chocolate. The “cats and dogs” and the “plants are going to love this” come by on schedule, but when her stated longing to stay at home with a good book fails to materialize fast enough, her co-workers try to nudge her along, and then are shocked when she doesn’t follow script.

Allow me to read too much into this gag for a second, because it feels illustrative. There are episodes of The Office where the writers seem to have lost a grip on their characters and are willing to have them do any old dumb thing to get a laugh, even if it means that Erin or Michael or Dwight might seem borderline mentally handicapped. Plenty of episodes will go by with variations on plots we’ve seen before, which is both symptomatic of any long-running television show and part of the underlying ethos of a program about people dealing with the banality of their daily lives. Still, it doesn’t excuse 8,000 different episodes about awkward office parties.

But just when it seems like these characters are behaving less like three-dimensional people and more like, well, television characters on the eighth season of a TV show, the writers pull back on the stirrup with a resonant line or an unexpected moment that shows there’s still a bit of life and spark left in the show. Clichés are plentiful, but that doesn’t mean there’s no surprises left. We got a little bit of that tonight, and there might be potential for more.

The future of The Office is up in the air, to put it lightly. Now, we have memories of at least three (maybe four) last seasons of Friends, so like Paul Lieberstein we’d be surprised if there weren’t at least one more go, for better or for worse. Soft ratings aside, it’s still one of the few shows NBC has that appeals to people beyond pop-culture bloggers, so it’s understandable that the network would want to keep it around, even if it loses some of its marquee names. Whether another season or a reboot or a spinoff would be any good is a question for another time. (A radical shake-up could be a good thing, as this season didn’t start working until the writers stopped giving Andy recycled Michael Scott plotlines.) But we expect that Mindy Kaling is out at the end of this season, and so we may have seen the beginning of her exit on this episode.

Kelly and Ryan have broken up, again. This show has an annoying latter-day tendency to do a lot of plot arranging off-camera, but Ryan and Kelly break up so often that it’s not a big deal this time. Jim and Pam have set her up with their pediatrician Raavi, “because Kelly is Indian … and that’s it.” (Also, The Office certainly is becoming a safe house for Heroes castaways these days. How long until Milo Ventimiglia shows up as Ryan’s even more annoying cousin?) Ryan has taken Kelly for granted for so long, always assuming she’ll be there when Erin doesn’t want to sleep with him, that it takes the prospect of her moving on to realize his true feelings. “Maybe we weren’t right together, but it’s weird. I’d rather she be alone, than with somebody. Is that love?” 

He goes about trying to win her back by showing her all those pretty pictures she took of him while they were at the fractional ownership property, but Pam is having none of it, and not just because she’s worried about losing a good pediatrician. She reminds Kelly of how she felt when he cheated (“which time?”), so Ryan has no choice but to call her out for her trash talk about how he treated Kelly badly.  “That’s your opinion and it’s her opinion but it’s not my opinion.” When that doesn’t quite work (even Kevin thinks Raavi is a babe), Ryan resorts to a not at all culturally inappropriate moment on a horse that won’t quite turn around. He … sort of proposes, with the caveat that he’ll probably cheat on her again because of the nature of modern marriages. (He has an article for Kelly to read with more information on that.) Kelly, having made the tough decision that Raavi’s love means more to her than Ryan’s drama, turns him down. Until they start making out. “Good to see Kelly is maturing,” Jim astutely points out.

So, it looks like we’re gonna get a love triangle. Again. One episode after the Andy-Erin plotline resolved. Though you can practically see the writers’ room panic after they realized there wasn’t a who-will-they-end-up-with ongoing plot for even one episode, this seems as good a way as any to send Kaling off. The best way this could play out is that Kelly realizes she doesn’t need to define herself by a man, and the push and pull inspires her to quit her job and do more with her life. Or she gets knocked up by Raavi and leaves to get married. (Or it’s entirely possible I’m being presumptuous and Kaling’s exit will be handled in a different fashion. Certainly a possibility.) Let’s hope that a surprise after a string of clichés thing pans out this time.

Plotwise, this episode felt lean and to the point, with just two story lines dedicated to moving the pieces into the right spot to finish off this supersize season. Andy returns from winning back Erin to discover he’s lost his position. And his Cornell sweater. And let’s not even speak of what Dwight has done to his desk figurines. Andy asks Nellie to leave his office, and she says no. He asks Robert to intervene, and he declines, because he feels it would be unprofessional to make a decision until after he sleeps with Nellie. (Warren Buffett operates under a similar principle.) The whole endeavor of getting “a promotion to a lower level” takes its toll on Andy’s psyche, and ruins the adorably wholesome sounding “nice hot date” Erin planned to lift his spirits.

We learn later that those spirits were indeed unlifted. (Why Erin and Andy would discuss their bedroom problems at the office and in front of cameras and not at home is just one of those things you shouldn’t think too much about on this show anymore.) Erin asks Dwight if this penile softness is normal, and ever loyal suck-up Dwight informs Nellie that she’s done an admirable job of completely demolishing Andy’s manhood.

This leads to a set piece that is one of the most unrealistic things this show has ever shot. Fortunately, it has a lot of great boner jokes. Andy’s co-workers find out about his performance problems, and instead of offering up the happens-to-everybody backup he needs, there’s lots of hard denials and conspicuous silences. (Though Gabe is uncertain what the big deal is: “Erin doesn’t even like sex. Remember, you said it feels like getting tackled by a skeleton?”) Robert tries to cheer Andy up by making him think fondly of erections past, while Erin is the only one in the room to realize that everyone should probably be fired except, as Toby laments, “HR is a joke. I can’t do anything about anything.”

But Erin can. Later, she blows up when Nellie makes yet another sexual innuendo joke, and that’s enough for the Nard Dog to finally come out of the cage. Depending on your generosity, Andy’s evolution from out of control, angry fratboy to beta-male doormat is either a natural progression of him losing his drive because he’s afraid of his own rage, or the writers rejiggering his character to fit the plot. Either way, Ed Helms, who has not been shy about missing Andy’s edge, is clearly thrilled to be letting loose, punching walls and telling off Andy’s dad.

That Andy’s rage would flare back up is not that unexpected of a twist, but it is a welcome one. That Andy would refuse to apologize to Nellie and flaunt Robert’s need to hear the word yes, and thus get fired, is a genuine surprise. (It also leads to one of the best hiding-an-erection jokes since the one Community did a few weeks ago.) The last part of the season was been building toward a Nellie versus Andy battle for a while now, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see that that the tumble won’t play out as easily as we all imagined. It’s not the freshest story possible (there are echoes of the Michael Scott Paper Company here), but at least they’re still trying to be surprising.  

Photo: NBC