“I see you’ve found Benjamin. That’s what I call my box full of photos of Henry.”
After three weeks without a new episode, The Office finally returned last night, and despite some of the directionless and illogical problems this season, it followed up with a much more focused plot centered around the one element I loved and found most successful in “Get the Girl” last month – Nellie Bertram. It’s only after witnessing Nellie’s flawed yet frisky energy that I see how much of a disappointment Robert California has become – he used to be so mysterious and cunning with his mind games and cryptic statements, but in “Welcome Party” he’s reduced to a doggish drone too obsessed with pleasing Nellie for me to keep my faith that there still might be some bigger scheme involved. But it doesn’t matter – when Nellie’s around, The Office has life again.
What’s so successful with Nellie as the new boss is how everyone hates her. She rushes into the office late, complains about her ongoing move into her new Scranton apartment, and gushes out lines like “No offense, but are there a lot of Irish people living around here?” with such irreverent swagger that even Robert seems at a loss of how to react. When Andy became manager he at least knew his coworkers on a friendly basis, and when Robert came on the scene he had enough mystique to keep up with a certain level of curiosity, but Nellie’s just a looney fireheaded Brit who, like any good faux-reality show star, doesn’t seem too concerned with trying to make friends. That’s why Dwight grew to respect her last episode, and that’s why Robert is so powerless in her presence. In Robert’s defense, though, he’s responsible for kicking off the plot in “Welcome Party” when he asks – well, orders – Jim and Dwight to help Nellie move during the workday and for the rest of the Dunder Mifflinites to plan her a party by the end of the day.
The Party Planning Committee agrees to throw a purposely bad party for Nellie – they have it in the conference room, they enlist Creed to play his original acoustic songs (“I get it, it’s an ironic party for Nellie,” he tells the camera), and they buy carrot cake (“You think this is a great party? This cake has VEGETABLES in it,” Kevin says). Back at Nellie’s house, Jim and Dwight reluctantly help her move boxes (where Dwight astutely points out the way Jim uses the long lines in Tetris horizontally like an amateur), and after finding out that she hates stage magicians, Jim calls Pam and tells her to hire one for the party, which is strange because getting a magician on short notice is so easy for them, while weeks go by without a new receptionist. Who answers the phones? Who takes messages? Who lies to telemarketers and orders the printer ink? It’s been way too long and they’ve hired temps before, so why not now?
That brings us to Erin and Andy in this episode’s B plot, where we’re forced to watch them happily roadtrip their way back up north to Scranton together, with one pit stop scheduled in “Southern Pennsylvania” so Andy can break up with his girlfriend Jess – what could possibly go wrong? (“Southern Pennsylvania” is in quotes because it doesn’t exist. We don’t have a “South” in Pennsylvania. The bottom is the middle – deal with it!) I did fall for their bouncy chemistry for a moment when they were timing and rehearsing breakup scenarios in the car – Erin’s just too freakin’ cute to resist – but by the time they arrive at Jess’ parents’ house and realize they’re barging in on her sister’s bachelorette party, I didn’t want to go on. And while Andy does, eventually, at the very end of the episode, come clean and confess the truth about his love for Erin to both women involved, it’s too late, because by then he’s already eaten a bowl of penis gummies, falsely outed himself as gay (“I had to imagine I was in a steam room with John Stamos!”), and dealt with the consequences of Erin finding out he’s called her “not dating material.” Not to mention he ruins someone else’s bachelorette party, more or less sabotaging it by making it all about him. Erin, this is your final chance – leave this fool.
In my favorite part of the episode, Dwight and Jim uncover a shoebox filled with photos at Nellie’s apartment, which leads to Nellie telling them about her magician ex-boyfriend, who ran off with a waitress (from their favorite restaurant) after ten years of cohabitational bliss. Realizing that hiring a magician for the party is much more cruel than he intended, Jim calls Pam and tells her to cut back on the mean theme. By the time Nellie, Jim, and Dwight return to the office, it’s been too late for Pam to convince the others to throw Nellie a nice party, but they compromise on using the code name “Pam” to talk about how much they hate Nellie (“Nellie is terrific, but to be honest, every day I imagine how happy I’d be if Pam died,” Angela says). When the magician comes into the conference room, Pam and Jim purposely ruin his act, and allow Nellie to experience some delayed revenge (as opposed to the instantaneous brand of Jess and her friends pelting Andy’s departing car with cupcakes). All the while Robert remains concerned and confused (“Why is Jim treating the magician poorly?”), but Nellie, cool and calm and knowing as ever, is quietly throwing Jim a grateful smirk the whole time, showing she understands the whole process. That one smirk is all Nellie really had to do to prove that even if it’s only for one more season, The Office won’t stay in this listless era until the end. At last there’s a new character bonkers enough to fathom and forgive the passve-aggressive second-guessing and triple self-sabotage that is a day at Dunder Mifflin – and to fathom with a smile that’s ready for more.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.