Vulture’s head TV poohab Matt Zoller Seitz gave this strange, wounded season of The Office a must-read once-over yesterday, noting how in many ways it seemed to metaphorically function as a “sitcom about being directionless, about deciding to soldier on after a catastrophic loss and not having the slightest clue how to do it.”
Seitz pointed out that as flat and well-worn as this show can often be now, he kept watching it anyway. I did as well, and frankly, I would have even if I weren’t getting paid or needing to kill some time between Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. Part of that is the lure of the familiar, the completist mind-set, and plain old loyalty; this was my favorite show for many years, after all, and there is a stupid part of my brain that would feel bad if I just quit on something that once (and sometimes still does) gave me a lot of joy. Beyond that, the acting is usually top-notch (there’s a reason so many people from this cast have busy movie careers); and I find the show sometimes still works on an episodic level, more or less. And even the worst installments usually have a few small moments going for them.
But can it still do the big picture stuff? Because this finale featured a shrugging conclusion to a number of plotlines that were introduced in the back end of this season — seemingly as a retort to accusations of directionless — that helped give The Office a bit of a jolt in its old age.
The writers largely dropped the Daryl and Val plotline after he told her that he was dotdotdot into her a few episodes back. This will-they-or-won’t-they scenario couldn’t even generate Andy and Erin levels of heat, largely because none of the writers ever bothered to flesh Val’s character out much beyond the fact that she was a woman who worked in the warehouse. But it was still a nice way for Craig Robinson to show his sweet side; the shy ways he flirted with her were incredibly endearing.
After Daryl has to introduce a few former employees/future employees/failed energy drink impresarios (apparently the coconut flavor in the coconut penis drink was too subtle) to the new foreman, Val’s boyfriend Brandon gets in Daryl’s face over one compliment too many, and Daryl tells Val that he likes her. Again. It sinks in this time, and by the end of the episode she’s holding Daryl’s hand during the family portrait Dwight has arranged. (Daryl’s daughter doesn’t seem too concerned with who this woman that just crashed her photo shoot is.) Again, the look on Daryl’s face is cute, but this conclusion just seemed like the writers realizing they had to pay off a story line that they long ago realized didn’t have much juice, so they may as well do it in the most offhanded “there, that’s taken care of” manner possible.
That approach is annoying for a B-plot. When it comes to one of the season’s main plotlines, it makes you wonder if anyone on staff even cares about ongoing story arcs anymore. After last episode’s fairly invigorating salesman one-upmanships, Andy returns to the office, because apparently Robert California still hasn’t instructed Hank the Security Guard to shoot him on sight. Andy wants to be there when David Wallace announces that he’s bought Dunder Mifflin and reinstalled him as the manager, so he’s pretending to be so broken and pathetic that Nellie gives him a job as a janitor for the day.
Ignoring Erin’s advice that he calibrate (who’s been teaching her big words?), Andy can’t help but push the subterfuge too far, and after he spills the soup he made for Nellie all over the rug he just mopped, his former co-workers call an intervention. (Apparently Jim isn’t mad that Andy stole Dunder Mifflin’s biggest client last week and doesn’t feel the need to ask how that went wrong so quickly. At this point, I’m not even sure if Andy stealing that big client had anything to do with David Wallace buying his old company. It seems like Andy just talked him in to it. Which is pretty stupid, actually.) After some hilarious domestic abuse humor from Erin, Andy reveals his plans, and then has to stall for time while Wallace is stuck in traffic. Again, it’s the little things. Though this plotline recycled the Michael Scott Paper Company thing from a few years ago and seems like the laziest possible version of shuffling the cards around until the status quo is restored, the pitying, concerned looks that everyone gave Andy were a highlight of an irritating plot.
Eventually, Wallace returns and it’s revealed that Sabre is no more, and all the necessary plot points are checked off one by one right after everyone asks payroll questions over Andy’s sad attempts to tell his life story (“from mop to MVP”). Andy is back in charge, Robert California a.k.a. Bob Kazamakis announces he’s going to use his liquidated stock money to pursue his passion for mentoring uneducated Eastern-European gymnasts (though James Spader and his material only occasionally equaled each other, the writer’s gave him a prime, grossly specific send-off speech that he nailed with his usual sleazy zest) and the old/new boss decides to keep the woman who stole his job onboard for contrived reasons I can’t even begin to deal with. (I guess he’s just a sucker for Shakespeare quotes. That and Catherine Tate is coming back next season.) So after weeks of build-up, things are back to normal in the least interesting way possible (seriously, a guy literally just filled out some paperwork and bought a company after our lead character asked him to. There was never any sense of tension that this might not work out).
Finally, we had some movement on the Daddy Dwight story line. Though it’s deeply out of character for Dwight (a manically tenacious man who values his bloodline above all else) to have not done something about this earlier, he’s finally gotten around to capturing some of little Philip’s DNA. Dwight has organized the titular family portraits, and after Angela deflects his attempts to capture hair, fingernails, and excess skin, he up and steals a diaper. Angela gives chase, and suddenly it seems like we’re watching a much livelier episode. After falling for Cousin Mose’s trickery (oh how I’ve missed that walk of his), Angela heads to the hospital, too late to stop the DNA test. But not too late for her and Dwight to begin making out. Again. The ending tag has Senator Horned Rim Glasses sassily insisting Oscar call him. (“You know what this is about.”) This has been an inconsistent season for The Office, with fun episodes and great moments, but a dispiriting sense that it’s too much in this late stage to hope for much more than that. But even though the ratings have been down, it looks like we’re getting at least one more season. I’ll be watching, because there’s no way I’m missing an Oscar-Dwight-Angela-Senator Love quadrangle. There’s no way The Office could screw that one up, right?