Yesterday, Vulture's Margaret Lyons urged the show's writers to get back to the more relatable, small-scale petty drama of The Office's heyday. We didn't quite get that (Dwight hanging on for his life by a jerry-rigged trapeze bike is many things, but it's surely not quotidian), but this beginning-of-the-end episode did seem to indicate that returning executive producer Greg Daniels is bringing back some of the some of The Office's most admirable, mostly-shelved-of-late features: a willingness to let its characters grow, and a willingness to go dark.
First off, let's point out that while Kelly's exit to Miami … er … Ohio was appropriately bitchy and name-dropping (see you on Tuesday, Mindy) and Ryan's resultant exit to Ohio "for unrelated reasons" was appropriately pathetic, it's a shame they didn't give these two fan favorites the more elegant send-off they deserved during last Spring's season finale. (It certainly could have used some more oomph.) Now, I know television deals are a perilous thing and I don't blame anyone for not committing to sending Ryan and Kelly off until The Mindy Project was a done deal, and as a result they probably didn't have a lot of time to write them out of the show. But it still feels like a wasted opportunity to not properly conclude the stories of these two solipsists. My heart aches for the going away party we didn't get to see.
The exit of Ryan and Kelly led to the introduction of the titular new guys, Clark a.k.a New Dwight a.k.a. Fart ("I prefer it") and Pete a.k.a. New Jim a.k.a. Plop. Andy's skill at nicknames hasn't improved over the years. Daniels has said in interviews that these characters are in charge of answering the 4,000 unanswered customer complaints that Kelly never got around to, but that wasn't made clear in this episode. (There was a lot of ground to cover.)
Dwight, still wounded from finding out that he is not the father of Angela's baby (great blue vomit joke, by the way), transfers his paternal feelings on to Clark, played by likable hipster dork Clark Duke, who is long overdue for a role on a sitcom. Clark is less sardonic here than in Hot Tub Time Machine or Kick-Ass, and seems to be playing his character as more of an energetic go-getter. He immediately tries to use attempts at Dwight's father-son bonding to get a leg up in to the sales department, which eventually leads to a paranoid Dwight almost dying via trapeze bike after Duke shows him up at Andy's rope course. (More on that later.)
Jim's reaction to New Jim (played by Jake Lacy) wasn't as outwardly insane, but it will probably prove more compelling. The cold open concludes with Jim and Pam talking about their summer (Pam's mural game is at a high, apparently) before Pam mentions that Jim was recently offered a job by a former college friend. The job centers around a variation on sports marketing that Jim envisioned and originally considered partnering up on, but declined, not wanting to uproot the family and move to Philadelphia. At the end of the interview, the couple asks the camera people if they have everything, logically noting that it's just a paper company and implying that they certainly have been milking them for a while. (Don't focus too much on TV logic, Pam.) In what is, to my memory, a first for the show, the camera guy actually speaks and tells them at this point they're just following them around. "We were dramatic in the beginning," Pam admits, "but nothing interesting is going to happen to us for a long long time." The metatext here is almost too on the nose. It seems a certain executive producer is a bit sensitive to charges that the show isn't as compelling as it used to be.
Later, Jim overhears Jim Jr. (whom Jim 1.0 points out doesn't like the correct sports teams, and is therefore an inferior Jim 2.0. I bet he doesn't even like the Arcade Fire!) talking about his career goals: travel, getting an MBA, and all those things young people dream of doing after they finish getting acclimated to their new job. Jim smirks to himself that if Pete "doesn't watch himself he's going to be here for years doing nothing."
Then Jim makes the face he made at the end of the cold-open interview. It's a face we haven't seen in years. The Office is at its best when it underpins the comedic antics with the animating idea that these characters engage in their petty agendas, juvenile pranks, and desperate bids for affection to stave off the bleak meaninglessness of their lives. Or at least eight hours a day of their lives. They do the things they do because they are bored and can't bare to look in to the abyss, as it were. Jim, and the writers, had gotten good at ignoring that. Daniels has said that he wants the show to return to the ongoing arc structure of the past rather than the serviceable, often very good but ultimately less satisfying episodic structure of the past few seasons.
John Kransinski is at his best these days when Jim realizes he's not as cool and in command as he used to be. If this season is about Jim realizing that he feels stuck in life but isn't sure how he can change it without upsetting his family (in a different scene Pam tells Dwight she's happy with her boring life) and that he can't charm his way out of every situation, this show could very well get the emotional center that Andy never could quite fill after Michael Scott left. And yes, I know that after a huge fight around the middle of the season (Jim could have at least talked to his wife a bit more before calling up his friend to take the job), Jim will end up following his dream and moving his family to Philadelphia. You know that also. But I'm looking forward to the trip. And the tearful reconciliation, of course.
This was one packed episode, which meant that nominal series lead Ed Helms only got the third most prominent storyline. David Wallace sent Andy on a self-esteem building Outward Bound management training course, and he's returned with his best haircut ever and a burning desire to punish Nellie for that time she stole his office and his erection. (Last season really got pretty weird, didn't it?) He humiliated her in a rope walking demonstration (which also lead to what seemed like half an hour of Rainn Wilson falling on his face. It was impressive.) and then moved the recycling bins near her so she gets pelted with garbage. ("I'm passionate about two things. Recycling and revenge.") It will be interesting if Andy's send-off arc is him becoming a bully and egomaniac and dealing with the fallout, or if this is just a one-off goof. It remains to be seen whether Nellie can prove herself as a worthwhile character or another example of the show's latter-day tendency to keep characters after their arc ends, but apparently Nellie intends to keep putting up with the abuse. Maybe she's worried about her work Visa.
No offense to Paul Lieberstein, but it's good to have Greg Daniels back. He's hardly an irreplaceable stylist in the vein of Amy Sherman-Palladino, but his absence has been felt. There's a confident snap to the proceedings here that's been missed, and I appreciate his willingness to go dark. Echoing the truly strange dead-dog-but-not-really joke from last season, here Kevin proudly narrates the tale of how he ran over a turtle and made an excellent new shell for the turtle before noticing that it was dead … probably from when he ran it over the first time. Later, he has to remind himself not to eat cats. (Word to Gavin Polone.) The point of the joke, obviously, is that Kevin's reactions to horrible things are so enthusiastic that it's unsettling. It's a rough, edgy look for a show that, combined with Jim's existential angst, looks like it might shake off some of last season's complacency. Here's hoping.