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The Office Recap: ‘You’re Back. You’re Disgusting.’

THE OFFICE -- "Couples Discount" Episode 916 -- Pictured: (l-r) Angela Kinsey as Angela Martin, Phyllis Smith as Phyllis Vance, Oscar Nunez as Oscar Martinez, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon, Brian Baumgartner as Kevin Malone, Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, Ed Helms as Andy Bernard

Wait, Ed Helms is on this show? I had totally forgotten!

It's never a good idea to get too hung up on realism when it comes to sitcoms, even on sitcoms that go for a realistic, stripped-down aesthetic. Because no matter how naturalistic it's made to look, every sitcom depends on a number of contrivances and outlandish scenarios in order to move forward and actually be funny. So, you know, we can buy that some camera crew would spend nine years working on a documentary about a small-town paper company. But there are limits, and the Tropical Andy plotline was really threatening to go past it.

I don't have any particular knowledge of the negotiations that led to the ninth season of The Office, but I would not be surprised to learn that Ed Helms only agreed to sign on if the producers would allow him time off to shoot The Hangover III, as Helms needs to swim in richly deserved pools of money to keep his calves toned. So there was always going to have to be some sort of plot device to separate Andy for three months, and no matter what the writers came up with, we were always going to see their heavy hand at work. (The best possible option, Andy gets sent somewhere to open a new branch, would have been too close to last year's Florida trip.) The entire "Andy goes on a boat trip to the Caribbean" thing was an odd, strained choice, but at least it played upon the character's oblivious nature.

To Greg Daniels and the rest of the writing team's credit, they all seemed to realize it was just a bit much (I mean, how much vacation time were we supposed to believe Andy had saved up?) and spent the entire episode hanging a lampshade on the absurdity of Andy's actions. But just because the writers all but admit that a plot point is stupid doesn't make it any less stupid, and parts of this episode were just too much. While I believe that the rest of the office would just assume that Andy had told David Wallace that he was on a sabbatical, did Andy really think he could just not tell Wallace and get away with it? ("I don't know what he knows or doesn't know"). Did he not think that Wallace wouldn't find it weird that they only e-mailed, and he was never there when he called? Did Andy not worry that Wallace would drop by (back in the day, Wallace dropped by the Scranton branch every fourth episode) or that someone else would accidentally let it slip? Heck, how did Wallace not already figure it out?

Oh, but there I go again, overthinking this too much. It's an annoying and contrived plotline, but it had an upside. As I've said in these recaps a bunch, this show just breathes easier when we don't feel the hands of the writers straining to make Andy the central character. Andy was originally intended to be yet another character to annoy Jim and was eventually changed into a different type of sycophant for Michael to deal with. (Though his best plotlines usually involved him competing with Dwight.) Ed Helms is a charming, likable actor who does deluded but good intentioned very well. He was also the most famous actor left on the show after Steve Carell left, and his character's desperation for approval could generate plots more than Jim's laid-back cool would, so it made perfect sense to promote his character to Michael's old position. Last season's main idea, of a man with father issues needing to prove his worthiness versus an inscrutable overseer, wasn't a bad one, but the execution was hit and miss, and not helped by sweaty plotlines that Xeroxed Michael Scott scenarios so closely it felt like the writers hoped we wouldn't notice and would love the new boss as much as the old boss.

While Helms was gone, The Office has had the best run of episodes that it's had in years. It relaxed a little, didn't try so hard, and let the deep bench step up and show their stuff. (It boggles my mind that Oscar Nunez doesn't already have a pilot deal.) I think the producers noticed this as well, based on the meta joke about how business was booming while Andy was gone. Heck, even the characters worry that the good times and Chunky Lemon Milk are about to dry up now that the Turd Dog is back. (Kevin, never one for subtlety: "I wish Andy had stayed on his trip.")

But while there were a lot of plot points that rankled and a few jokes that seemed off (the bit about Pete's doing everything the dog loved the day before it went to "the farm" seemed like it was one revision away from really working), I got the overall feeling that the writers learned something about The Office in Andy's absence and are taking steps to make sure the streak continues. That said, it needs to be pointed out how structurally odd this episode is: There was no cold open and no kicker, and the plot point that gave the episode its title (thinking there was one more day before Andy returned, everyone went to the mall to enjoy a couple's discount on mani-pedis) was abandoned very quickly into the episode, and what seemed to be a potentially great running joke (Daryl shamed by the cameras into pretending he's Oscar's partner so they can both get discount pedicures) was forgotten very quickly. For a while, the episode after this was called "Andy's Return," and I wonder if there was some after the fact editing to this made in the interest of stuffing more story beats into it or rearranging the overall structure.

In Andy's absence, Dwight has been having Pretend Andy fill out all the necessary paperwork (again, Andy didn't think of this? How dumb are we supposed to believe he is?) while imitating his voice in a cadence that's more Kermit than Nard. Andy catches Dwight rooting around in his office ("You're back. And you're disgusting") and the rest of the loafers as they return from the mall. We've long known that Andy was a diehard Davehead, but now he looks like a college kid who's graduated from DMB into full on Wailers and Phish territory. I'm not surprised he had shells in his beard, but I am surprised he didn't braid his hair.

Now, I buy that Andy, miffed to see Dwight getting up in his desk, would pull a power play on Dwight to prove to him that he's still in charge by calling up Jan to dispute a price point he didn't sign off on. I buy that Dwight would refuse to say that everything is coolio. (Can you blame him?) And I buy that this would result in Jan pulling the sale. And I can buy Andy trying to save his ass before Wallace's next visit with a What's Been Going On meeting. And I can buy that the group, not willing to rat him out but hoping that he gets himself fired, would set him up. But I'm not willing to buy that Andy is so stupid that he would believe the warehouse burned to ash and that Dunder Mifflin is now selling Kathy Ireland–endorsed balloons. (Though Jake Lacy's "oh that's true" face while reacting to Clark made me less annoyed.) The characters on this show have to be just stupid enough. When they are Homer Simpson–level stupid it just feels like the writers setting aside the characters for the sake of the plot or the joke. It happened to Michael a fair amount, and it's just as contrived when it happens here.

Andy almost gets caught by David Wallace, but he talks his way out of it. He then almost gets dumped by a rightfully upset, only e-mailed four times Erin, but then talks his way out of it. He should have seen it coming when he turned his attempt at a hello hug into a sad game of pattycake (that image alone helped me forgive a lot of this episode's missteps). Erin is rightfully upset at what a selfish jerk Andy has been, but she's bad at breakups and has a hard time being mean, and thus falls prey to his sales pitch: "I know you might not be feeling love for me right now, but if you fake it I won't be able to tell the difference. So I'll feel good, and then eventually, maybe, you'll actually start to love me again." (Well, he did apologize to her last year that they never loved each other at the same time.)

But this bull only holds so long. After Erin tells Pete she couldn't go through with it, he says it's okay. "I just want you to be happy." She then gives him a long-awaited kiss. Though I wish we knew more about Pete as a character and not just as a wrench in the Andy-Erin saga, it was still a sweet moment, and it gave her what she needed to rush back into Andy's office to finish the job. Too bad for Andy that he was on a speakerphone call with David Wallace, who overheard everything. Including the part where she said, "I was worried you were dead. You were gone for three months." Uh-oh. Well, it looks like the writers really have learned that this show is at its best when Andy isn't at the center and might be taking steps to correct that problem during the final stretch.

Andy and Erin's false start and then full-fledged breakup nicely mirrored Jim and Pam's "let's not fight/no let's fight" dynamic. After begging to get Valentine's Day off, Jim is excited to have lunch with Pam. He's less excited that Boom Mike Brian and his wife will be there, but he knows he owes Brian. Turns out that Brian had recently ended things with his wife. Whether it ended because he is in love with Pam or he just developed these feelings because he's been lonely is so far up to the viewer to decide. Either way, his take on the breakup is a bit narratively convenient: "When we were fighting it weirdly felt like the relationship was still alive, and it wasn't until we stopped fighting that we realized it was over."

Brian then cries, and mentions that he and Pam have to quit doing that in front of each other. Turns out that Jim didn't know about Pam's crying jag. Later, she gets him to admit what was bothering him. Turns out Jim was mad that she didn't tell him. He felt like "a chump who knows less about his marriage than the sound guy." It's interesting that Jim’s primary worry was that he hurt Pam's feelings more than he knew, or that she felt she couldn't talk to him about it (she didn't want to add to his stress). But while parts of this episode were a little bit forced, this actually felt very natural. People often have very strange priorities, and getting miffed over feeling out of the loop when there are more important things to be concerned about is a misguided but common reaction.

Jim decides that he should just go to Philly to get work done. It's Valentine's Day, and he doesn't want to fight. He's a man who can talk his way out of any situation, but more and more he realizes there are limitations to his power. He doesn't seem like an out and out bastard just yet, just a man desperately hoping that if he can just make this new job work he can fix any damage he caused along the way. Luckily, Pam won't let him get away and suggests they go home, open a bottle of wine, and fight. Jim looks scared, but he knows she's right. "Put your dukes up, Beesly."

Photo: Byron Cohen/NBC