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The Office Recap: When We Arrive

THE OFFICE -- "The Farm" Episode 905 -- Pictured: (l-r) Thomas Middleditch as Jeb Schrute, Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute

This episode was a miscalculation on a number of levels, and just because we can understand why all the parties involved made the mistakes that led to this singularly inessential episode doesn't make what ended up onscreen any easier to take. First off, it's understandable why NBC would want to spin off The Office. The network is desperate for a hit, and losing one of its few reliable ratings-getters can't be easy. Even though there are far more Joeys out there than Frasiers, the prospect of keeping some recognizable faces on the network after May was probably too much to resist.

In all fairness, spinning off a character from The Office isn't all that bad of an idea, but that character should not have been Dwight. Please excuse the armchair network executive work here, but if Paul Lieberstein and company had taken a somewhat normal character like Darryl or Erin (remember, I said somewhat normal) and surrounded them with some appropriately contrasting foils and gone about telling the story of how adults deal with moving on to new stages in their life, that might have had some potential. But even though Rainn Wilson is one of the show’s most high-profile actors (admittedly much more so than Craig Robinson or Ellie Kemper), spinning off Dwight was never going to work. A deliberately heightened character designed to frustrate and contrast with the main protagonist cannot, by definition, serve easily as the center of their own show, and any attempt to build a cast of characters around the former second banana is doomed to come off as strained, no matter how good the writing or casting.

The old-world, strict adherence to arcane custom aspect of Dwight's personally has always, always been best consumed in small doses. A bit of it can result in a joke that no other character on television could deliver. Too much, though, and the entire scene becomes far too precious and knowingly weird for a show that's supposed to be about the drudgery of everyday life. (That said, I did love the Dwight Christmas episode, because I am not legally required to be consistent with my opinions 100 percent of the time.)

The Dwight spinoff was doomed from the start, and it's no surprise that NBC passed. (Network executives said that the series would have been too niche, which is a nice way of phrasing it.) It would have been best if the pilot had been buried, or perhaps just saved as a DVD extra, and all parties involved got back to focusing on what's been an overall strong season of The Office. But NBC has been having, uh, problems lately, and someone somewhere must have decided that they wanted some kind of return on the investment of writing, casting, and directing a pilot episode for a spinoff season, which is how we ended up with "The Farm."

What I'm assuming was the raw bulk of the pilot awkwardly refashioned into a traditional episode. There's a long tradition of television shows throwing backdoor pilots at their audience without notice (at the time, I was bummed that the Jess from Gilmore Girls TV series didn't fly), which at least made for an unexpected change of pace. But this after-the-fact retrofit works as neither fish nor fowl; it wasn't a satisfying episode of The Office, and by attempting to make it into an episode of The Office it didn't even get to register as a memorably weird one-off.

The main plot of "The Farm" is that Dwight's Aunt Shirley dies, and before he and his family organize a funeral he has to go around and throw either red or black dirt in people's face to signify whether they've been invited to the funeral or not. (Please refer to previous point about too precious.) While at the funeral, we not only get to see Cousin Mose and Cousin Badger (I'm sorry to harp, but was that really the best fake beard we could find for Matt Jones?), but we also get to meet Dwight's previously unmentioned brother and sister. (I won't harp too much on this, as unrealistic as it was that a character as into family order as Dwight would never mention their siblings. I mean, I don't think Frasier ever brought up Niles back in the day either. We have to give TV writers some leeway in this area.)

Clearly, the attempt with this episode was to establish what would have been the new primarily family dynamic in the Dwight series. Dwight the Good Son, trying to run the farm his beloved Aunt Shirley left behind along with his not-as-smart-as-she thinks-she-is sister Frannie and his accidental drug pusher brother Jeb, who isn't even given the courtesy of a scene as funny as his sister's publication in the Hartword Women's Lit Quarterly.com. (If NBC was really serious about making this a spinoff, they could have aimed higher with the casting. I get that Michael Shannon, the obvious choice to play Rainn Wilson's brother, is busy with Boardwalk Empire, but surely Jared Hess could have been talked into it?)

After Dwight hangs out with Frannie's son (oh, the Dwight attempts to finally be a father to a fatherless boy story lines we missed out on) and jams on one of my favorite Decemberists songs (no doubt recommend by super-fan Cousin Mose), he decides that he will run Shirley's farm. Which is what he said in the middle of the episode, so there wasn’t any further change in his character and we didn’t really get to know much about the other characters. There were a handful of decent gags, like the use of descriptive details instead of emotional remembrances during the funeral service, and the cover of "Sons and Daughters" was quite lovely (I would complain that none of these characters would know who the Decemberists are, but even the most backward areas of this country have Starbucks these days), but no amount of editing could turn this non-starter pilot into a compelling regular episode.

Greg Daniels said that some parts of the pilot were cut, and new material was added to make this more in line with the current season. Was this new material shot and written in a day? Because the Todd Packer plot (in which Packer tries to make amends for his dickish ways with cupcakes, except that really he seeks frosting-covered revenge) felt notably rushed. Like Dwight's old-timey routines, Todd Packer is a part of The Office best used in small doses. Actually, Todd Packer had one specific function. When he was introduced, he served as a way to explore whether Michael Scott was truly at his core mean-spirited or just willing to act like he was in order to win the approval of a dominant alpha. When Michael eventually realized that Todd was a tool in the seventh season, it felt like a significant victory for him. That should have been it for Todd, and it especially should have been it for him once he was fired last season. But I guess the producers had to think of something to do for ten minutes that wouldn't move forward any of the (quite interesting) plots they developed this season, so they somehow landed on Todd Packer making the entire office poop themselves and or/trip balls. And hey, there's nothing wrong with a good poop or drug joke, but the entire thing felt obvious and desperate, except for Kevin and Andy's trading clothing and dancing in a manner that brought them shame the next day. That was an inspired blast of madness in an episode that sorely needed it.

This entire installment was a disappointment in and of itself, and doubly frustrating for interrupting what had been a strong stretch of episodes. But hopefully the entire thing can be chalked up to the producers trying to make the best out of a bad situation once we resume our regularly scheduled Office.

Photo: Tyler Golden/NBC