Yesterday we highlighted Alan Sepinwall’s argument that The Office has reached a dead end in the wake of Steve Carrell’s departure and the writers’ decision to make Andy the new manager. Sepinwall called the show “a pale, listless shadow of what it used to be,” and while last night’s episode had some good moments, it didn’t really break past that frustration. The problem doesn’t lie so much in who the manager is and what characters we’ll never see again as much as it’s about the show’s growing habit of constant expansion: New characters show up, barely make a splash, then just sort of linger around (like this week’s new girl Cathy and last week’s new girl Val, both of which are intriguing but not given enough time to develop) while other new characters like the rest of the warehouse crew are completely ignored. Why bring in all these people when the original cast needs so much revamping? Then on top of that, throw in Andy’s parents and Robert’s bandmates and Robert’s kid while we’re at it. Why is this room so crowded?
In “Pam’s Replacement,” Pam’s now nine months pregnant and perfectly aware that she’s an enormous boat of flesh prone to mood swings and self-consciousness, but she’s not a fan of the fake compliments and belly rubs. After listening to everyone explain why a pregnant Helen Mirren is the epitome of hotness (“It’s one of the most common fetishes,” Gabe insists), Pam realizes that Dwight is the only person who tells her the truth: “You were at your most attractive at 24 with a slight gradual decline, then a steep drop-off when you got pregnant for the first time, gradual recovery and, well now, obviously, you’re at an all-time low.” Pam asks Dwight to help her make Jim confess that he finds new girl Cathy – who Pam is training to temp for her while she goes on maternity leave – is attractive.
The Pam/Dwight team was the highlight of the episode, mostly because their shared desire to defeat Jim made them funny, energetic, and likable again. In Pam’s case it’s just a break from her usual moody self, but for Dwight it’s a return to old-school scheming against Jim, and that’s when he’s at his best (The rules he establishes with Pam are 1. “Our only loyalty is to the truth;” 2. “We stop at nothing;” and 3. “Don’t fall in love.”). They approach Kelly for ideas, and she suggests they play the matchmaker game on Jim: “If Jim picks a really hot friend, then we know that he thinks Cathy’s hot,” she says. Jim knows Pam well enough to figure out the scheme and chooses what he calls “the most boring-looking guy I know.” After being with Pam for this long you’d think he’d know something, anything about women, and not escalate the situation by refusing to admit that Cathy is attractive – why mess with the cravings of a pregnant woman? It’s all just an excuse for the weirdest and funniest moment of the episode when Dwight “trips” so that his hand falls on Jim’s crotch multiple times while he’s talking to Cathy, to see if he is aroused by her presence. Pam actually went along with this idea, which made me love her a little more.
Meanwhile in the warehouse, Kevin, Darryl and Andy have been jamming during their off hours, and when Robert California discovers them, he joins in with his harmonica and is soon having such a good time he calls in his friends (who are all superior musicians) and within minutes, the original members are relegated to playing wood blocks and shakers outside by the dumpster (Andy says it’s “because of creative differences”). It was a lot like the episode’s opening scene where Andy tries to pull an “I can’t take that call, this client’s more important” move only to fail miserably after Erin decides the fake call will be that his mother’s dead – except that Robert pulls off these power trips subtly and well, but in Andy’s case, not so much. Disappointingly, Robert didn’t contribute much this episode beyond his harmonica skills.
The Dwight/Pam/Jim saga culminates at a pharmacy’s blood pressure machine, which Dwight uses as a lie detector to ask Jim about Cathy. Jim’s blood pressure is high for every answer he gives Dwight and Pam, and Pam shifts from craving some unimportant truth to concern for Jim’s health and stress level, and just like that, the drama ends over high blood pressure. I guess Jim did the right thing by not telling his pregnant wife that her temporary replacement is attractive – “It’s true, but it doesn’t help anybody,” he says – but Pam and Dwight had a glimmer of the passion that was all over the early seasons, a reminder of how the characters used to actually change and form real connections, all before Pam goes back to bitchiness and Dwight gets tired again. Once again, The Office squeaks by on a few good moments, this time through the unlikely alliance of Dwight and Pam. It’s great to see Pam responding like a wise panther to Dwight’s matter-of-fact record of her attractiveness highs and lows rather than deal with the infantilization she gets from her other coworkers. And Jim becomes the new Dwight in his smug refusal to admit the new worker is pretty. After several years of marriage he can’t figure out how to escape that question with dignity? It’s not believable and in the end, Jim makes even Andy seem mature and focused by contrast, and he’s downstairs jamming and smoldering with resentment against ringer musicians. Doesn’t anybody in this office ever work anymore?
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.