“Life’s short. Drive fast, leave a sexy corpse.”
Last week, Cathy placed herself on my list of characters to keep a heavy eye on this season, and it excited me to think that we might get some real shakeups by separating Dunder Mifflin between Pennsylvania and Florida. It’s not even Cathy’s phone call at the end of “Special Project” where she vowed to seduce Jim that had me anticipating this week’s “Tallahassee” – it’s that Cathy is new, unknown, unfunny, and thus a perfect symbol for my often confused Office expectations. Toss that in with a Dwight-centic plot and the return of Nellie Bertram and the one and only Todd Packer, and “Tallahassee” ends up feeling an awful lot like Scranton a year ago when we were wondering who would take over for Michael Scott. If only I knew his replacement would spend a whole day covering reception and loving it.
In “Tallahassee,” Dwight and his team arrive in Florida to work on opening the Sabre retail store chain. They all present ideas to Nellie, who has since been hired as the Head of Special Projects after not getting the Scranton manager gig last year. Soon after their arrival at the hotel, Jim pulls an elaborate hotel room murder prank on Dwight, and after seeing that Dwight looks sick, Jim jokingly tells him he’s poisoned him. Dwight takes the threat so seriously that he overloads on antacids and is rushed to the hospital to have his appendix removed, but appendicitis be damned, he stays determined to reach his two Florida goals – to obtain the open Vice President of Special Projects position, and to find a memorable souvenir for his “son” Philip back home (“I need to get something for my son, but the mother doesn’t acknowledge my paternity. Do you have anything for that?”)
Luckily for Dwight, Nellie’s schtick isn’t like the employees-are-family approach of Michael Scott or the mental manipulations of Robert California, but unluckily for us, this episode didn’t quite flesh out who she is yet beyond a wacky and confrontational leader without much further characterization (though I did like the way she picked on Ryan for his size and gender). Despite his bleeding surgical wound and competition with Packer, Dwight ends up meeting both his goals – he wins Nellie’s respect and lands the job, and keeps a ziploc bag of his appendix as a souvenir for Philip.
Back in Scranton, things start out in complete inactivity (“It’s so peaceful,” Creed says, “I’ve already written twelve plays today”) until Pam discovers that Erin set the phone to voicemail before she left. Without a receptionist to man the phone, nobody volunteers to answer when it starts ringing – Pam especially doesn’t want to set the precedent of performing her old tasks – so Andy is forced to take over. He ends up finding endless gleeful satisfaction in sending faxes, delivering mail, arranging markers, and making “little pizzas” for his coworkers. “Andy this is a lame job, what are you doing here?” Pam asks him, and Andy replies that he’s found his “calling.” Darryl tries to warn Andy about getting attached to something before knowing its less attractive side by telling the story of a girl he loved who turned out to be ugly – a sorta-funny tale, but it seemed oddly mean-natured for Darryl. Later when a caller mentions she misses talking to Erin, Andy says he misses her too, and the exchange breaks up his whole giddy Undercover Boss-like experience. It’s a lesson he could use, and seeing that Erin doesn’t plan on going back to PA, he might have to learn it a few more times.
While Catherine Tate’s return as Nellie from last year was welcome, refreshing, and awkwardly aggressive in a way that brought back the Michael Scott conference room meeting vibe (I especially loved her stern “Stop looking at my breasts, and start looking at my penis”), I didn’t feel as attached to the main plot with relentless Dwight vying against Packer for the VP title as I did with the listlessness of the leftovers back in Scranton. Sure, there are a lot of things about the Sabre headquarters to love – especially the dapper cigar-smoking, rum-drinking pirate Florida Stanley in his red rental convertible – but is it smart to reward employees for interrupting presentations moments after undergoing surgery, dragging an IV around like some failed businessman mental ward patient? Maybe I was distracted with disappointment over Cathy’s lack of development this week; her only line (aside from asking Jim if he’s buying gifts for his kids) was a suggestion to give each Sabre store a theme like “jungle” or “winter” that was quickly shot down by Nellie. So I learned a lesson too, and it’s also a lesson I’ll probably keep learning on The Office – this show refuses to meet expectations like Pam refuses to answer the phone. But like both Pam and Dwight down in Florida, if there is a line between sticking up for yourself and having a tantrum, The Office doesn’t know where it is, because they stepped over it a long time ago.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.