I mean no disrespect when I say that The Office is a formulaic show. Most episodes center around the idea of everyone trying to make it through the day until the pressures of life activate their anxieties and there’s an awkward but hilarious confrontation of some sort. The show’s producers have this down to a formula, and combined with a deep bench of lived-in characters and an attention to detail, the series has often been at least able to hit a certain baseline of funny on an episodic level, even during stretches where the writing staff seems to not know what to do with the characters or overall plot. (Though there have been a few out-and-out dogs.)
This same attention to detail and unshowy acting can also help save an episode when the main plot line falls flat. But first let’s focus on what didn’t work.
Going back to what I said about formula, Andy is worried that he is getting old and lame and no one at his former a cappella group cares about him anymore. (Pam: “You were in an a cappella group?”) He’s brought them in to sing during a lunch break, but the kids don’t seem interested in his stories about the good old days and even get his nickname wrong. The Here Comes Treble crew had nice voices, and that’s coming from someone who finds this style rather ice-picky to his ear. But they were clearly chosen for their singing and not their acting. This might sound parodic, but delivering disinterest is a skill that goes beyond simply not caring. See: Ludgate, April.
On a deeper level, Andy’s aca concerns are about growing old and worrying that the best years of your life are behind you, and that running a paper company will never make you feel as alive as being the boner champ. It’s a solid enough idea for a script, but something with the execution fell flat.
At its best The Office is coiled tightly so the pressure builds until things explode in the conference room, but nothing simmered with this plot. It felt like the writing nodded in the direction of Andy’s glory day concerns without ever really diving in to see what was wrong. This plot line might have made more sense last year, with Andy trying to take his mind off troubles with Erin or Robert California by trying to regress to his college days without it working, but these days Andy is the boss and has the girl. What is his problem?
When the characters on this show become lost in their idiosyncratic obsessions, we need to know what’s pushing them down the rabbit hole to care, but here Andy just seemed whiny, and thus it was hard to. Now, maybe that was the point (Erin: “When you’re with someone you put up with the stuff that makes you lose respect for them, and that is love”), but it still has to be delivered in a way to make us involved. Though it wasn’t for lack of trying on Ed Helms’s part; both the look of anticipation in his eyes when he thought of being called to sing his solo on “Faith” or his “son of a bitch!” outburst at Broccoli Rob’s Trey Anastasio taunting landed even when everything else about his plot didn’t.
On the subject of Broccoli Rob, let it be noted that I love Stephen Colbert as much as I hate bears, but he doesn’t exactly disappear into a role, and I kept expecting him to say “nation” when he busted in via video conference to steal Andy’s thunder. But it was still nice to see the two Daily Show alums sparring again.
The overall problem with this episode might be that the show still doesn’t quite have a bead on Andy as the new boss. The writers have breathed new life into Jim’s and Pam’s relationship, Oscar’s relationship with The Senator is a time bomb waiting to go off, and Dwight is reliably still Dwight. But Andy has become the archetypical dork who becomes the bully as soon as he gets a taste of power, and it’s not a good look. The Nard Dog is lovable when he’s working too hard for approval, but when it’s smooth sailing and he’s still acting like an Alpha Dog he just comes off as smug and inert. Even Erin seems to be getting sick of it. But maybe the news that the Bernards are now broke, a plot line introduced at the end of the episode, will give Ed Helms more to play with soon.
But even when the main thing isn’t working, there are always little pleasures to be found in The Office. The B-plot was a typical “Dwight freaks out over nothing” scenario. Dwight finds an antidepressant and concludes that means there’s a maniac on the loose. Nellie goes along so Dwight won’t realize she’s the one with an anxiety disorder. It’s not much, but the way Rainn Wilson delivered typically intense Dwightisms while periodically snorting his pig nose was one of those jokes that’s worth rewinding to see, and Meredith’s “stop bagging my head” after he tried to butterfly net her was enough to justify this whole thing.
Other little tidbits that made me smile the second time around: the look on Toby’s face when he started getting turned on at the sight of a woman dressed like him (I have no idea what that fetish is called), Angela dressed like Nancy Reagan, Dwight’s sad pumpkin slouching in the cold open, Clark’s continued over-the-top ass kissing (“there’s no way you guys are making this magic with just your mouths”), and Creed continuing to be Creed. He long ago became the biggest cartoon character on the show, but at this point when he shows up to work covered in blood, unaware that it’s Halloween, you take it on faith that it’s better that we don’t know.
Finally, we have Jim and Pam. Pam started off merely passive aggressive about the entire Jim keeping major life and career plans from her business. You remember, the job “that Jim told everybody about except for me.” She seems content to just rib him for that, but later he tells her that he invested the full $10,000 (and maybe more, he seems a bit dodgy on this point) into the company instead of just five, and then he let it slip that the investment search had ended and he went all in anyway. Pam was not happy, and a forced a cappella serenade will not quell her rage. The dial went from passive-aggressive to aggressive aggressive by the end of the episode (“you have to feed your children. You can’t just keep singing ‘Monster Mash!’”), much to Kevin’s confusion. Someone needs to tell him when people aren’t really talking about the importance of Halloween novelty songs. “Pam really hates ‘The Monster Mash.’” I get the feeling that in the coming weeks Jim will find himself just as dumbfounded.