The Office: “After Hours”
C+

The Office: “After Hours”

It seems like every other week the comments on these reviews light up about the documentary construct, an element that the show has deployed inconsistently over the course of its run. While you could isolate about a dozen instances where the presence of the cameras has played a prominent role within the plot, the average episode of the show might offer only a stray glance at the camera to suggest that there are real people filming these events.

It’s a debate I find interesting, but also one that The Office isn’t particular concerned about. The writers will use it when they feel like it, but the documentary style is ultimately just that: a style. It’s used to place the viewer into an observational position, allowing us to act as a fly on the wall as the various storylines unfold.

One of the challenges of an episode like “After Hours,” however, is that the fly is on the wall in four different locations at once. While most sitcom episodes break down into two or three storylines within a given episode, this one ostensibly divides itself into four parts. The result is that we never really get enough time to feel comfortable—or, given the show’s pedigree, uncomfortable—within any given space before we’re jerked out of that location and placed into another. We’re not given a chance to observe the storylines on our own terms, instead dropping in only to get the next plot point before repeating the same sequence all over again.

There was potential in most if not all of these storylines, had they been given enough time to develop. While I have to admit that anything involving both Dwight and Packer is effectively a zero sum game for me (hence my grumpy response to last week’s episode, which I know people generally liked more than I did), the “Dwight and Packer try to sex up Nellie” storyline felt much stronger once Packer was out of the picture. Dwight deciding that his sense of honor is more important than getting the job by sleeping with Nellie was a nicely human moment, and I appreciated how the episode bracketed off Dwight’s crazy behavior with the bed bugs into a separate arena, allowing us to see that he is capable of controlling himself in public. The character is far more grounded when he shows some semblance of self-awareness—it might make him less broadly funny, but it allows the subtleties of the character to emerge, and I thought his final speech detailing the occupational history of the Schrute family was both resonant and funny. It was unfortunate, then, that we didn’t have a bit more time to see the storyline play out—for a show that has thrived with longer scenes in the past, every scene in this storyline felt almost blindingly short, cutting off any potential to really explore the Dwight-Nellie relationship or Nellie as a character.

Similar issues with choppy storytelling marred the inevitable storyline in which Cathy makes a move on Jim and he’s forced to awkward his way out of it. The show didn’t do itself any favors by telegraphing the development so readily back in “Special Project,” but what really suffered here was that the situation was never actually made awkward. Instead, every time we dropped in happened to be a time when Cathy was escalating the situation, which meant we never got to linger in any particular awkward period for long enough to feel Jim’s struggle. The interludes were occasionally quite funny, in particular those involving Dwight, but they would have been more effective if we could have had more time. The Dwight scenes worked best because they were able to attain a comic rhythm—Jim turning around to discover that Cathy intends to take a shower in his room only works if the scene runs long enough to get to that point, and the observational humor becomes stronger when we’re given more to observe than a quick check-in. Given that I had no expectations of Jim actually sleeping with Cathy, I at least hoped the writers could make something of it, but they needed more time to reach that point.

This was also the case with the storyline back in Scranton, as Andy and the entire office stay after work to complete the paperwork for the orders of those who went to Tallahassee. I wonder if this particular sequence might have felt better if it had played out as one longer sequence. Everything after Val’s boyfriend Brandon’s arrival and his confrontation with Darryl felt like it should have taken 10 minutes at most in “real time,” but it stretched out for most of the episode, and the bits and pieces we saw were more functional than funny. While there were a few solid moments for Mindy Kaling, and I care enough about Darryl that his declaration of intent to Val was effective, there was never enough momentum to make this feel like a real event rather than a television plot (which is something the show has been better at in the past).

Perhaps the problem was that the writers had a lot of story they needed to get on the table and didn’t know what to cut from the episode. It’s one of the only explanations I have for why we needed a storyline for Ryan and Erin — as strong as those two characters can be, and as good as this season has been for Ellie Kemper, “After Hours” spent so little time on the storyline that it seems like that could have been better spent fleshing out the other storylines. Ryan creepily hitting on Erin was occasionally quite fun, but I kept waiting for a punchline that would never come. A D-story is rarely going to work outside of the context of a large group event where characters interact more readily—separating this out into four distinct stories, even with Dwight and Jim’s storylines converging at points, spread everything too thin.

I will readily admit that “After Hours” is less funny than last week’s episode, but I like where it ended up. I like Darryl taking a stand with Val, I like Dwight choosing the honorable path, and there was something about that Jim/Dwight coda (as they eat room service while Nellie fumbles with the sabotaged key) that made the episode feel more cohesive than it was. Unfortunately, that cohesion wasn’t as evident within the episode itself, undercutting individual storylines with each quick cut to another. Without any kind of overarching theme, and without enough time to build any momentum, “After Hours” is just a string of events, which is simply not an effective mode of storytelling for the series.

Stray observations:

  • I’m sure some of you have already jumped to the comments to complain about the grade being higher than that of last week’s episode, but I did want to speak to that briefly. For me, the grade reflects a combination of the objective quality of the episode (which was higher last week) and my subjective response to the episode (which was higher this week). If I’m being honest with, last week’s probably should have been above a “C-,” but I went with my gut and have to stand by that decision (and enjoyed standing by it in the comments, where we got to have some good conversations about our personal responses to the episode—thanks all!).
  • This episode has a particularly great cold open. By comparison with the rest of the show, cold opens are often best when they’re not observational, instead constructing a clear gag that we can see play out in quick succession (as we saw last week). While the punchline is clear once we start to see multiple pairs of gossipers, I still laughed, in part because it’s an example of the show being cleverer than I’m used to this season. A fine piece of work, even if I would also criticized Angela for being hypocritical regarding Oscar’s “Dogs are kids” position, given her feline history.
  • It is really, really not in the show’s interest to position every interoffice dating situation as a parallel with Jim and Pam, so the explicit suggestion of this by Andy and Pam when talking to Darryl is a bad idea even if I liked the idea of Andy arguing he would be better able to channel Jim’s opinion on the matter.
  • All told, Catherine Tate wasn’t asked to do much here, but I like that the show is depicting her as aloof when she’s drunk — her awareness of Dwight’s attempts to hypnotize her keep that early scenario from getting too silly, which I appreciated.
  • Dwight on catching butterflies: “That’s a hobby, unless it’s for food.”
  • “One waffle, with your maple-iest syrup” is a food order after my own heart, Erin.
  • A history of the Schrute family: “They were farmers, and before that hunters, and before that time travelers, and before that me again… or at least that’s how the legend goes.”

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