We’ve been over the various roles Andy Bernard has played on The Office. But during his three-month, seven-episode absence from Scranton, he made his most curious transformation yet: He turned into an out-and-out villain. “Couples Discount” is an atypical episode of the American Office, but it pulls some daring tricks that work in the show’s favor—unlike those attempted by the last three episodes. It’s not particularly funny, and it doesn’t beg for repeat viewing, but “Couples Discount” is highly successful as a poisoned valentine to Andrew Baines Bernard. If this is how the show chooses to break up with the character, it’s taking an intriguing tack. It’s just too bad there’s no way it’s going to stick.
Both The Office and the office were running smoothly without the Nard Dog. Rainn Wilson displays as much in that fun little solo sequence where he saunters into the manager’s office to play both parts of a Dwight/Andy exchange: “I really like Andy these days. He is pretend and does everything I tell him to do.” (As an indicator of where “Couples Discount” lies on the humor/pathos scale, consider the fact that its biggest laughs all come before the first commercial break.) And when the boss man returns—a day early and with beads in his natty beard, because of course—he immediately sets about disrupting the flow of everything around him. Bad for his co-workers, good for the viewer: I wasn’t looking forward to a whole episode of faux-couplehood, and that gag works much better as a cold open/opening scene hybrid any way.
Freed from that conceit, the episode puts Andy on a path of destruction, torpedoing the White Pages deal (so much for “The Whale”) and explaining how David Wallace was led to believe his branch manager was in Scranton this whole time. And thus a gateway unlocks. A gateway through which you can channel all your frustrations with the character and his tendency to drag The Office down. Because he’s not just some singing buffoon anymore. He’s a mustache-twirling villain, grabbing big burlap sacks of money he didn’t earn and manipulating Erin into tying herself to the railroad tracks of his affection.
Mind you, I don’t take this as a completely positive development: As indicated above, the Andy of “Couples Discount” is an asshole to a cartoonish degree. Also, though a storyline on the darker side could make for captivating fare, it’s pretty late in the game to head down that path. And The Office only does that type of darkness well in short bursts. It’s used to showing its main characters some sympathy; the people who wish them harm are usually Maced, transferred to another branch, or bludgeoned with sound equipment. This week might validate your misgivings about Andy, but that’s not to last. Everyone on this show is capable of redemption—even neglectful, violent, rage-prone Roy. This is potentially rich, uncharted territory, but turning a long-standing character (even one with such a garbled history) into a straw man isn’t smart TV. “Couples Discount” flirts with that idea, but it ultimately lets Andy hang himself by his own braided beard hairs.
Besides, any dark side The Office might have left comes out well in the Jim and Pam storyline. While Brian the newly unemployed plot device is talking about how he’s separating from his wife (because he has feelings for Pam, so why don’t we just get on with that, already), it comes to light that Pam broke down after the last big row about Philadelphia—a fact that she neglected to share with her husband. A hairline fracture appears in their happily married façade.
Once again, this doesn’t immediately steer the show closer toward “not fucking this up,” but it gets at a tension that’s been lingering beneath the surface of Jim and Pam’s relationship for sometime. The course “Couples Discount” does plot is a refreshingly honest take on the vagaries of marriage. The Office has never shied away from the less-than-ideal qualities of the Halpert-Beasley union, be it the unexpected pregnancies or major decisions made by one partner without consulting the other. But the giddy rush of their courtship has colored much of the characters’ overall arc, giving it a honeymoon glow that would’ve understandably dimmed by now.
That’s not to say a devolution into Raymond Chandler territory is in order; it’s just nice to watch the show examine different facets of its longest-running relationship. There’s a lack of oomph behind the disagreement—this might just be a limitation of Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski’s chemistry; they’ve always been at their best when their characters are goofing around, after all—but the script, credited to Allison Silverman, does an excellent job of capturing the blindsiding impact of a secret forced out into the open. And when the characters agree to spend Valentine’s Day metaphorically slugging it out, rather than retreating to their respective corners, it allows for a flash of that old Pam-and-Jim charm. (In light of all those season-three talking heads about tense discussions between Jim and Karen, trudging back to the faux-bachelor pad in Philly is such a Halpert move.) These crazy kids just might make it after all.
With breakups legit and fake lingering around its borders, “Couples Discount” (a title that, removed from its retail origins, sounds like the show subtracting couples from its ranks) could’ve ended up a simplistic Valentine’s Day rejoinder, a half hour as wretchedly sour as the “chunky lemon milk” Kevin guzzles during Andy’s absence. And while it does provide a heaping helping of hating for one character, it also stands as a testament to the show’s greatest love connection—the elusive high of which probably led to the relationship that’s dissolved in the episode’s tag. (On that note: There’s an early-season-callback vibe to Erin and Pete’s quick kiss, but would it kill The Office to slow its roll when it comes to putting those two together?) Now let’s go snatch all the candy out of Andy’s valentine envelope before his next metamorphosis forces us to feel positively toward him again.
- Previously, I’d be wary about placing an episode with so few laughs in the “B” range, but I came to the realization halfway through this review that I rarely expect to be bowled over by The Office’s joke-telling skills anymore. My favorite episode of the season so far, “The Target,” is also the one that made me laugh the most, but my esteem for it is based on how unexpectedly funny it was. Though it was once one of network TV’s funniest shows, I think The Office succeeds more often with richly observed character-based material these days. (See: The end of the Jim-and-Pam storyline versus whatever that caricatured nonsense in the nail salon was.)
- Andy’s speaker-phone comeuppance left me cackling as the episode came to a close, so maybe this episode goes too far toward vilifying the character.
- Also: Andy’s post-cleanup hair appears to have been pulled from Meredith’s wig collection—though the mop on Kate Flannery’s head looks better than that pile of straw they stuck Ed Helms with.
- Great in character reaction: Go back to the conference room scene and keep your eye on Angela Kinsey while Clark talks about the company’s new “spokesbabe,” Kathy Ireland, and her topless European billboard.