A documentary crew arrives in Pennsylvania to make a TV show about the modern American workplace. It’s not a glamorous assignment, but it’s a job—even if the assignment is completely derivative of a similar project previously completed by British filmmakers. It’s rough going at first, but once the crew gets out from under the shadow of its overseas predecessors, it starts uncovering something unique about the Scranton branch of this regional paper supplier. The filmmakers stick around longer than would seem feasible or reasonable, occasionally straining to find anything of interest to highlight in the day-to-day life of Dunder Mifflin and its employees. (Though those free-of-major-incident moments often yield the most satisfying results.) They grow to know their subjects: They watch them fall in love, get married, have children. They happen upon secrets that are only theirs for a limited time: office pranks, new employment opportunities, clandestine kisses. Some of the subjects leave forever; some go away and almost immediately return. Through it all, the one constant in the last nine years of this workplace’s existence is the documentary crew.
So I can understand the temptation to finally bring one of those crew members on camera, the undeniable pull to finally put a face on the people who’ve been “making” The Office for nearly 200 episodes. I can understand it, but that doesn’t mean I like it. Besides, that “meet the documentarians” itch was satisfactorily scratched at the beginning of the show’s ninth season. Jim and Pam ask why The Documentarians are still in Scranton, and an offscreen voice responds in turn: Everyone wants to know where Jim and Pam end up. Simple as that. Final season justified.
Yet, in the final seconds of “Company Loyalty,” here’s the sequel to that interaction: Pam, worn down from the distance between Scranton and Philadelphia and concerned that Jim’s involvement in Athlead has everything to do with himself and nothing to do with his family, glances off screen for a supportive face, and pulls a boom-mic operator into frame with her. His name is Brian, and because he has the looks of professional handsome-guy-with-comedic-chops Chris Diamantopoulos, we can tell this won’t be the last we see of Brian. It’s a Big Moment for The Office, but it has a hollow ring to it. Pam and Brian’s interactions hint at a history, but aside from the fact that she’s otherwise alone in the office, why is this the moment The Documentarians felt the need to cross the line separating themselves and the Dunder Mifflinites? Why not lend a hand when Michael was in an obviously abusive relationship with Jan, or try to stop Roy and his brother from smashing up that bar? Or tell Michael, “Yes, Dwight is correct: You’re about to drive into a lake”?
If it seems like I’m obsessing over a tiny detail of “Customer Loyalty,” it’s only because it’s the most intriguing detail, and the one that most wants the viewer to mull it over. And though it can seem like a tacked-on coda to what’s otherwise a middle-of-the-road table-setting episode of The Office, there is some storytelling momentum and character-based motivation behind it: Pam’s isolated from the rest of the office in her situation, and if her interactions with the accountants are any indication (and, admittedly, they’re not the warmest-and-fuzziest gauges of a characters’ popularity among her co-workers), the whole Halpert clan is working on Dunder Mifflin’s last nerve. She has no one else to turn to—so she turns to Brian. If her new drinking partner Meredith was around, this might be an entirely different story.
But it’s not really a “story” at all: “Customer Loyalty” presents a formidable challenge to this type of criticism because it’s a “reviewing the novel from only its first chapter” prospect. These are the opening passages of a longer tale—the last The Office will tell if Greg Daniels’ recent remarks are any indication—which will better inform opinions of this episode in a few weeks’ time. It’s not meant to be taken as a standalone piece, and yet the half-hour sitcom format demands that it still have elements of such—and so we get Dwight and Daryl’s delivery run, a buddy-road comedy in miniature that doesn’t fully work because the buddies don’t make an exceptional team, even when positioned as an odd couple. It doesn’t help that each characters’ personal story arc is more or less complete: Daryl’s already miles beyond Scranton in his mind; Dwight’s riding out a reluctance to change that’s more fruitful when played off of Jim or Pam. “Customer Loyalty” doesn’t provide a complete picture—it’s more akin to the mural that Pam is assigned to paint during the episode.
It’s that benefit of the doubt that’s keeping me from giving the episode a less generous grade. Outside of the cold open, there aren’t a whole lot of quality laughs in “Company Loyalty,” and its third plot—where the whole office gets tangled up in Erin and Pete’s will-they/won’t-they—is treading ground that the show trod a trench into long, long ago. That said, I do like the sly acknowledgment that the pairing of Ellie Kemper and Jake Lacy is an attempt to nab the interest of younger viewers; Nellie did give them the assignment of trolling social media to raise Dunder Mifflin’s profile among Millennials, after all. I’d also accept this plot as the backdoor pilot of American Horror Story’s fourth season, where it’s revealed that the Scranton Business Park is haunted by the spirit of a jilted lover (Jessica Lange and Evan Peters in a shapeshifting role) who dooms all vaguely compatible singles to engage in a fiery dance of flirtation that’s bound to leave a third party alone for eternity, just like the spirit. (Also: Toby’s ancestor, the original Scranton Strangler, murdered a pregnant werewolf mother then raised the pups himself in order to bring about Ragnarök, as was foretold in the prophecies laid out by the Freemasons and collected in the lost portions of the so-called “Dunder Code.”)
Also, as much as this episode just sort lies there, I respect the way it ties into the emerging theme of the ninth season: What makes a person stay? It’s a variation on the question from that “New Guys” talking head, and it drives a lot of the (admittedly kind of stifled) action in “Company Loyalty.” Dwight’s growing unease about the Halperts’ and Daryl’s departure stems from the fact that he values loyalty above all else—and he’s willing to call a totally unnecessary, totally Dwight staff meeting to prove it. That’s why he’s still in Scranton. Pam has a lifetime of connections to the city, but she also has that offer to represent her hometown in mural form. Brian and The Documentarians are still here because they started telling a story nearly a decade ago, and though its focus shifted and expanded over time, they want to see it to completion. Let’s just hope the boundary they broke this week doesn’t lead to some trumped-up drama where the boom-mic guy is possessed by that jilted lovers’ spirit and transforms into the final test of Jim and Pam’s love. But even if that happens next week (or the week after that), it’s a development, like the whole of “Company Loyalty,” that can’t be accurately judged until they find that ending.
- Stitch together a compilation of cold opens on the level (and of the same vintage) of tonight’s Dunder Code escapade and you might end up with my favorite episode of seasons eight or nine. The Office long ago gave up on the idea of squeezing all of its laughter out of wacky vignettes from corporate life, but that concept continues to prove golden for the first 90 seconds or so of any given episode.