The Office: “Free Family Portrait Studio”
C+

The Office: “Free Family Portrait Studio”

C+

The Office

“Free Family Portrait Studio”

Season 8, Episode 24

Andy Bernard is a pathetic man. This is not a new piece of information, given how the character was portrayed in the past few seasons of The Office, but became remarkably clear as the show’s writers tried to elevate him to the position of central protagonist.

I could go through and compare this to Michael Scott, who I’d argue was never pathetic so much as misguided, but we’re past the point where we should be holding onto that nostalgia. Additionally, and more importantly, I simply don’t think we have to hold up Michael as a comparison for Andy’s character to be found lacking; with 24 episodes of the Andy Bernard era of The Office under my belt, I feel comfortable saying that I have little interest in seeing anything further from this character.

“Free Family Portrait Studio” is ostensibly a story about Andy and Dwight, two characters with tenuous relationships with reality. They both spend the episode staging elaborate schemes, with Dwight organizing a family photo studio exclusively to obtain a DNA sample from Angela’s son and Andy playing the role of a drunk and depressed version of himself in order to exaggerate his ascension back to the position of regional manager upon David Wallace’s triumphant return as the new owner of Dunder Mifflin.

The difference, however, is that Dwight’s ridiculous behavior has at least some connection to human emotions of fatherhood and love, transitioning from a broad comic conspiracy (including a low-speed chase through the suspiciously Californian streets of Scranton) into the story of Angela coming to terms with a truth she tried to ignore. While we can talk about how the show just plain forgot about the storyline for much of the season, sending Dwight off on entirely different tangents that ultimately failed to amount to any new motivations for the character, Angela grabbing his hand and Dwight trying to swallow her face in response was honestly quite sweet. While too messed up to serve as the show’s romantic compass, their relationship has been a charmingly offbeat presence in the show, and its return here reminded me how disappointing it was that the season chose to ignore that potential as a recurring thread.

By comparison, I’m not sure if there is anything redeeming to be found in Andy’s behavior in the episode. The entire act was designed solely to create further drama around his return, with no connections made to any other part of the character’s arc this season (whether his insecurity with his brother, his relationship with Erin, or even his desire for revenge against Robert California). While we could perhaps read all of this as subtext, in practice this was a standalone story about how Andy’s selfishness makes him completely unaware of how his behavior will be perceived by other people.

To be fair, the episode gets some decent material doubling down on this, with the entire office trying to stage an intervention. The intervention itself is a bit hit-and-miss, with Erin’s intelligence shifting dramatically from the scene immediately previous—in which she told Andy to tone it down—as she casually mentions how Andy has abused her, but Gabe’s failed birthday party for himself is a fun beat, and the end result of the sequence is clever. Within the role of the drunk and depressed ex-employee, Andy’s story about David Wallace getting rich selling “Suck It!” to the military and offering to buy Dunder Mifflin sounds suitably insane, and the gradual consensus that Andy was in fact imagining David Wallace was both funny and, more importantly, seemed to give the storyline a point beyond the fairly simple bit of Andy embarrassing himself.

And yet then things just go ahead as though none of this happened. David Wallace shows up to confirm Andy’s story and make Andy the new Regional Manager, and does so while neither speaking to the woman he is putting out of a job nor reconsidering whether he wants to give that job to someone acting so obnoxiously in that moment. I kept waiting for him to have a change of heart, to think that maybe this imbecile who is putting on a ridiculous show might not be the right person to lead the company forward; surely Wallace could see how the bumbling but confident Andy—who sold a CEO on a paper company that doesn’t even exist and then convinced Wallace to take over Dunder Mifflin—had been replaced by someone who—literally—reeks of unprofessional behavior. Instead, Andy becomes the new regional manager without incident, as though his ascension was a satisfying conclusion to a storyline that had me desiring to see him crash and burn in the worst way possible.

It’s confounding, really, because Andy is the one character who you would think would have some semblance of pathos at this stage of the season. The trip to Florida provided no momentum beyond Nellie’s insurrection, Jim and Pam have been floating around without any sense of purpose all year, Dwight and Angela’s storyline was largely dropped in the back half of the season, and Darryl and Val’s relationship was equally ignored on a week-to-week basis before returning in a brief (but sweet) set of scenes here. It was Andy’s quest to take down Robert California that seemed like it was building momentum, but all of that momentum died in the conclusion: Andy got what he wanted despite being an idiot, Robert California is unceremoniously sent back to his home planet where he can feast on the uncertain futures of Eastern European co-eds, and any of the uncertainty created by Sabre’s potential demise is entirely swept under the rug with absolutely no sense of crisis or conflict to be found.

In that sense, “Free Family Portrait Studio” is a healing finale, where problems are solved and where wrongs are made right: Andy is back as manager, Angela and Dwight are back to being lovers, and therefore all is right with the world. However, is The Office actually suggesting that any of this fixes the show’s larger problems? In a season where the lack of stakes was a common complaint—one that I’ve been criticized for making too often—the idea of introducing those stakes in last week’s episode and then erasing them in their entirety in this week’s episode is inherently frustrating. In fact, the episode backs away from all consequences: Robert walks off into the sunset a rich man, Andy returns to his office without conflict, and Nellie even begs her way into a new job as Special Projects Coordinator in a brief sequence that doesn’t even pretend it’s not an all too convenient way to justify Catherine Tate’s continued presence on the show.

What’s surprising is that I’m not even that concerned about Tate’s continued presence, despite the hand-wringing I’ve done over Nellie’s characterization over the past few months. The writers seem to have a better handle on the character, who I found charming in “Free Family Portrait Studio”: Her insult to Gabe worked nicely, positioning her as the straightwoman to a manic Andy made her seem more rational, and I’ve always found Tate’s performance solid enough that a more nuanced characterization would make her a solid choice to help reinvent the show. However, what bothers me is that the character was a complete non-entity in this episode, never getting a chance to speak from her own perspective and appearing like an afterthought to Andy’s plan. In other words, she was never a way for the show to help reinvent itself: She, like every character, will simply fall comfortably into the same patterns the show actively refuses to move away from.

Last week, Erik Adams wrote a For Our Consideration piece entitled “End it already: When cancellation is the best thing that can happen to a TV series.” His central case study is, unsurprisingly, The Office: he writes that “the show has burned through a lot of goodwill in the [eighth season], and a once-favored underdog now comes off like the college freshman who still stops by his high school alma mater every Friday afternoon.”

This is not an uncommon opinion; for example, I’ve been writing some variation on it for 24 weeks now, and you’ll see many similar sentiments today and tomorrow as the eighth season comes to an end. However, what Erik doesn’t confront is what happens when your best efforts to convince the college freshman to stay away fall on deaf ears. No matter how many pieces of criticism are written, The Office will be on NBC’s fall schedule later this year; even if I agree with Erik’s conclusions, and even if we all have moments where we imagine the alternate universe in which “Goodbye, Michael” is the series finale, it’s tough to get too attached to an idea that simply won’t come to fruition.

However, if Erik will forgive me torturing his simile for a moment, why is it that we can’t just ignore the college freshman? While the majority of those who follow the show here at The A.V. Club—based on the tenor of recent comment sections—seem to believe The Office is past its prime, why are we—myself included—still emotionally tied to its fate? While it would be sad to witness that freshman slowly losing his dignity with each failed nostalgia trip, is there anything that’s forcing us to keep bearing witness to it? Why can’t we just walk away, accept that the freshman is going to keep returning every Friday afternoon, and choose to live our lives as though that freshman didn’t even exist?

The problem, I would argue, is that the freshman isn’t just hanging out in the parking lot or dropping in to chat with a few friends. The freshman is still wearing his letterman jacket, attending all major school events, and acting as though he never graduated from high school at all. While the Internet has collectively decided that The Office is a shadow of its former self, nobody at The Office or NBC seems to have come to terms with this, and the result is a show that acts like nothing has changed in spite of the fact that something clearly has. It would be one thing if The Office was dropping by NBC on Friday nights as a throwback to the good ol’ days; it’s quite another when it’s chilling on Thursdays as though it continues to reflect a bright future for NBC comedy.

It is for this reason that “Free Family Portrait Studio” disappoints me, and why I was equally disappointed when it became clear that Ed Helms, Jenna Fischer, and John Krasinski would be remaining with the show next season. This is not a terrible episode of television; it features a number of subtle character moments and structural parallels which highlight the show at its best, but its willful push back toward the status quo is baffling to me. So long as The Office still pretends to be the same show it was before Steve Carell’s departure, so long as it continues to put on that letterman jacket and walk into that all-school assembly with its head held high, it will always fail to live up to our expectations while simultaneously raising them by calling attention to what it once was. While the show might prove an unmitigated disaster should it dump its leads and entirely reboot its storyline, at least it would be a disaster that wasn’t relying on the memories of the past to sustain itself.

However, “Free Family Portrait Studio”—in addition to the news earlier today—demonstrates an unwillingness to pursue this path. While the showrunner might be changing, and some supporting players might be leaving, everything about this finale suggests—and even to some degree promises—that season nine will only offer more of the same. While the return of David Wallace could offer a more grounded corporate framework, removing the broad corporate satire of Sabre in favor of something more sustainable, it’s tough to take that move too seriously when Andy’s behavior remained so exaggerated in this episode.

It’s a disheartening conclusion to the show’s worst season, offering little optimism to sustain our already dwindling enthusiasm over the summer months. I would love to believe that the show is heading for a Scrubs-esque renaissance, returning to older themes and focusing more on character as it reaches the end of its cycle, but nothing about this season has given any indication the show is willing to admit it might have to do more than add some new characters and see what happens. I wanted a glimmer of hope from “Free Family Portrait Studio,” a sign that things might turn around next year—while it doesn’t entirely rule out such a revival, it certainly needed to do more to convince me beyond playing on nostalgia.

Episode grade: C+

Season grade: C

Stray observations:

  • One of the smaller things I liked about the episode was Jim’s paranoia about Dwight’s photo studio being a plot to hurt his children. The idea of a tearaway suit joined the pantheon of “Ridiculously elaborate pranks that make us question Jim’s life choices,” but his fear was both irrational (given that Dwight had no plans to harm his children) and rational (in that it was a conspiracy, just involving Angela instead). I hope those family photos end up on NBC’s website, as it was probably the most successful comedy in the episode.
  • While the random return of the warehouse employees was just an excuse to give Darryl a reason to interact with Val and prompt her boyfriend into ending their relationship with some ill-timed insults, their coconut penis energy drink was wonderfully silly, both in its initial appearance (“The coconut is pretty subtle”) and its reappearance with Robert (“Why’d they add coconut? I miss the original”).
  • Along similar lines, Ryan’s photos holding signs with messages to Kelly and a random blonde at a coffee shop were a nice, subtle touch—B.J. Novak was obviously busy directing, hence Ryan’s limited presence in the episode, but it kept him involved even if the storyline never went anywhere.
  • Speaking of which: I have to presume NBC Universal was banking on Fox letting Mindy Kaling film an exit scene/episode next season, because this was a truly uneventful final episode for Kelly Kapoor to go out on. I know that Kaling’s pilot—now titled It’s Messywas never a sure thing, but it was as close to one as possible, and I have to hope we get a more satisfying conclusion than the handful of brief appearances we saw here.
  • I like a good Mose appearance as much as everyone else, but I keep wondering how is the show going to justify his absence when Paul Lieberstein and Rainn Wilson do their Dwight spinoff.
  • While it will never happen given that it appears likely The Office will be the only returning comedy NBC picks up for a full season, I would love to see the network move it from Thursday nights. Let it anchor a new comedy bloc elsewhere, and try to let the Thursday night bloc look to the future.
  • I resisted expanding the connection out of respect for the campaign it was referencing, but surely the writers realize that “It Gets Better” is a bit on-the-nose for a show struggling creatively, right?
  • This has been a contentious season of the show, as is natural with a once-beloved series losing popular appeal. Although I may make a definitive judgment on each week’s episode, the value of these reviews is in the challenging and expanding of those judgments within the comment sections. While there has been the occasional dismissal, in general the comments have provided extensive debate and conversation that has hopefully archived our collective response to the show’s creative struggles—thanks for such great discussion.