“Darryl teaches Nellie how to eat a taco.”
That line, included as part of the episode description for “Fundraiser,” feels like a watershed moment for The Office. In an era where cable boxes make these episode descriptions more visible than ever before, the content should reflect what the network considers the most vital or enticing information about a specific episode. These descriptions are meant to draw people in, to convince them to watch NBC instead of the Person Of Interest repeat on CBS, and yet the network chose to highlight the fact that one character teaches another character how to eat a taco.
Let’s ignore for a second that the episode fails to deliver on this promise, as Darryl never actually instructs Nellie on the proper etiquette for taco consumption (thus disappointing those viewers who tuned in exclusively for the educational experience). The problem here, to be clear, is not that the storyline exists: The Office has done mundane storylines in the past and will continue to do mundane storylines in the future. However, the idea that the rest of the episode was so equally mundane that Nellie eating a taco became a selling point stands as evidence of either an NBC employee with a sense of humor or the complete and utter decline of The Office in its current incarnation.
In truth, the rest of “Fundraiser” is not nearly as dire as the episode description would suggest, featuring a typical (to a fault) example of the Dunder Mifflin employees going on an out-of-office excursion together. As far as excuses go, as far as bringing the characters together outside of work, “Robert buys two tables at Angela’s husband’s fundraiser” is among the more logical instances this season, and there are a few storylines within that new environment that work fairly well.
Dwight’s failure to understand how silent auctions work might be a stretch, for example, but his mistaking the event for a “Quaker Fair” provided Rainn Wilson some nice hubris to play with. While I find the character far more interesting when he has clear goals or some larger sense of purpose, there are cheap thrills to be found in the character recklessly winning every item in a silent auction, eventually leading to the awkward speech where he’s forced to ideologically oppose the notion of financial donations and run off, lest he be on the hook for the $34,000 donation he unwittingly created. While the storyline suffers from the feeling of inevitability, Wilson’s performance sold his misplaced pride in the accomplishment quite nicely, and the speech at the end provided a predictable but enjoyable capper to the whole affair.
Meanwhile, while it wasn’t one of the storylines highlighted in the episode description, Oscar’s quest to become the object of the (State) Senator’s sexual desire was far and away the most interesting storyline of the night. It didn’t go anywhere unexpected, but it had a clear narrative to play out: Oscar’s initial encounter delivered on the character’s inflated sense of self, his interactions with a skeptical Jim and Pam offered some solid lines (“Life is like Downton Abbey”), and his confirmation at episode’s end creates a nice bit of closure. While Oscar Nunez has remained a great supporting player in recent seasons, it’s been a while since he was asked to carry this much of a burden, and it was a refreshing change for me. It was also nice to see a storyline that brought the (State) Senator into the picture—despite the fact that Angela was co-hosting this event, she largely fell out of the narrative following the cold open, so at least Oscar’s flirtations kept some thread of narrative continuity on the table, should the writers intend on delivering some sort of payoff in the finale.
And while this may be a contentious opinion, I honestly wish we could have spent more time with Nellie learning how to eat a taco. The storyline started out in a really interesting space, as Nellie awkwardly learning how to interact with her employees whom she knows nothing about might actually make me come around to the character. There was something self-aware about Nellie not knowing where the warehouse was, and her quest to get over the fact that Darryl has nothing but contempt for her seems like it could be a good use of Catherine Tate in a micro rather than macro storyline (where the character’s neuroses could be explored in a more nuanced circumstance). And yet, once they get to the fundraiser, the storyline becomes “Nellie doesn’t know anything about America!” followed by “Nellie doesn’t know how much tacos cost” and then climaxing with “Nellie tries to eat a taco vertically.” The characters just weren’t given enough time to flesh this out beyond these basic bits, a D-story in an episode stretched too thin to really deliver on any of its storylines.
This was, in part, thanks to the decision to bring Andy’s recent firing into the fundraiser itself. The conflict between Andy and Robert was simply never effective: It was never funny, the setup for the adoption of the 12 dogs was too choreographed, and the logic of the dogs being at the conference center was a cheap justification for Andy to remain in the orbit of the other characters. The idea of Andy struggling to come to terms with his firing is not a problem on its own, but the attempt to mash it up with the other storylines at the fundraiser meant that none of the comedy felt like it was happening naturally. Andy’s denial is perhaps something the show has to deal with quickly (given that there’s only two episodes left in the season), but dealing with it at the fundraiser was more convenient than effective, a single stone that killed two birds and the episode’s momentum at the same time.
The Office is far from a profound show when it just throws its characters in a room and observes their behavior, but there’s a certain charm to it. When we’re watching Kevin and Creed bidding on jujitsu lessons to avoid getting raped, even if we don’t find the joke in question particularly funny, there’s nothing larger for us to criticize. There’s no reminder of the failed attempts at serial storylines, or the fundamental lack of logic in Nellie’s continued employment, or the fact that this episode was sold based on one character learning how to eat a taco from another. It’s just characters we know doing stuff, a simple formula that describes the only gear The Office is working in at the moment. There was enough of that in “Fundraiser” to keep the entire ship from sinking, but there was also enough of the big picture to remind us that the show would need far more than two episodes to right that ship.
- Another week, another cold open that overshadows the episode: While I’m not sure the entire half-hour could have been sustained by Ryan faking devastation over a fake death rumor, his surface-level awareness of Smokey Robinson was a fun bit that went on just long enough to turn into an actual situation, more effectively than much of the rest of the episode.
- I’m not entirely sure what the brief David Wallace cameo accomplished, but it was a nice little thrill, and cleverly retconned his ignominious departure by turning his terrible toy vacuum into a success—should this be his final appearance, he goes out on a better note.
- An interesting week for talking heads: Andy directly calls attention to the cameraman (noting he hadn’t done one for a while), while Kevin gets a long string of them to explore his relative intelligence. The latter again plays fast and loose with Kevin’s actual intelligence, but his ignorance about being the “stupid one” was a nice beat, and “every of the time” got a chuckle.
- So, do we think the taco reference in the episode description is just a dirty-minded NBC employee?
- I’m shocked the show missed an opportunity to make a Deangelo callback with Andy adopting dogs, given Deangelo and Andy’s storyline back in “Goodbye, Michael.” And by shocked, I mean relieved.
- I enjoy that Gabe never spoke in this episode, leaving his bangs as a new mystery for us to solve. Y’all can have your Scranton Strangler conspiracy theories; I just want to know about Gabe’s bangs. Or could they be related?!
- Was I imagining things, or did characters unironically use the term “jabroni” in this episode?
- While I don’t particularly have any desire to see Andy’s rock opera (which didn’t even sound bad enough to become good, settling on boring), the reference to Downton Abbey reminds me that I’d be far more interested in this show if it showed us more of the warehouse. If the show is truly in for a full reboot next year, turning it into The Office: Upstairs Downstairs sounds like a great idea to me.