At the risk of turning this into some sort of philosophical inquiry, which I know many of you despise with a fiery passion, the most important question to ask when The Office leaves the office is “Why?”
“Dinner Party” happened in order to give the show’s characters (and the audience) a glimpse into the domestic chaos that was Michael and Jan’s co-habitation. “Beach Games” established competitive boundaries in light of Michael’s (self-perceived) imminent departure. “Company Picnic” allowed Michael to gain some level of closure regarding his relationship with Holly.
In these cases, I would argue the reason for leaving the office was to create a situation that offered perspective not found within the office itself. The new setting was not just a novelty but rather a specific circumstance that forced characters to confront something they wouldn’t confront sitting behind a desk. I think of Pam in “Beach Games,” for example, in that transcendent sequence with the walk across the hot coals followed by her cathartic release at the bonfire.
In recent seasons, however, these episodes have become a novelty, an excuse to create “event” episodes which help freshen up an aging series. While I could see “Garden Party” aiming for pathos on the level of “Dinner Party,” with its focus on Andy’s daddy issues, it largely manifested as a collection of C-Stories that got cobbled together within this setting, as opposed to a cohesive whole. I actually don’t think these storylines were entirely terrible, but almost none of them evolved beyond their initial conception, and the central storyline ended up being both repetitive and dull, despite having some potential if it had been given any sense of purpose beyond a restatement of themes we have already dealt with since Andy took over as boss at the start of the season.
Speaking to my initial question, Justin Spitzer’s script offers a decent explanation for why everyone is leaving the office: Andy is throwing a garden party in order to impress his parents and Robert California after getting jealous of the attention lavished on his brother Walter, Jr., when he received his promotion (including, believe it or not, a garden party thrown by his parents). It’s actually not a terrible construction for an episode, and it fits with Andy’s character that he would try to throw his own garden party to win his father’s approval and to impress Robert.
The problem is that this is all there really is to “Garden Party,” as far as meaning goes. While other storylines like Pam and Angela’s ongoing pregnancy feud carry over into the party, nothing happens within that storyline that couldn’t have happened in a different situation. Similarly, Gabe constantly being upstaged by others in his battle to impress Robert is an idea that doesn’t necessarily need an event of this magnitude to operate. And when Andy eventually embarrasses himself trying to sing with his father and the entire office overhears the elder Bernard explain how he’s never going to be proud of Andy for being a general manager of a paper company in Scranton due to a conveniently placed baby monitor, it’s just a rehash of the Michael-esque resolutions that we saw in the first two episodes of the season: Andy is flawed, but he’s also a sad puppy who needs the office's love, so the entire office cooks some hamburgers on Darryl’s grill and enjoys Dwight’s closing ceremonies.
To be clear, I understand the impulse behind wanting to give Andy some back story, now that he is officially the lead as far as storylines go. Ed Helms played the story well, Stephen Collins was solid as his father, and while Josh Groban was uninteresting stunt casting, he fit into the idea that the duet was a key point of jealousy (which connects with Andy’s love of music). However, it didn’t actually tell us anything new about the character: We knew Andy was someone who tried too hard to please people, and learning about his daddy issues explained this in a way that was neither funny nor illuminating. Simply put, it’s a tired character device deployed in a manner that wasn’t funny enough to make any sort of impact. I’m not excited to see more of Andy’s family or intrigued by how they might play into future storylines or any other emotional response one could have to a storyline. They were one-dimensional characters that created the desired situation in which Andy could be valorized by his employees for trying so hard to be a good guy and hardly justified moving the entire office out to Schrute Farms. If the broad purpose of relocating the series is rote “daddy issues” characterization without a comic hook, I’m not exactly on board.
Now, there were parts of “Garden Party” that come closer to a justification. In particular, Mose’s little sideplot was an easy highlight, primarily because it actually had both a collection of funny scenes and an evolving narrative. Mose’s efforts to fight Toby for his car were funny out of context, as were his terrible parking methods (which required him to climb out of the sunroof of one of the cars), but at both points, that could have been the end of the joke. When it was revealed that he had lined up the cars to jump over them on his scooter, it was a wonderful realization, and from his failed ride and eventual run across the cars emerged a really funny bit that had been built beautifully by the scenes that came before it. Michael Schur is obviously busy with this show's lead-in, but I would love a web series that’s just Mose going out on adventures, as the almost silent film quality to those sequences had more subtlety than the rest of the episode combined.
There were parts of the other subplots in the episode that I liked, but they never added up to anything in the same way. While Jim’s prank on Dwight, which involved printing a fairly professional looking fake book about garden parties (more on that in the stray observations), had some decent gags, the joke was the same every time. As much as I prefer scenarios where Dwight’s obnoxious behavior is well-meaning as opposed to those where his behavior is mean-spirited, I didn’t find the joke got funnier as it went along, and it actually got weakened considerably when it became co-opted as a saccharine closing ceremonies at episode’s end. Similarly, while I like the idea of Gabe having a storyline and it made sense that he would feel some anxiety at being replaced as the designated brown-noser, it was just variations on the same bit over and over again. Calling these “plots” would be pushing it, really, given that there is really no narrative structure: they’re just brief “Wouldn’t it be funny if X Character did Y” pitches that skipped the rising action part of things entirely.
Admittedly, this is also becoming my problem with the season as a whole. Here, we have a case where an episode could have signaled at least some sense of what else the show might be interested in other than Andy as the well-meaning but hapless boss and Pam and Angela’s dueling pregnancies, and all we got were variations on those storylines with no new angle either narratively (which I may value too much personally) or comically (which is probably, I admit, more important at this stage). Robert California’s speech would have been novel had it not been nearly identical to his speech a few weeks ago, while Pam and Angela’s fight over the name Philip was about as dull as everything else in that storyline. Despite the promise of back story and the novelty of going outside the office, nothing outside of Mose’s valet odyssey managed to feel as though “Garden Party” actually accomplished anything as an episode of television.
And while I may be connected with these characters, watching them interact outside of the office is not enough to make a successful episode of The Office, and any pleasures found here were tangential to the episode's ill-defined purpose.
- If I remember correctly, I liked “The Christening” more than most of you last season, but there are some definitely parallels between that episode and this episode; you could even view Toby and Mose’s isolated and somewhat surprising storylines as a pair.
- So, where do we stand on the logics of Jim and his Garden Party book? Because I have a few questions, like:
- Is there seriously no real book about garden parties?
- How did Jim print such a professional looking book?
- Why would Jim, who has a toddler and a pregnant wife, spend hours of his life writing and creating this book? (This is my real issue, frankly.)
- Decent cold open with the billboards, but I think it would have been funnier if we had been left to imagine what graffiti had been done to them. It’s a cheap joke either way, perhaps, but keeping it off-screen would have been more interesting.
- I enjoy a good callback, so Kevin’s toupee got a chuckle. I actually enjoyed a number of small details from the party, like Erin’s saga with her hat and then her getting cut off at the toasts.
- So, pick a side: Are you on Team Darryl or Team Oscar when it comes to the function of Rosebud in Citizen Kane?
- “The goat package obviously has the most goats.” (That entire goat runner was entirely pointless, but it made me laugh, because I find goats inherently funny. I don’t know why.)
- “Why are you talking to Stanley’s mistress?” (I liked this Gabe line, both because Zach Woods had a lot of fun talking to himself, and because I enjoy the way they address her as Stanley’s mistress. Same goes for Dwight's introduction.)