Who is Andy Bernard? I ask this not to psychoanalyze the character, but to get a firmer grip on a presence that’s now been a part of The Office for longer than he wasn’t. Straightforward, no subtext: Who is Andy Bernard?
The too cheerful Stamford sales rep jealous of Jim’s swift ascendance to boss’ pet and Karen’s boyfriend?
The sycophantic Scranton transfer with rage-control issues?
Dwight’s rival in the office and the bedroom?
The guy given the thankless task of filling the seat vacated by Michael Scott?
The man whose privileged upbringing and Ivy League education have allowed him to coast through most of his life?
A personality-less Xerox of his old boss who has been put through the same paces as his old cohorts on the sales team and now stands before us dressed as Faith-era George Michael, clueless to the fact that it’s 2012?
The Boner Champ?
Unfortunately for Ed Helms—who came to The Office after a successful run on The Daily Show and will leave it a movie star, just like the man he replaced—so much of the scattered, wheel-spinning nature of the last few seasons of The Office is reflected in his character. Helms has been nothing but a game performer, but Andy hit a plateau when his fist went through that wall in season three. Since then, the arcs the writers have hung on the “Nard Dog” have included a pair of intraoffice romances, an unexpected ascent to the regional manager’s desk, and a unique bond with Darryl—the last of which is the only development for the character that paid any significant dramatic or comedic dividends since “The Return.” Since that moment, a worthwhile Andy storyline has been like a cell phone chirping at The Office from within the ceiling: hanging over the show’s head, constantly taunting it with something it can’t have, only occasionally pushing the creative braintrust to forcefully reach into the drywall and pull out something good. Like “Andy’s Play,” for instance. One of the first Andy-centric episodes to debut after The Hangover elevated Helms’ place within the Hollywood pantheon, that half-hour mined some good material from the character’s internal frustrations, all the while giving him an excuse to belt like a Stephen Sondheim-obsessed loon.
By hinging on a visit from the current class of Andy’s Cornell a cappella group (what, you didn’t know he participated in a campus vocal group while attending the university founded by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White in 1865?), “Here Comes Treble” is primed to perform a similar service for the character. It gives him a chance to show off/embarrass himself in front of his co-workers and the opportunity to play off one of Helms’ old Daily Show colleagues (Stephen Colbert, in a Skyped-in cameo that’s an unfortunate echo of Steve Carell’s appearance in the first series of Life’s Too Short). “Here Comes Treble” even sets itself up to shine a little light on Andy’s past, introducing Colbert as the character’s previously unseen college buddy Broccoli Rob.
Yet, by the end of the half-hour, “Here Comes Treble” gave me a better picture of what makes Andy’s girlfriend tick. It’s a humorous coincidence that Erin would end up in that relationship, as she’s a late-comer to the ensemble who’s been fully fleshed-out and given consistent motivations in a shorter amount of time than Andy. (Though there’s certainly a correlation between “fewer episodes” and “consistent motivation.”) Andy’s panic about being cut out of the Here Comes Treble loop and sudden desire to move back to Ithaca only underline the previously established notion that the character—who’s given to wistful remembrances of skipping golf lessons to hang out at the sailing club or drinking his way through four years at Cornell—is stuck in the past.
Contrast that with Erin’s big scene opposite the Here Come Treble guys. Sternly deploying some playground aphorisms, the character proves that she’s not just Andy’s best friend because she’s dressed as a puppy for Halloween, coercing the group into singing his signature number, “Faith.” We’ve seen this type of devoted behavior from Erin before, but it has never been so forceful and self-assured. (Or funnier—the conviction Ellie Kemper puts behind “Buts are for pooping” keeps the line on the right side of the naïve/infantilized divide.) The show continues to find new angles to Erin because she has legitimate characteristics to build from and sharpen. Having taken the anger issues away from Andy through two stints in rehab, all that remains of the guy is a grinning puppet who can be imbued with some of Michael Scott’s leftover tics and remind people he went to Cornell—in between spontaneous musical numbers, that is.
It’s really too bad, because this Halloween episode represents the last chance to let whatever Andy’s holding inside come to the surface in the form of a costume. Without leaning too hard into that theme, the subplots in “Here Comes Treble” represent the point where characters keep their costumes on, yet still manage to unmask themselves. In the tag, Oscar is caught on camera making out with The Senator. At the end of Dwight’s search for the owner of a misplaced anxiety pill, he comes to understand that his recent low ebb may have as much to do with his brain as it does his heart (or his testicles). And, in an expertly staged blow-up during the Here Comes Treble Performance, Pam truly, truly lets Jim know how’s she’s been feeling about his second job.
That massive breach of trust in the Halpert household obviously hasn’t been smoothed over by the start of “Here Comes Treble,” and Jim and Pam’s argument during the performance is foreshadowed by the tense “secret costume” talking head at the top of the episode. Releasing those emotions during a rendition of Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” is a smart use of the tension, in line with the conference room’s tradition of great cringe-comedy as well as a sly method of softening Pam’s logical reaction to Jim’s sizeable investment—thus keeping it out of “I’M YOUR SPOUSE AND HOW DARE YOU TRY TO LIVE OUT YOUR DREAMS!” territory. It’s also worth noting that McCain’s sappy ballad also ties into the themes within “Here Comes Treble”—and season nine in general—of faith and loyalty. Sure, it was probably included because its licensing cost was within the episode’s music budget, but it’s not like the producers couldn’t track down a song of similar sentiments if McCain got greedy all of a sudden.
Andy’s musical humiliation, however, misses the note (is a little pitchy? Falls flat? Let’s just relieve ourselves of all the musical puns at once…) because it’s rooted in relationships that were just introduced—or facets of the character we’ve merely been told about in the past. “The more I hear about all this a cappella drama, the more I think it’s kind of pathetic,” Erin says during a third-act talking head. “But when you’re with someone, you put up with the stuff that makes you lose respect for them—and that is love.” Perfectly written, humorously stated, and well-established truth from a woman in a puppy (not a dog, mind you) costume. And she wouldn’t need to dress like something or someone else to get that across, either, because The Office and its audience have a good idea of who Erin Hannon is by now.
- “Faith”: The official soundtrack of a character embarrassing himself in an NBC sitcom, circa the 2010s.
- Eagle-eyed viewers may recognize one of the investors at Jim’s meeting as executive producer and former NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman. He’s there to check on the status of the only solvent investment he made while teaming with Jeff Zucker in the original tanking of the Peacock. (Though he saved Friday Night Lights during his tenure, so he’s not a complete villain.)
- This is, as mentioned, our final Halloween at Dunder Mifflin, and the show acknowledges that by escalating a few jokes to the point of no return: Dwight’s game of putting things over Meredith’s head gets its button in the form of a giant butterfly net and Creed’s second-season vampire and fifth-season Joker lead to a splattering of questionably fake blood. Any earlier in the run, and these jokes would be too cartoonish to land.
- The Senator: “So Oscar, you’re a dinosaur.” Oscar: “Actually, I’m the electoral college.” In the event of a President Romney, Oscar is the guy who’ll show up to your 2013 Halloween party as a Binder Full Of Women.
- Andy’s co-workers have a lot of sarcastic fun with the Boner Champ’s overstated achievements: Russell: “There is a former Trebler in the room.” Darryl: “Who?”
- To get a better understanding of how well Rainn Wilson handled himself in that “pumpkin head” cold open, watch it with the sound muted. His physicality still sells the entire bit. The crash course on the masked craft of commedia dell’arte that Wilson gave Marc Maron during his WTF appearance was no joke.