I do not envy Greg Daniels and the current writing staff of The Office. Theirs is not an easy task. It’s not like they’re trawling rough ocean waters for crab or performing open-heart surgery or something, but bringing a long-running television series to an end is still a high-stakes, high-pressure job. There are many, many factors to consider: Finding suitable conclusions to story arcs that have lasted for almost a decade. Continuing to produce quality material for the talented cast of actors who’ve stuck with the show through some lean times. Building toward an ending that viewers will find satisfying.
Or, if you wanted to boil it down to something simple, pithy, and profane: Daniels and his team just need to not fuck this up.
In the second week of “the Brian era” of The Office, I’m not entirely sure they’re succeeding in that goal. The hour of the show that aired tonight featured flashes of late-period Office at its very best: There was Kevin standing up for Angela and Oscar after the Senator used his wife and his lover (and, though he goes without mention, his 1-year-old son) as political pawns. There were equally sweet moments between Dwight and the Halperts, seemingly the only allies any of those three now have at Dunder Mifflin. (Though Dwight would prefer to refer to them as “an axis.”) And there were little moments of precision comedy from latecomers and guest stars like Ellie Kemper, Mark Proksch, James Urbaniak, and Chris Gethard. “Junior Salesman” even snuck in Michael Schur’s stiff-armed Mose run, perhaps the last instance of that gag we’ll ever get to see.
Yet for all the facets of “Junior Salesman” and “Vandalism” that play so well with relationships and characters that were built with patience and care, there’s the sense of panic that’s followed the show around since the departure of Michael Scott. It’s a feeling that’s palpable from the very beginning of the first episode, a cold open that hedges on last week’s intrusion by Brian, The Sound Guy With All Of The Feelings. But there’s no turning back on that particular reveal. When Brian tells Pam he got in trouble with his bosses for reaching out to one of the documentary’s subjects in the middle of a shot, he talks as if he’s opened a door that can’t be closed. And he’s absolutely correct. All sorts of story is rushing across that threshold, a furious rush of wind howling “22 episodes is too much time! It must at least be partially occupied by The Final Temptation of Pam Halpert! Just look at Chris Diamantopoulos! I mean—wouldn’t yooooooooou?”
Because let’s be perfectly honest: Brian didn’t need to be the White Knight at the end of “Vandalism.” When Frank, the irate warehouse worker who painted butts all over Pam’s mural (because white-collar/blue-collar tension?) received his just desserts in the Scranton Business Park parking lot, I laughed hard—because I thought it was Dwight who hit him. It all happened so fast, it seemed reasonable in the moment that Dwight retrieved a very boom-mic-pole-like implement and, in a callback to his unexpected act of co-worker solidarity in “The Negotiation,” was the guy who stepped up to keep his friend out of harm’s way. But, no, it was Brian, and a heartfelt (if revenge-driven) conclusion to the rare Dwight-Pam story that brings Pam down to Dwight’s level was denied. I’m willing to bet the confusion was intentional. And I’m also sure Daniels and his team knew this move would only serve to further alienate fans frustrated by “Customer Loyalty.” They stepped up and took the risk—but it’s starting to feel like they’re fucking up now.
And it stings all the more because that happens in an episode where a creative work that represents a lot of time and effort is suddenly covered with a series of naked asses. That’s not to say that I think this whole Brian arc is sullying all the good that came before; it’s still too early to judge, and still such a small-but-easy-to-seize-upon-in-a-review part of these episodes. But it does feel like a vestigial growth hanging clumsily off the side of these two episodes—one of which provides a fascinating (and so, so wrong for “We [Peacock] Comedy”-era NBC) glimpse into the world of The Farm.
“Junior Salesman” is its own, apparently smelly mess of weird, though it suffers from a similar antsiness as “Vandalism.” It’s tempting to play games of “What if?” with this half-hour, most compelling of which being, of course, “What if James Urbaniak had worn Dwight’s mustard shirts for the past nine years?” (Given the lengthy production schedule for The Venture Bros., this probably wouldn’t have prevented him from fulfilling his duties as Dr. Thaddeus Venture.) Given the lack of time it spends on, you know, the farm, this is merely a prelude to the Dwight-centric pilot on which NBC passed. (Judging by plot synopses of future episodes, I’m guessing the February 14 installment, “Moving On,” is the Office episode that absorbed The Farm. Unless the writers had another reason to cook up a story where “Dwight goes on a quest to clean his aging aunt.”) But that conference room full of his cronies certainly serves as a bellwether for the types of relationships and conflicts that would have arisen on the grounds of Schrute Farms: bizarre, petty disagreements and power plays that wouldn’t be worth the amount of spirit gum purchased to attach the beard to Matt Jones’ neck.
Still, the way “Junior Salesman” marginalizes most of The Office’s principals, it certainly feels like a pilot of some kind. In subject matter and structure, it has much in common with season seven’s “Search Committee,” which was the figurative pilot for the last two years of the show. Faces are introduced and re-introduced; some make their mark (the aforementioned Gethard and Proksch), and some feel wasted (Eric Wareheim, who at least gets to work in a few Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!-style dead-eyed stares)—but at least nobody’s a Robert California. And at the end of it all, Dunder Mifflin ends up promoting from within. Status quo re-established!
There’s a curious tension between “Junior Salesman” and “Vandalism”—and it’s not just the ugly “us vs. them” mentality that’s been seeping in to recent episodes, which is an unflattering way to utilize the workplace camaraderie that so often elevated The Office in earlier seasons. Rather, this is the conflict faced by a television show whose sun is setting, caught between wanting to advance the story and not wanting to ignore the previous chapters. The only problem there is that The Office has never known how to advance story without bringing in a bunch of outside presences. That’s one of the limitations of its setting that actively works against the show: It’s always been simpler to throw a Karen, Holly, Charles, or Jo into the mix to get the wheels rolling. That’s Brian’s purpose at this juncture. He’s a catalyzing agent, and it’s easier to disguise the thinness of his character because he doesn’t have to be a character. He’s been on the sidelines this whole time, and when his role has been fulfilled, that’s where he’ll return.
Keeping a television show fresh and energized is just as difficult (if not more so) a task as putting an ending on that show. It’s just frustrating when “fresh” and “new” get confused for one another, and suddenly, the main characters are the spectators on their own show. It’s an insignificant C-plot within “Vandalism,” but Daryl rooming with Jim demonstrates that there are still ways to mine new material from the ways these characters have grown and developed together over the course of nine seasons. The people who make The Office have their work cut out for them—but they’ve also done a lot of work that’s going sadly ignored in favor of a shiny, five-o’clock-shadowed object in the show’s periphery.
“Junior Salesman”: C+
- You know what “Vandalism” did really well? Trade in on the boundless comic potential of adults repeatedly saying the word “butt.”
- Trevor doesn’t get any “sandwich delivery”-level stuff tonight, but he does have this said about him: “You say ‘jump,’ and he says ‘On who?’ Loves to jump on people, that Trevor.”
- Nate needs his résumé back when his interview is complete: “I have a chili recipe on the back that I really want to keep.”