I set out a challenge for myself before sitting down with “Jury Duty.” Despite the fact that the past two weeks have been marked by news that directly threatens the future of The Office, with talk of a Dwight spinoff picking up steam and Mindy Kaling attached to star in a pilot for FOX, I didn’t want to dwell on it. I simply wanted to watch this as an episode of television, separating it from what has become an overwhelming assortment of concerns outside of the show itself.
It is fitting, then, that “Jury Duty” offers the most substantial "plot" development of the season; while I'm putting the word in quotation marks lest I oversell the series’ commitment to a dynamic narrative at this stage in its life, the writers make a concerted effort to introduce storylines that could prove prominent within future episodes here.
Of course, it would have helped if they had been at all present in previous episodes so that the rest of the season could seem more purposeful, even if only in retrospect. The idea of Dwight being the father of Angela’s baby is building on a fairly lengthy relationship for the two characters, but it’s a relationship that the show has ignored throughout this season. While it would be a stretch to suggest this is a legitimate retcon, given that it was never definitively suggested that Dwight and Angela did not have sex nine months before the baby was born, it still resulted in a pivotal scene where Dwight and Angela’s dialogue was nothing but a stream of exposition. This wasn’t paying off a moment we had seen earlier in the season or a cliffhanger from last season: Instead, it’s resurrecting a long-dormant relationship in an effort to inject some plot into a season lacking in momentum, filling in gaps when the show could have been connecting dots.
As someone who has been consistently frustrated with the lack of direction from the show this season, I am at least pleased to see that the show has decided there actually is a story it wants to tell. The problem is that the motivations for telling it feel like they were, for lack of a less lame metaphor that I could connect to the theme of the storyline, dropped off by a stork. While I know that Angela has been pregnant all season, which suggests that this is in fact a storyline that has been developing for a while (and yes, I was this close to saying gestating there), Angela’s baby never meant anything until the show very quickly and hastily decided what it would mean in this episode. When Oscar and his welcoming crew arrived at the hospital, we knew next to nothing about that baby or that pregnancy: The (State) Senator had been largely absent. Angela hasn’t spent much time talking about it in anything other than generic chatter, and the notion that her pregnancy was a full month ahead of schedule was never a topic of conversation. In fact, given that the baby looked like it was roughly two months old, I had actually presumed it was a fake pregnancy/adoption scenario; while it turned out to be a simple case of TIS (Television Infant Syndrome), the lack of clarity was not a clever bit of mystery. It was just weak long-term storytelling—Oscar suggested that he “didn’t know which thread to follow,” but I’m not buying that you can call these threads, given how weakly they’ve been integrated this season.
Similarly, while I didn’t want to dwell on Dwight’s potential exit within this review, it’s hard not to see an episode like this one and consider what it would mean for Dwight and Angela’s potential relationship if the former were to leave the series entirely. I’m actually sort of excited to see the writers finding a legitimate angle for Dwight after he’s been floating aimlessly for the past few seasons, but it seemed like bad timing for the character to finally receive a more substantial storyline just as his future has become so uncertain. While my interest in a wacky Dwight sitcom is fairly limited, I do think there remains some potential for the character in this environment, and I will be disappointed if this is just a brief foray into real character territory before another quick retreat into the increasingly dull status quo.
The actual jury duty-related storyline in “Jury Duty,” meanwhile, came in three parts. The first, Dwight’s attempts to reveal Jim as a fraud when he begins to (rightfully) suspect that Jim faked jury duty, fell into the same patterns that the show has been struggling to break out of for the past few seasons. However, Aaron Shure’s script seems to acknowledge this, sending Dwight off to visit his potential spawn, while Andy stepped in to help Jim with his predicament. As much as I appreciated the shakeup, it did eventually boil down to “Andy and Jim are terrible and wacky liars” before evolving once more into “Jim and Pam honestly believing that fake drawings they claim are from CeCe will have any substantial impact on the fallout from Jim taking a week off.”
One of the problems with this season has been the lack of stakes, so there was some real potential in moments of this storyline. The idea that the conflict between family and work led Jim to pretend to have been on jury duty for an entire week could evolve into a closer evaluation of his lot in life, and when Andy suggested at one point that Jim could be fired if Dwight’s claims were accurate, the “reality” of Jim’s life seemed like it was finally returning to the surface. You can imagine, then, my disappointment when the show proved interested only in playing out some predictable comic beats that first trivialized the scenario through Andy’s scrambling and then swept the entire scenario under the rug. We end on the whole office expressing its understanding that being a parent is hard, and excusing all of Jim’s behavior so that we never, ever have to consider these issues again.
What I will say, however, is that “Jury Duty” had a certain confidence to it. It may not have satisfyingly explored Jim’s character, but it ended with a clear statement of his role as a father, reintroducing Jenna Fischer into the cast and putting a button on that particular story development. Similarly, while the writers cannot claim to have done the proper legwork on the Maury-style baby drama, Rainn Wilson is great at selling Dwight in the role of the expectant father, and there was something about his confidence that seemed to rub off on the show. While the episode's relationship to the previous episodes from this season is unclear, and its relationship to the rest of the season is unknown, for at least a moment, it feels like The Office has something like momentum, which suggests “Jury Duty” could potentially be the turning point we’ve been waiting for.
- I know many of you have been waiting patiently for the show to return to the subject of the Scranton Strangler; I also know that the conspiracy theorists among you were likely disappointed that bit of story was mostly about empanadas. Of course, the fact that the Scranton Strangler was mentioned in an episode where the characters talked about conspiracy theories might only strengthen your resolve. Carry on, you brave souls.
- Did anyone miss Robert California this week? Interesting that the first substantial plot movement of the season takes place in an episode where he does not appear.
- Would Battlestar Galactica fan Dwight be tricked into flying to Los Angeles for a walk-on role on NCIS? I’m not suggesting that he can’t have diverse tastes, and I’m sure the law-and-order side of the character would enjoy a good crime procedural, but that felt off to me (unlike Stanley’s frustration with Rizzoli & Isles, which was more on point). This has been “Joylessly Breaking Down the Frivolous Pop Culture References.”
- I didn’t even know those car window “Family Picture” stickers existed until recently, and now I’ve seen them on three separate shows: Raising Hope (I was clearing off the DVR), Shameless, and now The Office.
- Sometimes, brief character moments can become the fodder for memorable cold opens (see: Kevin and his chili). This one, however, just came off as pointless and indulgent. And yes, I'm aware I'm opening myself up to a “You’re pointless and indulgent” here.
- So, which was more culturally insensitive: Kevin’s suggestion that Angela having a Black baby would be empirically funnier than her having a Chinese baby, or Phyllis’ request for “American Mexican food?”
- “Right month, wrong year”: so close, Kevin.
- “Angela will make you cut your fingernails — it’s not worth it!”
- “You will lead millions… willingly, or as slaves.”