Given that Craig Robinson has been a consistent pleasure in the last few uneven seasons of The Office, I would never argue that Darryl’s rise into the office proper was a mistake.
However, I would argue that the loss of the warehouse as a larger component of the show has been an unfortunate consequence of that decision. While I could descend into a long-winded discussion of the ways in which the marginalization of the warehouse has narrowed the series’ class representation, on a more basic level there is something valuable about another world existing underfoot—or next door, or across the street—that operates based on a different set of rules.
While the show rarely tapped into that potential on a substantial level, more often than not simply having characters visit the warehouse to interact with Roy or Darryl, there was still value to the idea of this different space. Even if the series doesn’t focus on the intersection of multiple spaces (like upstairs/downstairs dramas like Downton Abbey, or the connected worlds of Fraggle Rock, or some third even wackier comparison), the fact that the warehouse existed was a key component of the show’s early world-building that has become more and more marginalized as the series has added more characters and eliminated or relocated warehouse characters.
“Lotto” continues this trend with its opening, as generic warehouse employees whom we’ve never met celebrate winning the lottery and quitting their jobs. As soon as the celebration is over, their identities are unimportant, and their plans for the money are funneled through Darryl and other characters instead of their own talking heads (which would have been quite easy to include). The story immediately shifts to how this story impacts the “upstairs” characters, with Andy working to solve the problem of being short-staffed and Pam (and others) just sitting back and dreaming about how they might spend the money.
However, to the episode’s credit, neither of these function as the episode’s A-story. Instead, Darryl becomes the central figure in the episode, a welcome development that comes with a fairly substantial amount of honest-to-goodness character development. The show has been inconsistent with how it has portrayed the character, giving him the promotion based on innovative new ideas (including, even after he was moved upstairs, allowing the warehouse employees to sell paper on their deliveries) but then turning him into a schlub without even a proper resume as the competition for Michael’s job heated up. Here, however, Andy actually calls him out on it, and the show quite nicely makes it into a question of whether Darryl became complacent and allowed his career momentum to slip away.
In the process, the warehouse became formalized as a key part of Darryl’s character, something that he manages but also something that defines his work ethic and his position at the company. It may have been reduced to a space for band practices and yard sales, conveniently dividing off B- or C-stories from the general workspace, but its narrative function has been retained within a really effective character arc. While not all of the jokes landed in Andy’s efforts to work with Darryl on hiring a new staff, that conversation in the lobby was tremendous, building on the friendship the characters have built over the course of the past two seasons while simultaneously reframing that relationship in light of Andy’s new role. He felt like a boss in that conversation, and his forceful honesty was the wakeup call that Darryl needed (and that regular, not Fat, Darryl would have given Andy on a better day) and a strong moment that solidified the episode’s larger purpose.
And yes, “Lotto” did seem to have a larger purpose. No, that purpose wasn’t clear as Jim, Dwight, Kevin, and Erin somehow prove incapable of finding a way to move three hundred boxes of paper that doesn’t involve ridiculous comic hijinks, but the episode never pretended we were supposed to find any sort of meaning there. Instead, it was a chance to see two pairs work out a problem, with Jim and Dwight’s ongoing feud fueling the latter into some particularly imbecilic behavior and Erin and Kevin’s similarly inconsistent mental deficiencies banding together. I didn’t find the end result particularly funny and ultimately felt we spent a bit too much time down there, but they didn’t attempt to draw a larger conclusion. We got a few nice scenes (like Erin shutting down Kevin’s idea while acknowledging how much she loved it, or Kevin falling on the grease) and a way of breaking up the Darryl/Andy storyline, which is all it really needed to do.
I expressed my concern last week that the show was simply using “find + replace” with its storylines, popping Andy into Michael’s role and just letting it play out, and I think that’s going to be something the show will inevitably run into in nearly every episode this season (although the fact that we’ll be meeting Andy’s family soon would suggest a shift in the future). What makes “Lotto” work more effectively for me is that Andy’s pre-existing relationship with Darryl played a substantial role in how he handled this situation and gave the episode a foundation other than the “office bands around their flawed but well-meaning boss” trope that we saw in “The Incentive.” The more specific the show becomes in terms of Andy’s relationship with his employees, the more the writers can allow these stories to feel like his in a way that will allow the show to evolve around him.
It also helps that Andy is more or less a supporting character in this story. While it connects with narratives about his nervousness in his new role, especially during talking head interviews, the episode isn’t about that. It’s about Darryl and the way in which his former co-workers getting rich playing his own birthday in the lotto hastens his decline into a sad, sorry excuse for a man who believes in four-hour work weeks. The further the show gets away from the novelty of Andy being the manager, the more the show can start to explore how the situation at the heart of the show has been altered by recent story events. Andy’s speech to Darryl brings up Jo, and it brings up the braindead Deangelo, and it connects to notions of seriality even if it doesn’t introduce broad arc structures.
I don’t know if that necessarily makes the episode funnier, but it makes it far more satisfying. The little moments are much more effective when you don’t have to add them up to get a whole, and the centrality and effectiveness of Darryl’s arc meant that little asides like Ryan’s conversation with Pam at the receptionist desk (“Nice—right back where I like you”) or Stanley's reaction to Andy giving his lunch to one of the potential warehouse employees are allowed to just be fun glimpses of life at Dunder Mifflin. For me, contrary to last week’s outing, this was The Office returning to what works without enslaving the rest of its characters to the “Andy’s the Boss Now” arc. While perhaps not monumentally better than last week’s outing and damaged by a weak B-story, “Lotto” had a greater sense of purpose that holds greater value to the season as it moves forward.
And yes, I place a fair deal of value in that.
- Our first week without James Spader didn’t make me miss James Spader. I think Robert California is a fine character, but his presence does reduce Andy to “Michael’s replacement” in a way that isn’t doing the show favors, and I thought Andy was better outside of that shadow. It’s a valuable position for his character, but not every week, and I think it can work better when spread out over time.
- I don’t even know where to start with the cold open. First off, if the sunroof was open, was it really that much of an emergency? And second, how did no one stop Oscar from smashing the window (and why was Oscar, of all people, taking the lead on this)? And third, is Kevin honestly going to be that stupid from now on? There were just so many bizarre logics running through that story, with not enough humor to justify them. Completely fell flat.
- For those of you who are anti-“Jam,” I’d say Dwight (“Yeah Pam, let’s buy expensive bathrobes and hug”) and Meredith (“Get a divorce. Get a divorce.”) were speaking your language this week. Of course, the innocuous “Jim and Pam dream about winning the lotto” story was not a great case against either of those derisive comments.
- For the record, I am almost always won over when episodes answer rhetorical questions—“What happened to competent Darryl?”—I ask myself in my notes.
- “You can’t air out a basement. And taco air is heavy.”
- “Our Darryl is inside of Fat Darryl.”
- “What, no Newhart fans?”