As the second act of “Pool Party” comes to a close, Dwight Schrute is struggling to breathe as he joins Erin in a game of chicken in Robert California’s pool against Andy and his girlfriend, Jessica. He protests continuing to play the game, given that he’s struggling to breathe and all that, but Erin insists on it, and soon Dwight finds himself face down in the pool, unconscious.
I get the feeling that this was intended as a point of comedy, and Rainn Wilson had some nice bits of physical comedy in the process of going down, but there wasn’t anything particularly funny about the underwater image of a man losing consciousness. Equally, it wasn’t as though the episode was suddenly going to become about the battle to save Dwight’s life: As one would expect, we return after the commercial to discover Dwight recovering on the pool deck, the efforts to save his life taking place offscreen and entirely inconsequential in the larger story being told.
“Pool Party” is the latest in a series of alarmingly dull episodes set outside of Dunder Mifflin, a string of barely connected storylines so large in number that no single storyline is given room to breathe. There are small moments in episodes like this one that resonate for me, but the efforts to string it all together amidst a construct as flimsy as “Robert hosts a pool party at his mansion” take away any sense of pathos or meaning to be found here. This is one of those episodes where it’s tough to pin down an A-story given how no storyline feels more important than any other, a proposition that would be more impressive were that level of importance not at an all-time low for the series. This isn’t a case where the episode is dramatically worse than what we’ve seen to this point in the season, but rather a case where the structure of the episode reveals the ongoing problems more plainly than an actual plot of some kind.
If you had to identify an A-story in the episode, in the unlikely event someone were to tie you to a chair and demand you do so, Erin’s attempts to make Andy jealous would probably be your choice. The episode spins off of “Christmas Wishes” quite effectively in this regard, using Erin’s newfound knowledge of Andy stalking her at the end of that episode as a catalyst for some awkward flirtation with Dwight. Ellie Kemper remains game for this more determined side of the character, and there were some nice performance moments to be found here: I particularly liked the talking head done at pool level with Erin and Dwight flirting for the camera, which was just a fun scene to watch unfold, and the above pictured kick into the pool was a fun bit as well.
What frustrates me is that, unfortunately for those of you who are tired of me repeating the same complaint, I still really do not care about Andy and Erin as a relationship. The show’s approach to this storyline, both back in “Christmas Wishes” and in “Pool Party,” is to have Andy enjoying a fairly normal evening with his girlfriend Jessica while Erin acts like a crazy person in an effort to get his attention. While you could argue this was different given that she was sober, both instances boil down to “Ellie Kemper does wacky things,” a notion that is not so much unfunny as it is prone to diminishing returns when there isn’t much in the way of story to back it up.
Jessica is also part of the problem here, a non-entity in every possible way. Part of me appreciates that someone entirely normal exists in this story world when so much unfiltered wackiness is going on within the cast (which I’ll get to a bit later), but the other part of me wants her to show some shred of characterization. As a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter, as far as the show’s writers are concerned Kathy and Jessica are the same generic brunette woman, with no sense of an individual voice. I’m not suggesting, to be clear, that the show needed a boisterous, gregarious character who could dominate the storyline, but making her into a more complex character might make us more invested in who Andy ends up with. Heck, if the writers want to force the issue, turn her into a villain and give us no choice but to see Andy and Erin as soul mates.
However, watching “Pool Party” I couldn’t help but feel this shouldn’t be an A-story. As Andy searches for his lost engagement ring, and as that ring is for some reason given a Viking funeral in the pool, I was struck by how much everything with Erin and Andy felt like a B-Story. It’s a feeling that I want to shake, because we as viewers need to accept that Ed Helms is the new lead on this show, but there was something about this storyline in particular that highlighted the fact that the writers have done nothing to convince us of this. The writers need to work to establish Andy in that larger role, and we’re reaching the point in the season where we should no longer be talking about ineffectual characterization for the new lead. There’s value to not just jumping into a whole new structure, giving everyone some time to feel out the new dynamics, but there was something about Andy and Erin’s storyline here that registered as a turning point at which that is no longer sufficient. The Office needs to decide what it wants to be, and it needs to actually do something about that other than throwing the characters together in a party and weaving through some thinly designed character motivations.
What’s frustrating is that you see glimmers of hope in these storylines. I liked that small moment at the end with Erin giving Andy back his ring at the side of the pool, well-acted by both parties and feeling like a “real” moment in an episode that otherwise felt pretty contrived. The episode, unfortunately, didn’t have anything to activate that reality, choosing instead to have Erin summarize the event in terms of how it influences their future relationship (read: the future storyline). The show continues to believe that Andy and Erin are the new Jim and Pam, with “Pool Party” reminding me a fair bit of “Booze Cruise” (where Amy Adams’ Katy, unlike Jessica, was allowed to have a personality), but you can’t just say that this is the case. You actually need to create storylines that make us invested, something that the show has struggled with all season.
It doesn’t help, of course, that Andy and Erin don’t have a Michael Scott to bounce off of. What an episode like this one makes me appreciate is how those early episodes balanced both Michael’s antics and Jim and Pam’s romantic relationship as separate points of interest, complementing one another — in “Booze Cruise,” for example, Michael and Jim share a brief moment where Michael’s behavior tones down, Jim’s defenses break down, and Michael learns the truth about Jim’s feelings for Pam. While Steve Carell was definitely giving a lead performance for seven years on the show, he was also adept at taking Michael into a more supportive role where necessary, and the show used that balance to help build Jim and Pam’s relationship in earlier seasons.
I don’t raise this point as a general “Can’t we just bring Steve Carell back?” complaint, although last week’s non-cameo certainly brought that to the surface. However, independent of our feelings regarding Michael’s absence, Robert California is just not capable of functioning in this fashion. He’s too one-dimensional to be a party to real character development, and he’s too much of a cartoon to be involved in anything approaching pathos. And yet, based on the fact that Andy has in fact been slotted into the role originally played by Jim in the show’s simulation of its former self, that means that Robert is technically filling in for Michael, which I’d argue is where most of the problems with the character lie.
Yes, like Michael, Robert California can be a source of eccentric behavior, here manifesting as a sexually explicit tour of his mansion (where the party in question is being held), ending with him stripping naked and jumping into his pool, pleased that his dream of nudity-filled bacchanalia taking place in this home didn’t die with his ex-wife turning the parlor into a pilates room. The problem is that I couldn’t care less about his marital/real estate problems, and don’t understand why anyone else would. There are parts of Spader’s performance that work, and there are ways that Robert California as a character might function well in this universe, but making him the center of attention highlights the opposite of all of those things. With each new room on the tour, the jokes became more and more tired, to the point where the ending was the opposite of shocking or satisfying; it was just a thing that happened, something we’d call an anti-climax if you could claim there was a sense of rising action in his storyline.
That’s actually probably unfair to the episode, given that there are a number of smaller storylines operating within the two larger frameworks (the activity by the pool with Erin and Andy, and the tour with Robert) that offered clearer linear narratives. There were bits of each I liked, whether it’s Toby getting himself in over his head regarding his wine tasting credentials with an increasingly drunk Oscar or Ryan and Gabe’s battle to see whose nose is the brownest, but the lack of substance necessitated by the limited screentime was damaging. While I don’t want to get all “Logic Police” on things, as I’m fine with the show not trying too hard to justify why Val was invited to this party when the answer is clearly going to be that the writers wanted to have a Darryl/Val storyline to remind you that’s still a thing, I do think a storyline like Ryan and Gabe’s would be better if we understood why they were brownnosing beyond just accepting that as their default character position. Similarly, while Darryl being brave enough to take off his shirt in front of Val to go swimming is a nice little note about body image, it really did feel like a cursory reminder, the result of a writers room conversation on the topic of “Stories for Darryl and Val at a pool party.”
Although a few other characters get brief moments, whether it’s Kathy muttering more than one line or Creed lounging in a speedo while wearing a crown for some reason, the only other character with a more prominent role was Jim. What I found interesting about his role in the episode was that he was purposefully isolating himself from ongoing storylines: He was only there for an appearance, to take a picture and make an impression before leaving with a funny anecdote to return to his wife and two children. However, although it’s not likely the writers intended this as a meta-commentary, isn’t that what the character has amounted to given the recent shakeup? If Andy is the new Jim, and Robert is the new Michael, where exactly does that leave Jim? Pam’s absence from the office has created a clear delineation between home and the office for the character, and it has really highlighted how isolated he is from the rest of the characters (whose home lives are apparently inconsequential enough that a last minute pool party would be attended by all of them, even pregnant Angela).
While I don’t think that The Office necessarily needs someone to drown in the pool to raise the stakes, I do believe that some of the characters need to reflect on the changing dynamics and re-assess their life in a serious fashion, much as the writers need to reflect on the failures of the dynamics established so far this season. “Pool Party” was so loosely structured that it relied heavily on the characters to carry the narrative, and the result was some languid storytelling which gave me way too much time to think about missed opportunities, failed experiments, and the increasing burden of a show without any momentum. The more episodes like this one, the more trend pieces we’ll get about the downfall of the series, and I need to be clear that I don’t want this to happen. There has always been tremendous potential in Carell’s exit for the show to chart a new path, and there’s nothing stopping them from exploring that other than complacency, as far as I can tell.
And we’re past the point for complacency.
- I’m still sort of puzzling over the cold open, a broadly drawn bit of Jim/Dwight prank humor that was almost odd enough to win me over. The credulity of the pranks was inconsistent (the dog, the lego desk, etc.), and the idea of Stanley and Dwight eating the meatballs that Jim put inside his desks seems really unsanitary to me, but Stanley cracking up generally cracks me up too, for some reason.
- I didn’t particularly find Robert’s naked swim all that entertaining, but Gabe failing to properly remove his pants before falling in the water made me chuckle. Unlike with Robert, there was actual comedy involved there, rather than behavior positioned as comedy with no further effort.
- “I can live with confused. I totally get confused” — this is definitely a callback to Erin’s simple nature, but that side of the character has definitely been dialed down in episodes featuring a more focused version of the character.
- I enjoyed Creed’s “Exactly!” look after Robert’s suggestion that the 1% are suffering too.
- My father emailed me earlier today to inform me that he heard on the radio—how quaint!—that In-Flight Safety, a band from my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, were going to have some songs featured in tonight’s episode. Thanks, Dad!
- If this were How I Met Your Mother, that reference to Phyllis’ Birthday would totally be a flashback episode waiting to happen. Instead, it’s yet another suggestion that these people hang out in a social capacity outside of the office way too often.
- Help me out here: Was Dwight seriously considering dating Erin in his final conversation with Andy, or was he just testing Andy (by evoking their feud over Angela) to see whether or not he still liked Erin because he legitimately wanted to help her? The former creeps me out a bit, but the latter is surprisingly human for the current incarnation of Dwight, and I’d like to see them explore that more.
- Val: “Does Darryl not swim?” Kevin: “That’s racist!”