Does The Office believe in true love? Before this ninth season, I would’ve said yes, but what’s gone on between Jim and Pam in the last 18 episodes clouds the answer. Much of the show is predicated on these two being a perfect match, the romantic bond between them able to overcome obstacles including the art-school-sensitive charms of Rich Sommer, an unplanned pregnancy, Jim’s rash decision-making—and also that little detail of Pam’s prior wedding engagement. But like the inevitable and undeniable spark between Michael Scott and Holly Flax, one of the central tenets of The Office was that these crazy kids were meant for each other, that they deserved one another—and that that type of person existed for everyone, be they an aspiring artist stuck directing other people’s phone calls or a floppy-haired goofball with a big imagination and negligible ambition.
So it was always going to be difficult to suggest that something, anything could force these two apart. Sommer’s role in Pam’s Pratt Institute excursion was reportedly rolled back to appease the ’shipping faithful; the introduction of Lindsey Broad’s Cathy in season eight was a roadblock as naked as Cathy’s attempts to bed Jim during the Florida arc. No previous suggestion that the couple could break up held water, requiring the extra hard work of, say, sending Jim to work in Philadelphia part time, a big decision made, once more, without consulting his wife. Oh, hey there, camel: The writers of The Office sure have put your spinal column at risk of buckling—here’s a little straw they like to call Athlead.
It’s straining to make it this deep into the ninth season, but the Halperts’ Philadelphia story has been given just the right amount of weight, give or take a Brian The Boom-Mic Guy. It’s ridiculous that neither party is willing to confront the conflict head on, but that’s in-character for both parties. But as the dramatic stakes get higher, they distract from one of The Office’s other basic tenets: Making the audience laugh. When Jim and Pam spend the entirety of an episode having separate, serious conversations about perceived slights and wrongdoings within their relationship—as they do in “Stairmageddon”—the episode’s comic relief should be a heavy dose of levity.
Enter Stanley Hudson, Human Missile.
Even as the follow-up to the hodgepodge of last week’s “Promos,” “Stairmageddon” boasts one of the loudest tonal clashes in the history of The Office. While Jim and Pam prep for their first round of couple’s counseling by getting raw about the broken mechanisms of their marriage, Dwight plugs Stanley with a few hundred cc’s of bull tranquilizer, slides his comatose body down the stairs, then takes the woozy salesman on a call to one of Dunder Mifflin’s biggest clients. The in-between parts are filled with slapstick, bubble wrap, and the intimation that Clark might have to Weekend At Bernie’s Stanley through the meeting—all broad and silly and generally the opposite of the nerve-jangling soul-baring in the Jim-and-Pam plot. Comic relief is dirty work, and this example is goddamn filthy, ramming into the side of “Stairmageddon” in an Evel Knievel helmet and coating an already messy episode in a thin layer of plaster.
The commitment to fleshing out so much of The Office’s supporting cast is coming back to haunt the show in half-hours like “Promos” and “Stairmageddon.” Tonight, three separate plots wrestle for B- and C-story slot, to the point where the demolition of the Anglea-Oscar-Senator Lipton love triangle inelegantly sidles up and into Andy’s post-documentary quest for fame. At least both stories spring from the same seed: An early review for The Office: An American Workplace, which is read popcorn style in order to let everyone in on some of that sweet B-story action. The critic—whose last name name begins with a “Mc,” a move I humbly interpret as a shout-out to The A.V. Club’s esteemed former Office correspondent, Myles McNutt—suggests Andy may be destined for stardom, all the while confirming Angela and Oscar’s greatest fear. It’s nice to see that acknowledging the documentary can put further distance between Andy and reality, but that whole story is a non-starter for me—save for its introduction of Paul Feig, nattily dressed as ever, as the head of an animal act that stacks a mouse on top of a cat that’s on top of a dog. Forget The Farm—I’d watch all six episodes of the faux-documentary about that guy.
While Andy’s playing surrogate for a Michael Scott tantrum, Angela and Oscar are barely given the space to react to the news that the Senator’s been two-timing them both, stepping further out with his chief of staff. Poor Angela’s stuck stifling her feelings in front of another camera crew, putting on a bold façade that must be flaked with stress fractures, its eyes searching for the nearest Christmas ornament to be cathartically shattered. This can’t be the conclusion of the story, but it’s mighty short shrift to one of the major threads of the final season. I never thought I’d find myself arguing on behalf of super-sized season-nine episodes, but few extra feet of runway probably could’ve helped the press-conference revelation and the Halpert crisis make smoother, more satisfying landings.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Stairmageddon” was originally intended to run side-by-side with the next original Office, “Paper Airplane,” prior to the Smash shuffle that temporarily brought Go On to Thursday nights. According to the NBC episode synopsis, Jim and Pam’s counseling session carries over to “Paper Airplane,” as does Roseanne Barr’s cameo as low-rent talent (and real estate!) agent Carla Fern. As is, Barr is hardly in “Stairmageddon,” her exchange with Ed Helms suggesting that some of what Dwight dosed Stanley with was passed her way. It’s a weird, wasted booking here, crowded into the final minutes of the episode and providing a bridge to the next episode—a bridge that could easily be forgotten in the two weeks before the next new installment.
A further argument that “Starimageddon” could’ve fared well as the first part of an hour-long block: The silliness of Stanley’s chemically enhanced sales call wore down my defense by its final beat. Yes, it’s ridiculous, and it blows past a line a better episode like “The Target” only flirted with, but I laughed in spite of myself at the sight of Stanley shoving a tranquilizer dart into his thigh in order to get a free ride up the stairs. And I can’t be entirely down on any ninth-season episode where the employees of Dunder Mifflin perform alterations on the physical space they’ll soon be leaving, which Dwight does twice here: First with the elevator repair, and second with the sizable crater Stanley’s noggin leaves behind. (A follow-up word to the wise: “He would’ve put a hole in your chest same as he put a hole in that wall.”) It’s wacky, but wacky is Dwight acting on his instincts, which he’s free to do now that a documentary crew’s cameras have captured his unfitness to manage a regional paper supplier. This is the real Dwight we’ve known for eight-plus seasons, with an additional filter removed. It’s scary, and it can make for a hell of a tonal clash, but it’s also funny.
Dwight’s been portrayed as one half of several onscreen couples throughout The Office’s run, but his true love is a love of power. In the process of contrasting the corrosive effects of one of the show’s other major love affairs, “Stairmageddon” demonstrates the lengths that emotion can make us go to. For Dwight Schrute so loved exercising power over others that he made one of his coworkers a traqued-up puppet for an afternoon. It’s all been building to this: The Documentarians, corporate-imposed weapons bans, and common sense managed to keep his past behavior on the right side of extreme—what else could happen when all of those obstacles are removed? “Stairmageddon” presents a show at war with itself in its old age, but one part of the episode delivers a character in his purest, unencumbered form. It’s wackiness, but wackiness that’s in service of the show’s format.
- While “Stairmageddon” finds The Office biting off more of its cast than the episode can chew, it also features some fun, small moments from characters who are always best in small measures: Meredith squeezing some tranquilizer into her coffee, for instance. There’s also a nice bit from Kevin, who loudly and proudly celebrates his ability to keep the secret of Oscar’s affair. Any win for Kevin has a certain infectiousness to it.
- If you don’t see why Stanley struggling to make it up a few stairs is funny, Oscar will mansplain the joke for you in the cold open.
- The show’s always done a great job of sprucing up the generic look of its main set with tiny pieces of real-life Scranton-area arcana; Toby’s desk is now the home of a foam bone commemorating Toby’s Troops, a coincidentally named program for teaching kids the basics of banking run by Scranton’s Tobyhann Federal Credit Union. Or maybe it’s the murder weapon in the next Chad Flenderman novel.
- Dwight is tripped up by a homonym: “What does Josh McAuliffe know about the paper business? He works for a news… thing.”
- Sartorial pointers from Dwight Schrute, the Mustard Gentleman: “The bubble wrap is the only thing that’s keeping his suit from getting wrinkled—these meetings are all about presentation!”