It’s growing increasingly difficult to block out the bigger picture when it comes to The Office’s future. It was one thing when it was Mindy Kaling’s FOX pilot, or Daniel Chun’s development deal at ABC Studios, or Rainn Wilson talking up a Dwight spinoff, but news that James Spader would be leaving at the end of this season puts the remainder of that season into a completely different context. The combination led many to question the show’s future, to the point where showrunner Paul Lieberstein spoke with Vulture’s Josef Adalain to set the record straight and reflect on the season thus far (and on storylines to come, so watch out for spoilers). Of course, in the midst of setting the record straight, Lieberstein reveals that the show was supposed to be less focused this year and ends with the promise that next year will be a "full year, and a great year,” a promise that implicitly suggests that this year would qualify as neither of those things.
I’m interested in what you all thought of Lieberstein’s comments, and I’m also interested in whether you felt “Test The Store” did anything to support Lieberstein’s defense of the season’s aimlessness. Without Robert California, it’s tough to really comment on Spader’s usefulness, but the episode certainly speaks to the utility of the Tallahassee arc, which has at least been a shot of energy (even if I still have problems with its execution to this point).
On a personal level, though, “Test The Store” was just too dumb to build any further momentum; I wish I had a better word for it, but I just can’t think of one. Now, to be clear, dumb can be funny. For example, it’s kind of dumb for Creed to suddenly slap Meredith, screech like a banshee, and then run from the room—that’s hardly high-brow, intelligent comedy. However, we laugh because that’s the kind of thing we expect from Creed, and I thought it was one of the moments in the episode that really worked. The same goes for Erin dancing in front of the homeless people at the beginning of the episode, or Kevin arguing that the way to deal with little people is to throw them into tubs of electricity. In moderation, dumb is funny, and even someone like me who comes off as a hoity-toity intellectual can enjoy that.
What I struggled with in “Test The Store,” though, is how dumb the basic premise of the Sabre store is at the end of the day. I understand that the show is going for satire: This is meant to be a sendup of Apple, and the whole consumer electronics culture of smoke-and-mirrors being more important than the actual product… which, let’s remember, is a bloody triangle-shaped tablet. However, not content with a single ridiculous product at the center of this scenario, “Test The Store” doubles down, creating an Arrowhead phone to go along with the Pyramid tablet and giving everyone triangle-shaped harness pouches as if an entire company has staked its future on the symbolic value of a single shape.
Obviously, The Office is not the most realistic show on television, but it has never ignored the logic of the real business world in such an exaggerated fashion. Now, this storyline led to a handful of enjoyable moments: I loved Erin reading hipster details from cue cards, Stanley pulling a piece of pizza out of his pouch was a fun bit, and the final presentation was a pretty decent setpiece (with Jim’s tentative turn at the beginning a particularly strong bit of physicality from John Krasinski). However, the show brought real people from at least one real publication into that environment, and the notion that WIRED would take that presentation, or even that store, seriously was simply pushing it too far.
Now, before I get a dozen comments quoting the nerds from “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” the problem here isn’t that the show is unrealistic. I could care less if it was realistic. Instead, for me, it’s about tonal compatibility. Ryan/Jim’s presentation reminded me a lot of the climactic scene from Better Off Ted’s “Jabberwocky” (it’s streaming on Netflix and Amazon, and is highly recommended), an equally grandiose presentation that managed to win over a skeptical audience despite a fundamental lack of a real product, period. However, that scene took place in Better Off Ted’s wildly exaggerated vision of corporate America, a satirical focus that had become the show’s calling card. This storyline might have had similar aims in terms of corporate satire, but the joke doesn’t land the same way in a world that is otherwise fairly realistic (and often shown as being a mirror of our own), and “Test The Store” felt incredibly awkward from the beginning as a result.
There were some potential threads for the show to look at for the future buried beneath the stupidity of the central premise, though. Ryan’s meltdown was random but at least linked back to the character we found at rock bottom back in the fifth season, and Erin’s altercation with a senior citizen Dwight made her evict from the store is the start of something new (which, even if Lieberstein hadn’t spoiled it, became clear as soon as I realized the woman was played by Georgia Engel, late of The Mary Tyler Moore Show). And, perhaps most importantly, Dwight was given the position of Vice-President by Nellie at the end of the episode, something that will surely be important to the remainder of the Tallahassee arc.
As for what’s going on back in Scranton, the show is really struggling with how to balance its storylines. As I focused on last week, it's difficult to build any rhythm when you’re cutting back and forth so often, and the same problem cropped up here as well. Andy getting hit by a girl plays into the most weak, infantile parts of his character, and making Pam his accomplice was a complete non-starter. This meant that other characters would have to carry the load, and those characters did a decent job of it when called upon—there is still some life in the conference center dynamics at the end of the day, and there were some sharp one-liners floating around in here. However, it’s still awkward to see office-centered storylines relegated to the B-plot, and I’m not sure there was enough time spent to provide a strong resolution given how lifeless Andy’s final talking head felt to me.
Lieberstein’s interview with Vulture isn’t quite a mea culpa, but he does admit that the season has been unfocused (even if I might add a “very” to that particular description), and suggests that the writers want to return to a simpler narrative structure in the future. “Test The Store” stands as an example of where the show has struggled all season: It’s not that the jokes aren’t there, or that the actors are asleep on the job, but rather that there is something inherently wrong with the structure of the show which is keeping them from converging in successful ways. A premise that was once a consistent engine for compelling sitcom storytelling has turned into a sputtering engine with a tendency to backfire.
That Lieberstein is promising this will change in the future provides some hope for those still willing to believe, and I respect that enough that I’ll resist the urge to point out that “We planned it this way all along” is really just a way of spinning “We tried some things, and we couldn’t make them work, so now we’re cutting our losses and starting over next season.” Right now, all we can hope is that there are lessons being learned behind the scenes that will make it onto the screen eventually; all the show can hope, meanwhile, is that the show’s loyal viewers will stay loyal until that point arrives.
- Seriously, we cannot say it enough: Ellie Kemper is a national treasure. I expect an animated GIF of that dancing within the hour. I could watch that scene all day.
- Is this the first case of network synergy in which the other show being promoted, in this case Chuck, is off the air? No, actually—it’s not even the first time it’s happened on NBC this year (that would be a pre-taped episode of The Sing-Off promoting The Playboy Club after it had been pulled from the air), although it’s the first time it’s happened on purpose. I presume the writers chose it simply because Jim could theoretically pass for Zachary Levi, and they wanted to play with that joke, but it was still a bit jarring.
- I won’t spoil it directly, but there’s a future story for Angela in the Lieberstein interview that is maybe the most inane story I’ve seen associated with this show. I’m not sure why he would share that in order to get people excited for the remainder of the season.
- And now, your conference room one-liner highlights:
- “Why are you fixated on this hypothetical transgender attacker?”
- “Can I please leave? I have a rape flute.”
- “The key is to throw it in something, like a fireplace or a tub of electricity.”