In last week’s premiere, The Office was working to prove to its longtime viewers that the absence of Steve Carell was not going to fundamentally change the series: This is still the show you love, featuring the other characters whom you’ve either come to love or continued to tolerate, and the absence of Michael Scott shouldn’t change any of that.
However, “The Incentive” seems to take that argument one step further, going out of its way to prove that this isn’t just the same show you watched last season, but an identical show to the one you watched six or seven years ago. If you liked early episodes of the show in which Michael’s leadership was called into question, and where the office eventually rallies around Michael in order to respect his sincere effort to try to do what is best for them, then you’re going to love the Andy Bernard era of The Office.
It’s natural for sitcoms to repeat basic storytelling types: For example, Scrubs spent much of its (very strong) eighth season recreating basic storylines from early seasons, returning to the more simple patient/doctor relationship that had been prominent when the show began. However, the whole point of that season (if you’ll excuse the digression to talk about a far more compelling eighth season of television) was to show how the young interns who started the show were now real doctors who were putting their lives into perspective. The cyclical storytelling functioned as a broader narrative device, designed to fuel character development and usher the show towards its conclusion (and then, unfortunately, a revamped season nine that shouldn’t have born the series’ name).
The problem for The Office is that there isn’t really any broader purpose behind the one-to-one replacement of Andy for Michael. Now, to be fair, I do think that we can draw some points of differentiation between the two characters and how they might handle Robert California's request for an 8 percent sales increase. Andy is more earnest than Michael was, and his ideas are far more prone to silliness (like his attempt to give Oscar the “Cocker Spaniel” nickname) than cruelty. Michael was a character who could become cruel if a situation became too tense, whereas Andy is a character who does cruel things accidentally as he tries too hard to do the right thing. While I do think the characters are too similar on many levels, I’m willing to argue there are some nuanced differences to be found.
However, where are the nuanced differences in the actual situation? It’s one thing to argue that the two characters might handle it differently, but the show itself isn’t interested in expanding its storytelling techniques to reflect the change. With Robert California proving to be a walk-on role for James Spader (which is likely what we’ll see more often than last week’s occupation), and with Andy so close to Michael in terms of character type, it just seems like the show has swallowed all of the potential change and shifted toward getting back to basics.
I would honestly be fine with this if there was an actual reason for it, but I’m struggling to find one. “The Incentive” isn’t outright terrible, but it feels wholly unnecessary, empty up until the point where it wants us to buy this as a heartwarming conclusion to Andy’s first big test as a manager. Andy puts himself out there for his employees by getting a tattoo he believes to be a baby being birthed from his ass, and instead the office gives him a charming little “NARD Dog” tattoo that’s supposed to make us melt inside because Andy is so earnest and charming.
I’ll admit that it made me smile, but that’s about the only emotion I felt throughout the entire half-hour. There were some decent lines scattered throughout the episode, many of which are listed below, but it just felt like a bunch of random ideas that the writers never bothered to string together. The idea of a ridiculous Sabre tablet is introduced but barely followed up on, and certainly never elevated to the level of actual satire (as would be possible given the recent debacle with HP's Touchpad); Darryl’s ex-wife shows up at the office for what seems like an emotional showdown, but the actual conversation is left behind closed doors and never discussed after that point (although more on that in the stray observations). Perhaps these are storylines the show intends on following into the future, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was a profoundly boring episode of television. Andy’s heartwarming moment was heartwarming, but it was also disconnected from anything else that happened in the episode. It felt like a narrative panacea: Instead of offering a culmination of multiple storylines (like Dwight’s displeasure with Andy’s management, or Darryl’s marital drama, or the concern over raising sales), the tattoo offered the show an ending that could gloss over all of that and pretend that it makes up for a fundamental lack of humor. It was, essentially, one of those cloying Modern Family voiceovers with just a little bit of a subversive twist with California's voiceover undercutting the situation.
Watching “The Incentive,” I realized that this is the worst case scenario for the show. This episode wasn’t a trainwreck by any means, fitting comfortably into our expectations of what kinds of narratives the show likes to tell. However, I would find a trainwreck more interesting than the show returning to the same narratives they’ve played out in the past with a vaguely different character. While all sitcoms reuse basic narrative patterns, the way in which they’re being used and the intense focus on maintaining the status quo in a broad sense has really brought to the surface the fundamental lack of imagination and creativity at this point in The Office’s life. It’s one thing to be a shell of your former self, but it’s another to develop episodes that through their narratives actually sketch out that shell as though it were a virtue and do nothing to even gesture towards a brighter future. While we might sense that the show moved Andy into the manager position to provide as much continuity as possible and avoid actually having to tell different types of stories, that shouldn't be something the show calls attention to in the second episode of the season.
To my mind, these two episodes have proven to those people who continue to love the show that Carell’s exit hasn’t irrevocably damaged the show’s basic structure, but has the show done anything to convince the skeptics? Without an overarching storyline, new character development, or a more substantial role for James Spader, it seems like the show’s ability to build or grow is nonexistent. Have the narrative stakes on this show been any lower than they are now? While there may be something at stake in terms of the series itself as it enters into a period of transition, there needs to be something at stake within the series itself, and I’m just not seeing it. While Andy’s character might be reflecting on his management skills, and Pam and Angela might be pregnant, nothing about the eighth season of The Office suggests that any of this will amount to anything more than the reconfirmation of the status quo.
And while I was willing to let the show get away with it last week, “The Incentive” suggests an aimless season that threatens to wear out my patience with the series.
- Some fun moments of comedy within the rush to garner 5000 points, but it felt like the episode would have been much better off if it had it lived in that space for a longer period of time and better explained the premise. How did people get points? What did each person want to see tattooed on Andy's butt? I liked the chaos of the scene well enough, but there was more substance to be found there, and it might have helped quicken the pace a bit. As it was, that whole situation moved by way too quickly, and felt too vague to make an impact.
- There was a long comment thread about Kevin’s intelligence last week, so I was intrigued to see where the Kevin cold open was headed. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that Kevin has a debilitating condition that has slowly been eating away his brain cells (and thus explaining the character’s degrading intelligence over the course of the series), and it was just Kevin being an idiot. Darn.
- Meanwhile, while we’re on the subject of characters being portrayed as too stupid to be a functioning human being, I liked Erin’s cold coffee moment. She didn’t actually think he should want cold coffee: She was simply making sure he got exactly what he wanted, which meant ignoring her own logic (which one feels she would likely doubt) and sticking to his exact words. It’s maybe a bit silly, but it’s not stupid, which is a better balance for the character.
- Thus far, Pam and Angela’s paired pregnancies has proven to be pointless. Unless its goal was to get me to write highly alliterative sentences, in which case they nailed it.
- Nice little moment of disappointment as Meredith looks dejected after not getting an introduction to Darryl’s ex-wife, Justine. Nothing special, but I appreciate the small details.
- Speaking of Justine, note that Darryl was dejected throughout the incentive meeting, never joining in on things. Obviously, we didn't get to that this week, but even a little scene of Andy asking if Darryl was okay would have been nice. As it was, even if they pick it up next week, it just sort of sat there.
- “Hi Dad.”
- “I am afraid you’ve lost my interest.”
- “DARRYL. A GIRL.”
- “Why is it all kids stuff and a vibrator?”
- “You’ve got to unleash the power of the pyramid!”
- “I’m a huge fan of your management book… Management.”
- “So nasty, Phyllis.”
- “My heart belongs to music, but my ass belongs to them.”
- “Invest in softer cotton, sir.”
- “Obviously, you can go the ass tattoo route, and obviously, I’m going to like it.”
- “There’s something about an underdog that really inspires the unexceptional.”