If asked to identify the Office equivalent of jumping the shark, I’d go with “drowning the car.” That scene in “Dunder Mifflin Infinity”—when Michael misinterprets the instructions of a GPS device and takes a right turn into a lake—comes early in the series, but it’s affected the way I’ve viewed The Office ever since. It’s a dividing line, just as I’m sure some people see the Sabre merger or Steve Carell’s departure. In my mind, there are two Offices: before the lake and after the lake.
Michael Scott had shown himself to be foolish before, but this was an entirely new level of foolishness. This was something bigger and broader and genuinely wackier than anything that had come before it. And The Office that came after it followed suit. From “Dunder Mifflin Infinity” forward, The Office is a much louder show, in terms of volume (see: “Dinner Party,” a great episode that’s a few passive-aggressive shouts short of being a Fawlty Towers episode) and the general broadening of the main characters. The Office, Before Lake, is a place where Dwight Maced Roy and Todd Packer regularly stopped by to shout horrible things, but it’s not a place where a Deangelo Vickers—let alone a Robert California—could’ve existed. This is the world in which the show has existed since the fall of 2007, and it’s only rarely become unbearable.
In the show’s final season, Greg Daniels and his writers have done an excellent job of keeping the episodes based in both versions of The Office. There have been smaller, quieter moments (like Dwight and Jim on the roof of the “Work Bus”) and there have been noisier, showier moments (the basic concept of a “Work Bus”) but they’ve existed in a pleasant harmony. And nowhere has that harmony sounded sweeter than in “The Target,” a very, very funny episode with a script credited to off-season acquisition Graham Wagner. Wagner doesn’t waste his first crack at an Office episode: On the surface level, this is the most immediately quotable the show has been in recent memory. (“You’re not stupid—jazz is stupid.” “Jazz is stupid! I mean, just play the right notes!”) It also contains one of the show’s all-time great visual gags, in the form of guest star Chris Gethard attempting to deliver a sandwich that’s conspicuously wrapped around a lead pipe.
There’s such a spectacular balance to “The Target,” which hits a Golden Ratio of approximately two-thirds pre-“Dunder Mifflin Infinity”-style material and one-third post-“Dunder Mifflin Infinity.” Jim’s lunch with Stanley and Phyllis is relatively new territory (it’s an unexpected configuration of characters, that’s for sure), but it has the free-of-major-consequences ease of an earlier season, and ends on a great note of friendly gibes between colleagues. There’s a warmth to what Pam puts into and takes out of the complaint-card tower, but it’s a variation on an old, “killing time around the office” theme—albeit a time-killer orchestrated by Plop, signaling his continued passage into New Jim territory. (And he’s harboring a mutual, unspoken crush on the receptionist, if we want to keep forcing that comparison.)
It’s the After Lake storyline that gives “The Target” its name. That storyline is also the third of the episode most likely to rankle the Office faithful: After discovering that Oscar is sleeping with her husband, Angela wants to take drastic measures. The first act of the episode plays it cool with regard to how drastic her revenge plot is, but it gets a great act break out of Angela Kinsey with the one-word punchline “Murder.” (The response from Gethard’s low-rent hitman, Trevor: “Okay, oh… that’s the big ’un.”) It’s a solid laugh, but it also sent up a huge red flag for me: Obviously, Angela recants (with a little prodding from Dwight), but this is clearly an “After Lake” development for the character. Not to worry, though: It’s an absurd, over-the-top reaction to a genuine slight—but it’s also in line with Angela’s severity, if not her oft-cited Christianity. In a second-season episode, that turn of events would be the kind of thing that warranted skipping past “The Target.” But this late in the game, in the topsy-turvy universe where giant dogs have roamed the hallways of Dunder Mifflin and such a ludicrous being as Gabe is allowed to exist, Angela wanting to pay for Oscar’s murder makes sense.
“The Target” had me thinking about Noel Murray’s latest batch of Arrested Development reviews, specifically the passages about how it’s much easier to enjoy the wilder aspects of that show’s excessively wild third season if you suspend disbelief and accept the extremes of “Notapusy” or “Mr. F” because they take place in a universe of extremes. The Office comes nowhere close to approaching the heightened reality of Arrested Development’s mid-’00s America. However, in its funhouse-mirror version of Scranton, Pennsylvania, there is a Dwight Schrute, and he would be in contact with people like Trevor and hold a torch for a woman as homicidally serious as Angela. It’s not the version of Scranton the show started with, but if you’re still concerned about that, you should’ve given up a couple seasons ago.
And besides: Angela deserves to voice her hurt. She’s been betrayed by two important players in her life, and it is good the show is giving the character the chance to express that—through whatever goofy, gradually scaled-back reprisal she sees fit. The character is so guarded and petty, it’s refreshing to see her upset over something that’s not a Christmas party or a cat for once. Kinsey plays the hurt really well, without letting it overwhelm the inherent, humorous awfulness of Angela’s conclusions about Oscar’s affair with the Senator. Going too far one way or the other in her reaction wouldn’t honor the character, the situation, or the actress. It’s a silly storyline, but it’s one this sillier incarnation of The Office earns—if only for knowing where to draw the line. (I can’t overstate this: Lead pipe in the sandwich.)
Tying that storyline into the rest of “The Target” is season nine’s renewed verve toward demonstrating the loyalty among the employees of Dunder Mifflin. Oscar may have broken Angela’s heart, but Dwight won’t stand idly by while a co-worker’s kneecaps are shattered: “He’s a Dunder Mifflin man—he’s my tribe,” he tells Trevor in a manner that’s so wonderfully Dwight. By pitting the characters against one another as professional or romantic rivals with such frequency in recent seasons, it seems to me like Daniels has made it his goal for these farewell episodes to demonstrate why this is the staff that’s stuck around. It’s partially because they’re stuck there, but that’s a Before Lake theme: There are links between these people, and “The Target” reinforces those links through Dwight’s heroism and Pam’s realization that Kevin, Creed, and Meredith have become her role models—to an extent. It can still be fun to watch the characters snipe at one another (I enjoy Kevin’s “her life is a complete sham” talking head from “The Boat,” less for its gleeful cruelty and more as the catharsis to a tense storyline), but that’s not an environment worth coming back to week in, week out for nine years.
“The Target” sails to the fore of a refreshingly strong season of The Office not because of the way it recalls brighter days for the series—it’s all in the balance. It’s not only in the capable blending of the Before Lake and After Lake aspects, but in the way the episode juggles ongoing and one-off concerns as well. An ongoing thread (Jim’s sports-marketing company, which now has a horrible name: Athlead) is woven into the texture of the episode, while another (Oscar vs. Angela) is brought to a conclusion that doesn’t distract from the episodic plot of Plop building his tower and Pam demonstrating that she can finish a project as well as she can finish it. In fact, that tower provides a good symbol for “The Target” as a whole. (And the goal of getting the structure to meet the ceiling is a target in and of itself.) Perhaps the next time a TV show breaks from its obsolescence to deliver an episode as solid as this, we’ll refer to it as “building the tower.” It’s not as catchy as “jump the shark,” but it’s much more fun to watch than “drowning the car.”
- It matters not how swollen the list of producers on The Office has become—their opening credits shall not further obscure the pixelated crotch of Rainn Wilson.
- In a further honoring of the show’s past, Dwight and Angela take their warped impressions of homosexuality to Unofficial Sex Educator Toby, previously seen serving in this capacity in “Sexual Harassment.” And if you can accept that season-two Dwight didn’t know what the “female vagina” looked like, you should accept the fact that he thinks gay men have their own corresponding male vaginas.
- Trevor can’t show you his gun, but he has a receipt to prove how nice it is—and another to prove how nice the safe in which he keeps his expensive gun is.
- At lunch, Stanley orders the surf and turf, with a side of lobster. So, essentially, the surf and surf and turf.
- Dwight drops a number of gems while rescuing Oscar from Trevor; I’m partial to “Oh, don’t lie: I’m trying to save those precious knees you’re always bragging about.”
- Meredith is skeptical of Pam’s ability to earn a customer complaint: “You? Little Miss Priss? You wouldn’t fart on a butterfly. No I wouldn’t. I can’t even relate to that impulse.”
- This might not come across as well without Creed Bratton’s delivery or facial punctuation, but it’s definitely my favorite Creed moment of the year so far: “Remember you’re a scumbag, so you think scummy thoughts, like this.” [Scummy leer.]