It has been over a month since “Christmas Wishes” aired in early December, a natural hiatus that nearly every television show goes through given the belief that television viewing goes down around the holidays (which is not exactly a myth considering the series low numbers for a number of series which pushed further into December). Generally speaking, though, an established show like The Office is in no danger of losing substantial audience as a result of this hiatus, fostering annoyance — that a new episode didn’t air last week — more than abandonment.
That being said, change might be in the air. When a show returns from hiatus, we naturally consider where we left off, and what we might have to look forward to in the future. While serialized elements are often prominent within these thoughts, this need not be a question of serialization: In the case of sitcoms, perhaps it’s excitement over seeing a new character dynamic grow, or simply visiting with a group of characters you enjoy after a particular break.
I’m not so down on The Office to suggest that none of these elements are present, but there’s a definite absence of narrative or comic interest in the series outside of the basic premise. The bloom is off the rose when it comes to Robert California, the novelty of Andy as boss was never really there to begin with, and the show has fostered a single compelling character arc — Darryl’s move towards self-improvement — this season (unless we want to count Erin/Andy 2: Electric Boogaloo, which has been a flop on multiple levels). Even when we consider the rest of the cast, who once formed the foundation of a strong emotional connection to the show for many viewers, this season has done a lot to reveal the growing limitations of Dwight’s behavior, the alarming inconsistency of Kevin’s intelligence level, and the still not entirely clear justification for Gabe’s continued existence. While these characters can still be funny, the consistency with which the show delivers with these characters (and others) is unquestionably lower than in previous seasons. This doesn’t suddenly render the show a failure, but with each subsequent multi-week hiatus I can feel the show slipping from my mind, further and further removed from the “Must See TV” ethos that NBC desires to hold onto on Thursday nights (and that they hope will rub off on Up All Night, moving in behind The Office this evening).
While “Trivia” was not quite wholly redemptive, uneven like many of the show’s recent outings, I quite liked the central storyline, which overcame some initial gaps in logic to deliver a charming “out of office” storyline built around simple character dynamics and a more rapid fire, character-driven comedy style. The eponymous narrative was far from complicated: In essence, it was a manifestation of “What would it be like if these characters participated in a trivia contest?” However, while it’s not a particularly novel question, it’s a question that has the potential to create comedy driven by particular character types, and a built-in narrative structure that allowed for supporting characters to play a larger role in the storyline as it reached its conclusion.
Specifically, related to the above, I do think that there was something very effective about what was done with Kevin here, even though it reinforced the very inconsistency I complain about earlier. What works, at least for me, is that the inconsistency became a part of the character’s representation rather than a product of mixed representation over the course of several episodes. As opposed to appearing to have a mental disability one week and appearing perfectly healthy in the next, Kevin’s shifting competence became a key component of the trivia match, leading to the predictable but not ineffective conclusion where Kevin’s knowledge of both the weight limitations of standard home scales and the cinematic exhibitionism of Marion Cotillard wins The Einsteins (Kevin, Meredith, Kelly and Erin) the $1000 prize over the Oscar-led “Aesop’s Foibles.”
I don’t know if there have been enough examples to call it a cliché (feel free to list examples in the comments as they come to mind), but the idea of trivia questions happening to connect so comfortably with a contestant’s limited knowledge base is fairly convenient, and it was rampant throughout “Trivia” with the success of The Einsteins (at the expense of Andy, Darryl, Jim and Ryan’s “Dunder Mifflin A”), but I think that’s pretty true to how trivia games tend to work. Even if it’s ridiculous that there would be a $1000 prize for a trivia game of that size, the fact remains that every member of a team would have their own cultural points of reference, and there will often be circumstances in which someone like Kelly knows more about basketball than someone like Jim because they watch a lot of Khloe and Lamar. Trivia is not about knowledge so much as it is about context, and I liked that we got some answers with context (like Kevin’s winning answers) and some without (like Erin knowing a Flying Jib, or Meredith’s knowledge of dyslexia as the most common diagnosis among children). We could potentially logic our way into the context behind both answers, with Meredith’s likely involving her son, but the episode avoided going for a joke in every one of those instances, sprinkling success with failure (see: the Einstein’s missing Einstein, which I enjoyed a great deal) to keep the story moving and to keep the jokes from growing stale. I value a sustained comic bit as much as the next guy, but I laughed a lot at the micro-comedy on display here.
The storyline was also helped, I’d argue, by how natural it felt even when the setup was so hackneyed, largely because the storyline shed numerous layers once it was clear that they were no longer necessary. The $800 shortfall was a reason to get them to the bar, but it was irrelevant once the conceit was established (although I do wonder why the winning team wouldn’t have kept the money for themselves and forced Andy to stop being such a wuss and admit to the shortfall, but the episode doesn’t bother exploring this). Similarly, while the initial division of team set up the potential for three competing narratives, once the Einsteins’ competence becomes established the other teams fade into the background — while I wish we could have spent more time with Creed and Ryan, who had a couple of strong moments early on, the episode was better for its sense of focus, something that the show has lacked thus far this season.
Another thing I appreciated were the small details that established the bar as a particular place outside of the show’s universe. Sure, much of that sense of place was tied to the basic representation of gay culture (in particular the “Queerenstein Bears” team name), but I like that they had a bunch of in-jokes that we (and the characters other than Oscar) don’t understand. While it never exactly felt “real” given the artifice of the storyline, it steered away from more obvious gay bar stereotypes after Andy’s initial run-in with Oscar and instead focused on inside jokes about other gay bars and establishing that these men know each other and congregate in this space regularly. It wasn’t a prominent part of the episode, but I actually felt its relative subtlety was a key part of how successful this (to my recollection) unnamed bar worked as a setting that was dislocating enough for our characters without feeling manufactured for this purpose.
However, while Kevin’s problematic character development might have been internalized within “Trivia,” I feel as though the issues with Robert California, Gabe and Dwight were largely ignored by a B-Story that struggled to find a sense of purpose. Was this supposed to be a big moment for Dwight as a character? Was this supposed to tell us something new about Robert California? Was the entire storyline designed to provide exposition on why it is that Gabe is back in Scranton, exposition that suggests Gabe commutes back and forth to Florida from Scranton twice a week as though that is a thing that any human being would ever actually do?
The one part of the storyline that showed any promise was the secretary, a simple role that felt like it had a real energy to it. While Gabe’s presence felt incredibly staged, and Dwight’s generic desire to become a manager lacked any external motivation beyond vague notions the show has mapped onto the character, the receptionist seemed disarming. There was a story there that we didn’t know, a chance to sketch out the Florida Sabre offices as a real location rather than a set in Los Angeles where some of the actors from The Office moved over to for a day while filming this episode. We could have gotten a tour, we could have met more employees, and we could have been given the sense that it was really possible Dwight might move to Florida and take over, or that we could actually follow the head office as a viable second location for the series (ala the Stamford branch back in Season Three). Instead, outside of that lone unexplored receptionist, we had a flaccid confrontation between Dwight and Gabe, a tension-free interaction with Robert California in which “Oh look, he’s so quirky with his wrestling matches” characterization stood in for anything of substance, and a conclusion that eschewed any sort of payoff in favor of a tidy, humorless resolution.
As the trivia storyline was building momentum, the Florida storyline was killing that same momentum, a push-and-pull that the trivia ended up winning but which kept the episode from really developing into something great. By isolating three of the show’s most problematic characters, Steve Hely’s script could have given them a greater sense of direction or purpose, but instead the episode just reinforces how much the show needs to revamp their approach to those characters. We have reached the point where an esoteric Robert California has lost any comic value, and the point where a blindly motivated Dwight is a useless foil for either comic or dramatic storylines (and don't even get me started on that Gabe explanation).
When The Office reaches its next hiatus, and then its subsequent return, I’ll find myself hoping for more like the trivia side of “Trivia,” storylines that even after contrived introductions can simply sit back and let the character-driven jokes take over the narrative. That’s the kind of show I can look forward to, even if it’s not the show at its level best and even if I do think that the lack of any overarching storylines will catch up with the show before the season is done. It’s also the kind of show that, at least going by “Trivia,” The Office is not capable of delivering consistently, a fact which will equally resonate with me in the future.
- I found the cold open fairly limp, mostly innocuous and veering on too cute, but Erin’s “Does anyone have a first aid kit?” was worth the mediocrity — great line.
- I know you all get mad at me when I point out opportunities for missed continuity, but that Ryan didn’t immediately make a smug remark when Andy started talking about paper and “Infinity” made me punchy.
- The show never quite explained Angela’s absence from trivia, although I can imagine why she wouldn’t attend. The show has been similarly mum about Pam’s status, so there’s a definite “out of sight, out of mind” going on here when it comes to missing cast members.
- There were a lot of great white board jokes amidst the trivia contest, but I’m pretty sure that Kevin’s “See-atle” answer for the Ray Charles question made me laugh the most, although that’s both for the terrible pun (which is honestly kind of clever for Kevin, if he came up with it) and for my Simpsons-related response to any evocation of the city in question. I also liked the notion that The California Raisins wrote The Grapes of Wrath in the coda.
- Did anyone watch what network Andy suggested he was? I heard “ETLCNOxygen,” a presumed combination of ESPN, TLC, and Oxygen, but I might be making that up. (I’d contend, though, that Ryan is totally Current TV as opposed to MSNBC, but that’s picking nits). [Edit: I now realize he likely said E!, TLC and Oxygen. Why don't we have air commas, again?]
- “I thought it was a fun idea.”
- “I’m sure you’re just checking your Grindr account.”
- “I can’t not touch it.”
- “This isn’t Tailfeathers, okay?”
- “Cinephiles, put on your memory berets.”
- Proof NBC isn’t even bothering to hide their motives with the show, in the form of the pre-coda voiceover: “It’s good for our bottom line if you keep watching The Office.”