Beyond the simple desire to make us laugh, “Welcome Party” has two primary goals that speak to the serialized elements The Office has been dealing with in more recent episodes. At the same time as the show tries to turn Nellie Bertram into a character audiences can relate to, it also needs to get Andy’s girlfriend Jessica out of the picture so that Andy and Erin can start their happy lives together.
These goals are similar in that both are designed to allow for a smooth transition into future episodes. Nellie’s brash personality is too broad to work in even the show’s increasingly less realistic environment, so smoothing the character’s rough edges is important to the audience believing that the character could be a long-term addition. Similarly, Jessica was a loose end after Andy and Erin’s reunion in “Get the Girl,” and it’s perfectly logical that Erin would want an official breakup before she enters into this relationship.
However, while the goals might be similar, the two storylines face different challenges in execution. Jessica is too easy to move past—in the four weeks since the last episode aired, I never once thought about this poorly-defined character, and if the show had just ignored her entirely and moved on, I doubt I would have really noticed. Nellie, meanwhile, was simply too much of a hurdle for the show to handle, so broadly offensive that any attempts to soften her come across as contrived and manipulative. The result is an episode built around a break-up with a character we know nothing about and a failed rehabilitation of a character I’m close to giving up on, a decidedly unpleasant if not necessarily “unfunny” experience.
What’s frustrating is that the show is still capable of finding humor in its stronger moments. Dwight and Jim moving boxes for Nellie is illogical, a forced scenario designed to reveal the shoebox of photos revealing Nellie’s painful breakup, but there’s a charming silliness to both the nature of Dwight and Jim’s discovery—I like the two characters as co-conspirators—and Nellie naming the shoebox of photos Benjamin, despite the fact that her ex-boyfriend’s name was Henry. Similarly, while I am officially beyond the point where I can understand anything Robert California does, James Spader is finding humor in the delivery of the lines written for him.
The problem is these bits don’t add up to anything when the meaning behind the storyline is so woefully thin. When we eventually get to the conclusion of the storyline, with the Party Planning Committee’s purposefully terrible party being counteracted by Jim’s newfound empathy for Nellie after learning about her difficult breakup, it reads as pure artifice. The magician becomes a meaningless symbol when introduced only to be torn down by Jim, while the use of Pam as a codeword is just a device to manipulate the audience into thinking the other employees are being intolerably cruel, since their words will seem more cruel when they’re about Pam (whom some of us still like) rather than Nellie.
In truth, everything the employees say about Nellie is accurate regardless of her romantic past, and they are being entirely rational (if, yes, a little bit mean) in wanting to express their frustration with this offensive woman randomly attempting to take over their office out of sheer desperation. The storyline uses Jim as a surrogate to try to convince the audience that there’s more to Nellie than meets the eye, but doing so requires one to ignore all of the insufficient characterization the show has given Catherine Tate to this point. The project the storyline undertakes is logical, given that the show has written itself into a corner with her broad characterization, but all this did was call attention to the writers pulling strings and manipulating circumstances to attempt to force the audience into taking Nellie more seriously. Unfortunately, I was buying neither it nor the fact that Jim was buying it, creating a disconnect the episode never recovered from.
It didn’t help that the other storyline suffered from a similar problem. On paper, it’s your traditional cringe storyline: Andy tries to break up with his girlfriend, but it turns out she’s at her sister’s bachelorette party, and hijinks ensure. The problem is that we don’t know who any of these characters are, and that includes the person Andy is breaking up with. While cringe humor can work in a group of strangers, these people weren’t actually strangers: They knew Andy, and Andy knew them. While there are productive ways to use that exclusion, particularly since Erin would also be excluded, the characters ended up just seeming like a collection of generic stereotypes—the overly affectionate woman, the gay guy—designed to populate this scenario, as opposed to an actual friends group Andy had been a part of. While I wouldn’t expect the show to be able to establish the latter within a single B-story, it’s the show’s own fault for refusing to sketch in any information about Jessica beyond her hair color before this point.
When the show shifted to establishing this as a turning point in Andy and Erin’s relationship, with Jessica revealing that Andy had dismissed Erin as a potential mate in order to reduce anxiety over their previous romance, there was a brief moment where I thought maybe the writers were going to let this simmer. Maybe Erin and Andy, after the latter fumbled his way into admitting he was gay to avoid telling Jessica the truth, were going to go back to Scranton with Andy’s impotence complicating their future. However, Andy turns around the car soon after, returning to Jessica’s to tell them he’s not gay and he’s in love with Erin. The show plays it as a deeply romantic moment, with Erin seemingly won over by his willingness to further ruin this bachelorette party and embarrass the women he was seeing for a fairly extended period of time, and it became clear that the show never wanted to turn Jessica into a real character because it didn’t want to have to treat her with any dignity upon her exit.
While I have talked a lot this season about the value of serialized storylines for the show, they don’t have that value if the characters involved are entirely disposable, or if the storylines have to be manipulated to make up for weak characterization. “Welcome Party” found itself in the awkward position of inheriting the mistakes of the past, and Steve Hely’s script could only do so much with narrative projects destined to fail given decisions made earlier in the season. The episode did the job it was supposed to do, getting Jessica out of the way and softening the edges of Nellie’s character, but both of those goals called attention to the manipulation inherent within those tasks to the point of rendering the episode a wash.
And yet, “Welcome Party” is book-ended by two sequences that are purely enjoyable. As the office prepares to welcome Stanley back from his tonsillectomy, everyone’s struggle to remember if Stanley has a mustache found comedy in the mundane, everyday antics of an office unburdened by contrived circumstances. Similarly, despite being tied to Nellie’s purposefully terrible party, Pam and Jim’s interrogation of Hank over his inability to keep the magician from coming upstairs is dry and charming, allowing the jokes to breathe without the sense that this was all working to make up for past mistakes.
I am aware there is some level of hypocrisy here, in that I have spent much of this season clambering for serialized storytelling and now find myself in a position where the only parts of the episode I unequivocally enjoyed were those unconnected to the serialized elements. However, instead of introducing serialized storylines that would build a stable foundation for future episodes, The Office relied on broad characters and clichéd love triangles that created more problems than they solved, creating this awkward in-between period where the pleasures of long-term storytelling get lost amongst the unpleasantness of manipulation.
- Returning to the cold open, I thought it was just a really clever idea, given that I even started to doubt myself in regards to whether Stanley had a mustache. I knew he had one, and was totally convinced of it as soon as the argument started, but doubt started to creep in, which is always a nice feeling with a comedy. It was so pleasant I even almost forgot to wonder why exactly Gabe was there, or what happened to Cathy. Ah, the bliss of temporary ignorance.
- My favorite moment in that sequence: Jenna Fischer's pretend-drawing. Which is just waving a pencil around. Go back and watch it; it's delightful.
- There were some really charming moments with Andy and Erin together, which is why I was sad to see their storyline become so over-complicated. Erin’s “I mean, that must be nice to have parents” was particularly fun, in its own sad way. I might not be on board for the relationship, but the characters do bring out some fun sides in one another.
- While the whole “Let’s use Pam as a codeword” logic never worked for me, Ryan’s objection to his personal codeword (“douchebag”) was a lovely moment.