At a certain point, The Office had to run out of stories it could set in the, you know, office. There’s a historical precedence for the way the Dunder-Mifflin staff eventually started meeting up at Chili’s or Jim’s apartment or the corporate headquarters in New York—even their British predecessors found an excuse to nip out to the pub on occasion—but for the American version of The Office, the decision to venture forth into the greater Scranton area was motivated in part by the way the show sees its characters. At some point, the writers had to recognize that there were only so many stories they could set in a place where no one wants to be.
Still, the restrictions of and feelings toward the office could spur the writers and producers to new heights of creativity; like the old adage about finding freedom in limitations, the physical space of the cubicles, the kitchen, and the annex inspired plenty of lively uses in the show’s second and third seasons. And it was in those early stages that it became clear that people who worked for Dunder Mifflin defined The Office more than Dunder Mifflin itself. Hell, Michael Scott used some variation of that cliché every time he was asked to defend his branch. The Office is more than just four walls. And, as “Work Bus” proves, what lies beneath those four walls could cause serious harm to everyone who works within them.
Based on premise alone, “Work Bus” shouldn’t be The Office’s funniest episode since the seventh season. The idea that Dwight’s miserly ways have bombarded everyone’s workspace with dangerous levels of electromagnetic radiation sets the episode back five paces before it’s even left the starting line. It’s a real concern for real landlords, but Dwight’s flagrant disregard for OSHA regulations and typically cold reaction to his tenants/co-workers demands for better treatment favor his cartoon-villain side—the mustache-twirling side that turned the character from scene stealer to showblocker. I’ve never been as down on Dwight’s later-season machinations as other long-time viewers of The Office, but the malevolence on display at the top of “Work Bus” isn’t a good look.
It’s starts to look even worse when Dwight waves in the episode’s eponymous vehicle—a countermove to Jim’s ploy of parlaying unsafe working conditions into a week’s vacation. The 12-year-long (if we can accept the word of tonight’s episode) chess match between Jim and Dwight is one of the revived elements of older seasons the writers are palpably enjoying this fall, but these power plays tend to land more successfully when they’re conducted on a smaller scale. Or maybe it’s just that Dwight comes up with an outsized retaliation to Jim’s first volley: A few kernels of mysteriously popped microwave popcorn are met with an office on a bus.
Yet, for the way “Work Bus” slams a diesel-powered contrivance into itself, the episode recovers marvelously. In a development that’s almost too clever for its own good, the script (credited to Brent Forrester, his first since 2011’s “The Search”) doesn’t get moving until the bus gets moving. When Dwight acquiesces to a trip to Pam’s favorite rural, roadside pie stand—Laverne’s Pies Tires Also Fixed, an establishment that could thrive outside of Pawnee or Scranton—the episode finds the momentum and the organic laughs that eluded it up until that point.
All that’s required is a shift in the source of those laughs. The first few scenes set on the bus pin their jokes on visual gags and slapstick, which is met with varying degrees of success. (I’ll take all the Bumblebee Man-esque instances of office supplies falling on people for the cut to Erin taping her candy dish to handrail.) But once pie comes into the equation, it’s like Forrester and his fellow writers hit upon a magical key that unlocks the height of funniness within The Office’s ensemble. This upward incline in quality is further proof that character needs to drive the show’s bus—The Office may be a situation comedy, but its situations don’t sing if they’re out of sync with Dwight, Jim, and their co-workers.
Of course, if it were that simple, the eighth season could’ve been lifted out of the gutter by a whole string of episodes where the characters obsess about pie. It’s not the pie itself but its status as an object of desire that speaks to the office staff as a whole and as individuals. If Forrester should’ve learned anything from his time at The Simpsons, it’s that mob mentality is hilarious, and the childish joy the promise of pie infuses in the Dunder Mifflin masses is infectious. On an individual level, the trip to Laverne’s could’ve inspired some mean-spirited digs at Stanley, Phyllis, or Kevin—though if anyone on that bus is primed for pie humor, it’s Brian Baumgartner’s character. When it comes to the broadening of The Office, Kevin has probably suffered the most, but “Work Bus” pulls some uproarious material from the actor and the character, putting smart spins on Kevin’s simpleton qualities that play into Baumgartner’s inherent enthusiasm in the role. At the very least, Kevin’s interjections in “Work Bus” demonstrate that we’re still learning about these characters nine years into our relationships with them: Apparently Kevin got into accounting because he’s great at mental math—when pies are involved.
Following the big, emotional turns of “Andy’s Ancestry,” “Work Bus” is largely a “just for laughs” episode of The Office, one which, at times, feels like it was Frankensteined together from writers’ room pitches (Mobile office! Pie math! Creed wears a straw boater!) looking for a good home. It manages to synthesize those crazy happenings into a supremely funny episode, but there are larger concerns at work as well. What begins as a half-hour where Dwight attempts to pin everyone down in the office ends as one where the character puts one foot toward the door. If Dwight’s departure for The Farm is to feel at all like an earned, natural exit and not like a desperate attempt to extend the life of NBC’s one Thursday-night quasi-hit, the groundwork for that exit needs to be laid in these early ninth-season episodes. At times during “Work Bus,” Dwight’s hardheadedness threatens to push him toward that door, but a third-act heart-to-heart with Jim (not as good as a third-act pep talk from Jeff Winger, but something’s better than nothing, right?) reveals that Dwight will move on once he can lay claim to one final page from the Michael Scott playbook: Accepting his co-workers as the children for which he can provide and care. And, hey, that even ties into his exaggerated German heritage: “You know, there’s a phrase about that in German: ‘Bildenkinder.’ Used almost exclusively by childless landlords to console themselves.”
As Jim always does (intentionally or unintentionally—see the “infertility” component of his pre-popcorn attack at the top of the episode) he manages to hit Dwight right where he lives. Dwight may be a stooge who allows himself to be corrupted by even the most minuscule amounts of power, but he has non-selfish reasons for committing himself so thoroughly to Dunder Mifflin. Even the guy who owns the office knows that it’s more than just a workplace. It’d be nice to see some reflection of that the next time he’s contemplating his surrogate family’s demise.
- “Work Bus” was directed by Bryan Cranston, who brought with him ample knowledge about staging scenes of people working in tight, sometimes portable spaces. Coupled with last week’s 30 Rock, that marks off two spaces on Cranston’s NBC Thursday Bingo card. In coming weeks, expect to see him dating Maya Rudolph on Up All Night before cameoing as a pioneer in one of Parks And Recreation’s town-hall murals.
- Dwight’s isn’t the only storyline bearing some lingering Michael Scott residue: Andy’s video of softball highlights (funny to Andy alone in addition to being predicated on an Internet meme that’s past its sell-by date) and curtness with certain staffers doesn’t do much for further establishing his management style as different from Michael’s.
- At least Andy’s rudeness toward Nellie factors into a plot that spins out of “Work Bus”’ family themes. I could care less if Catherine Tate’s character successfully adopts a child or not, but I do care that the process gave her a reason to team up with Ellie Kemper, tapping into Erin’s personal experience with being adopted. (Your prime cut of tragicomic Erin dialogue for the week: “Always say that a child is placed for adoption, never surrendered. We’re not hostages.”) While that’s happening, Jim’s masterminding of the pie trip is merely an attempt to get back in Pam’s good graces—though the pain of husband lying to wife isn’t subsiding anytime soon. Throughout the episode, Jenna Fischer does a great job of illustrating that fact with her facial expressions.
- It was a good night for reaction shots overall—and not just John Krasinski frowning at the camera. The second instance of Kevin’s pie math prompts a genuinely befuddled grin from Oscar Nunez that Cranston was smart enough to catch and/or the editors were smart enough to keep in the cut.
- On the topic of bringing the outside into the office: The staff members manage to transform their “Roll Call” chant into another thankless, mundane task when they ditch the bus for their desks.
- At least Supervillain Dwight says stuff like this: “What can I say? I love justice. You forced me to spend money on needless repairs, and now you’re locked in a prison bus, and your woman drips with beverage.”
- Jim exposes his co-workers’ singlemindedness: “What do we want?” “Pies! “When do we want it?” “Pies!”