If you read a lot about television, you’ve probably seen this truism (or some variation of it) bandied about around Emmy season or in close proximity to the debut of one prestige show or another: The best contemporary dramas can be as funny as the best comedies, and the best contemporary comedies feature dramatic moments that are as affecting as the era’s finest dramas. It’s not the most profound observation, and it certainly doesn’t apply to the ongoing Golden Age of Television exclusively, but it gets restated so often because there’s a fundamental accuracy to the statement. Aaron Paul’s delivery of the line “Yeah, it’s bad” in Breaking Bad’s “Buyout” makes my shortlist of 2012’s top TV punchlines, while the end of Parks And Recreation’s election arc featured legitimate stakes and an emotional sweep worthy of its Friday Night Lights inspiration.
The Office, being the clear-eyed, full-hearted show that it is, is chock-full of these “Is it comedy? Is it drama?” moments. It’s at those times that the series leans toward the lighter impulses of its British predecessor’s jaundiced soulfulness. There have been temporary darknesses—like the harrowing sequence of Roy smashing a mirror after he found out Jim and Pam kissed—but the dramatic moments of The Office that will ultimately stick out from its nine seasons are the uplifting ones: Pam trading her Yankee Swapped iPod for Jim’s teapot; Jim’s water-logged marriage proposal to Pam, echoed in the seventh season by Michael, Holly, and the Dunder-Mifflin sprinkler system; Michael handing his microphone to The Documentarians at the climax of “Goodbye, Michael.” Your opinion of these moments will vary depending on your overall impression of the American Office: Is it a commentary about muddling through and making peace with your life, or is it a show with a more aspirational message? It may have started out as the former, but as it found its own voice, that voice was grounded in the latter.
That path is bound to become more and more evident if the remainder of the ninth season spotlights scenes like the one between Jim and Darryl in “Andy’s Ancestry.” In the third act of an episode where the A-plot revolves around Andy getting a swollen head about his supposed relation to Michelle Obama—and then having that pride deflated by speculation about the Bernard family’s involvement in the slave trade—here’s a quiet moment between two co-workers who’ve never had the loftiest goals, yet know there’s more fulfilling, non-paper-related work out there. Escape from a dead-end job isn’t the most realistic turn for The Office to take in its final season, but the show lost touch with “reality” as we know it around the same time Jan Levenson did. Jim’s extrication is something to root for, and it’s made all the better by The Office finally honoring Craig Robinson’s dedication to the show. There’s knowing acknowledgment to this sprinkled throughout tonight’s episode, with Darryl alluding to his succession of meaningless job titles and his preemptive “quite a predicament” talking head, the callback to which is the half-hour’s biggest laugh. We all know the drill around here, so why isn’t someone as smart and hard-working as Darryl not seeing any legitimate advancement?
Thankfully, Greg Daniels and team aren’t plotting an obstacle-free escape route. Jim setting up his new business behind Pam’s back is a major breach of trust in their relationship, and “Andy’s Ancestry” treats it as such. The couple’s behind-closed-doors discussion with her husband proves to be a fine example of The Office’s ability to balance humor and drama, as it’s transposed with Darryl and Nellie’s farcical misunderstanding of the impetus for the husband-and-wife conversation. This plot, though an obvious attempt to locate the series’ finish line, shows an understanding of Jim and Pam that’s been absent from the series since the two were finally allowed to hook up. The first three seasons had their share of laugh-out-loud Jim-and-Pam moments—chief among them the future Mrs. Halpert getting bombed at The Dundies—but that pairing was never going to be The Office’s strongest engine for comedy. Their recession into the background coincided with a string of wacky newlywed/first-time-parent plots, and last season’s attempt to inject some drama into the marriage—poor, wasted Lindsey Broad—largely neutralized Pam. In an episode where multiple “secrets” come to light, the gravity of this endgame and what it means to Jim and Pam’s evolving relationship are underlined by the fact that Jim’s secret was the only one with any truth behind it.
But while the show plots the moves of its king and queen, it’s still acting confounded by all of the pawns scattered about the board. This is the downside of all the work The Office put into defining and developing its supporting ensemble, a courtesy it’s extending to its newest additions as well. It amounts to the herding of characters as seen in the sequences involving Andy, the Bernards, and “America’s national shame,” as well as in the side story for Clark and Pete. Watching these two worm their way into the boss’ affection through unwarranted applause is funny, but space constraints require the two characters to essentially act as one in the montage of their clapping approval for Andy’s mundane achievements. There is space to fill around the serialized Jim-Pam storyline, but adding Clark and Pete on top of Andy’s White House connection, Driving Miss Nellie, and Dwight teaching Erin to speak like a Game Of Thrones character is overcompensating. It is, to use one of the most feared adjectives in comedy, forced.
And the last thing The Office needs to do at this point in its life is force jokes and storylines, especially when it has all these characters who can be organically and naturally combined and recombined. Pam and Nellie initially come off as a pairing made out of obligation, but given Pam’s past ability to break through Angela and Dwight’s defenses, it starts to make sense once the dialogue moves past “Oh, hey Nellie, you’re a terrible driver.” The same can go for Erin and Dwight, a winning combination of “eager to please” and “eager to subjugate” that’s heavy on the gags but nonetheless consistent, character-wise. (At the end of the series, Ellie Kemper will stand as the final necessary addition to The Office’s cast; her commitment to Erin’s Dothraki lessons is a joy.)
With so many personalities to service and pull from, it’s truly more satisfying when the characters work in small teams, rather than big conglomerations. When it all comes down to it, the community of Dunder-Mifflin is important, but it’s the one-on-one interactions that speak the loudest: Jim and Pam, Michael and Dwight, Jim and Dwight, Pam and Michael, Jim as Dwight and Dwight, Fake Jim and Real Dwight. It’s through those relationships and pairings that The Office developed its deep bench of supporting players. And it’s the connections we feel to those relationships and the characters within them that make a line like “I still can’t believe he didn’t tell me” sting as much as it would coming from a Skyler White, a Joan Holloway, or a Daenerys Targaryen.
- Do you think Andy’s plot (and Darryl’s wearied reaction to it) is partially a riff on the fact that Michelle Obama’s older brother is named Craig Robinson?
- Were it not for the killer cold open where Jim and Pam gaslight Dwight (gasdwight?) with the help of an actor friend, Clark and Pete’s applause gag could’ve kicked off the episode. The callback in the meeting would’ve still worked.
- Given the way Pam’s panicky driving instructions interrupted all of her scenes in the car with Nellie, I appreciated that the circumstances of the pair’s roadside-assistance call went unexplained. Sometimes, it’s nice for a joke to retain some mystery.
- Assigned to decorate one of the warehouse walls with a giant mural, Pam will move from painting the office to literally painting the office.
- It’s a funny line on the page, but Ellie Kemper’s style of enthusiastic befuddlement is what makes her theoretical line of inquiry for the first lady—“What’s the best war to do?”—land.
- Pam’s previous mural includes the image of a big cat in formal wear: “Angela insisted all of the animals be fully clothed.”