Tonight’s episode of The Office begins with a cold open in which it is revealed that Pam and Jim are basically total jerks. In their efforts to avoid mandatory corporate meetings and uncomfortable conversations, they have, on numerous occasions, faked labor in order to escape, as told through a brief montage. However, the office has collectively decided this has gone on long enough, and that they’ve cried labor too many times, but then they look like idiots when Pam’s water breaks during one such attempt. As everyone ushers Pam out the door, and it seems like this is going to be the birth of Jim and Pam’s second child, a water bottle contraption falls out from between Pam’s legs, suggesting the lengths she would go to in order to avoid having to fulfill her job requirements.
Yes, in case you were wondering, I recount this particularly silly cold open because I consider it a metaphor for the season. In fact, “Gettysburg” is filled with metaphors for the season, given that Robert California spends half the episode searching for “Gamechangers” on a show that has squandered any potential “gamechanging” his character represented at the start of the season. In the case of the cold open, though, it seems like the show wants us to keep getting excited about the same basic scenario in which Andy’s neuroses about being the boss are transposed into an ill-conceived strategy to bring the entire office together, a strategy that is entirely unnecessary given that the people in the office actually like him and consider him a competent manager. The comedy is apparently supposed to be that Andy doesn’t seem to realize this, but the problem for the series is that they don’t seem to realize that Andy’s ignorance is not nearly as funny or even as meaningful as they think it is.
Whenever people suggest that I overanalyze this show, I wish I could agree with them. However, this isn’t a show that has stopped trying to be meaningful and instead aimed for simple fun, although there are certain storylines that suggest this (like the completely random, and not entirely unwelcome, ‘Gabe as Abe’ sequence embedded within “Gettysburg”). When Jim confronts Andy at the end of the episode and tells him that they honestly, truly, like his work as manager, that’s supposed to feel like a climax that says something about Andy as a character, but it’s something that we’ve already known, and that we could have predicted as the resolution of this storyline the moment we read an episode synopsis. Compared with the tattoo resolution earlier in the season, which operated along similar lines and felt as though it earned its final sentiment, the conclusion here struggled to find any emotional or even comic payoff, with the jokes about the hats having been sitting on the surface since they were first revealed (with the “It’s probably a sex thing” choreographed way too easily by the “DM does GB” text, and the color thing way too on-the-nose).
The Gettysburg field trip was a mistake on a number of levels, both because the series is overusing non-office settings this season and because they had to spend way too much time dancing around the fact that they were clearly in southern California. The decision to go to a “real” place allowed them some room to play around with history, which did result in the solid payoff to the otherwise pointless “Battle of Schrute Farms” storyline, but there was something wholly generic about the trip that didn’t help make the episode feel eventful. The entire storyline felt as though it was dragging on, with no characters outside of Gabe being given an opportunity to explore any particularly specific comic territory, and even Gabe was basically acting out a Saturday Night Live sketch that has a single joke and then drives it into the ground. I liked the idea of Gabe stumbling into this role and throwing himself into it, but at the same time the “joke” didn’t have any sort of payoff (even in the coda), and how do we reconcile this Gabe with the increasingly sketchy Gabe we’ve seen for the past few episodes?
I thought there was going to be more potential in having Robert California stumble upon the stragglers who chose not to go on the field trip, but the show chose to explore the least interesting pairing of them all here. I would have loved to have seen more of Ryan and Robert, given that the former has been underserved and I want to see B.J. Novak work for that place in the main credit sequence, but having Robert somehow fail to see that Kevin was honestly just talking about cookies was just a profound waste of time. Not only does it reinforce that the show has absolutely no faith in Kevin’s intelligence, but it continues to dismantle the character of Robert California as he could be best utilized within the series.
Spader is doing his strongest work when the character is disarming and forceful, and when those qualities are at least somewhat unpredictable. However, Robert Padnick’s script took away any of this by turning the character into a formula, presenting his “Gamechanger” challenge as some sort of lesson plan that he would then judge as though he were judging a reality show. Spader sold some of the dialogue (I particularly liked his reading on being unable to relate to the situation Stanley recounted), but the rest of it was so structured that no character was serviced well. Stanley’s idea for “Papyr: Paper for Women” in particular, struck me as entirely disconnected from his character, and I kept waiting for the talking head where he would laugh about how he can’t believe Robert thought he was serious. However, it turns out he was completely serious, for reasons that we never get to learn, and for reasons that I don’t know if the writers even considered. It simply felt like a rigid story structure designed to give the writers an excuse to have Robert California judging the characters' ideas, which reveals how narrowly they have conceived of the character’s function in the series. Instead of the show changing to reflect the character, the character is changing to reflect the show, a decision that is more clearly delineated as a missed opportunity with each passing episode.
The Office is still capable of finding humor in these staid situations, as evidenced by a few of Ryan’s lines and the “Battle of Schrute Farms” resolution. However, it doesn’t feel like the show is willing to explore that humor, instead content on making the same statements the show has been making for quite some time. When things do feel new, like the revelation that Schrute Farms had been a Civil War hippie commune, they also feel just a bit too contrived, especially given the homosexual context being paired with Oscar’s involvement. The writers seems to have given up on introducing simple comic situations and developing them into successful episodes of television, something that the show seemed like it was both more willing and more able to do in previous seasons. It’s as though the writers room suddenly downgraded to a smaller white board but forgot to write in smaller font, still trying to tell the same kinds of stories but not giving themselves the space to follow through to the degree that they have in the past (and not bothering to adjust to fix it).
There have been some suggestions this season that this is just something we should accept, but I want you to tell me why. Yes, the show is getting old, but it is the only show on NBC that’s absolutely guaranteed to return next season given its ratings, and thus it finds itself in a secure position from which the producers could easily explore new comic material without any real consequence. The idea that we should shut off our critical faculties when a show runs for this long would only encourage them to stop trying, although there’s evidence in “Gettysburg” to suggest that this has already taken place. I point this out not to display my utter distaste with the series, but instead to voice my disappointment with the writers’ unwillingess to say something new, or something different, when they have every chance to do so.
And given the sheer volume of missed chances thus far this season, I’m reticent to just shrug my shoulders and accept it. There have been opportunities to reinvigorate this series buried within some mediocre episodes this season, and that they haven’t been explored isn’t simply a case of the show being different from my expectations: It has simply failed to be as good as it has the potential to be. “Gettysburg” had more of a point than last week’s “Pam’s Replacement,” but that point was so reductive and repetitive that it’s hard to see it as an improvement.
And an improvement is what this show needs right now.
- I’ll give the show some credit and applaud it for finding a way to use Andy’s overeager qualities to justify skipping the official tour, and thus making it easier to pretend some random California heritage site was actually Gettysburg. A smart trick there, even if it was also quite transparent.
- I feel as though we need to go on Creed Watch, as we’re getting so little content from the character at this point. I mean, I enjoyed his sheer enthusiasm in cheering for Limitless on the bus, but we deserve more Creed.
- I really wish the show would treat Kevin as it’s treating Creed, actually. I would have loved if all we saw of Kevin here was his life of game-changing combination devices that had both “Phone-Marker” and “Marker-Phone” on it. The character’s dullness would be charming, honestly, if it was only told through those subtle moments. That it gets expanded and exploited kills it.
- Anyone have a particularly dirty potential meaning to “DM does GB”? I feel as though you folks can run with this.