In a Twitter conversation last week, someone suggested that one of the perils of episodic criticism is that you run into situations where a show is simply doing something different from what the critic wants it to do, and that central conflict becomes the driving force behind every review the critic writes.
It was a cogent point and one that forced me to reflect on my relationship with The Office. We’re at the stage in the season where critics are making broader assessments of the series’ post-Carell identity, like Alan Sepinwall’s piece from earlier today, and if I were to write a broad assessment, I do think there would be an element of counter-narrative in which I (like Sepinwall) imagine more interesting scenarios for the series and its characters than those that the show is putting forward.
However, even if we accept that The Office isn’t going in the direction that we might personally imagine, I’m not convinced that we could clearly define what the show is doing, given how generic it has become. And even if we cobble together some sort of definition that describes this loosey-goosey, free-flowing version of The Office, and even if we accept that this is what The Office is now, I’m not convinced that “Pam’s Replacement” is a good example of what that structure could do; in fact, I’d say it was a terminally weak example of that version of the series.
Let’s take, as a case study, what basically amounts to the B-Story in the episode. Andy, Darryl, and Kevin head down to the warehouse to jam over lunch, until Robert California shows up early and decides that he wants to jam with them on his harmonica. They find this to be a great opportunity to bond with their boss, until he invites a cadre of local musician friends over to jam with them, relegating the original members of “Kevin And The Zits” to percussion and eventually forcing them to leave the band and instead jam out in the alley with a little Peter Frampton.
I write out this plot summary because I’m trying so very hard to find something comic about this storyline. Was it Andy playing his own body as an instrument? Was it Kevin thinking Chaka Khan was from Star Trek? What was the comic drive that convinced the writers this could sustain a fairly decent chunk of the episode’s running time?
Lest it appear that I’m falling into complaints about the very idea of the storyline, I’m actually totally cool with the storylines regarding the band, and enjoyed the runner during “The Sting” last season (which I know some of you liked less than I did). However, the fundamental absence of a punchline was baffling to me, given the potential options available to the writers. We could have gotten Robert California’s perspective on the situation, we could have gotten more characterization from Val, we could have explored Val’s relationship with Darryl, or we could have explored the fact that KEVIN WAS ONCE IN AN EXTREMELY SIMILAR SITUATION IN WHICH HE WAS PUSHED OUT OF HIS OWN BAND.
The lack of mention of Scrantonicity II bothered me, because it was the first thing that popped into my mind while watching it. However, it was reflective of the entire storyline, in that none of the characters involved seemed to be exhibiting any sort of agency, or acting in any way that was driven by something other than the broad strokes of the storyline. If you were to draft generic characters into this storyline, I’d argue it would be no less funny, simply because so little of the humor (or what little humor there was) was drawn from the characters. This wasn’t about “What happens to Andy, Darryl, and Kevin when Robert California takes over their jam session?” It was about “What would happen if someone’s boss took over their employees’ jam session?” which ended up being exactly as generic as it sounds.
By comparison, the other half of “Pam’s Replacement” was obviously trying for something more specific to the show’s characters, but I’d argue it never quite came together on that level. Putting Pam and Dwight together has worked fairly well in the past, and the idea that Pam’s replacement (Cathy) is a fairly attractive woman who activates Pam’s hormonal jealousy is logical in a bland sort of way. However, nothing about the storyline seemed to click, and perhaps it’s because I had no real sense of Pam’s character in the context of the storyline. While Dwight’s narrative of Pam’s hotness suggests a sense of history, no one else was talking about what Pam was like the last time she got pregnant, or even talking about how this behavior related to Pam in general. She was just your basic hormonal, jealous pregnant woman, just as Cathy was your basic, run-of-the-mill temp with no character traits beyond "pretty" and "amiable."
Dwight, meanwhile, felt like a version of the character that was reduced to his actions without a clear sense of the logic behind them. Yes, Dwight would be someone who would investigate Jim’s veracity through unorthodox means, but would he really grab Jim’s penis for five dollars? I buy that Dwight would over-commit to this endeavor, convinced that his pride was at stake after telling Pam he could prove Jim was lying, but the quick leap to sexual harassment felt like something that needed a bit more context. Of course, it helps the show that Dwight’s been an incredibly erratic character for a while now, so I’m pretty sure the writers could find some version of Dwight from the past who would quite logically touch Jim’s junk for a small cash sum.
I raised a question on Twitter about continuity related to this episode, in part because of the lack of mention of Scrantonicity II and in part because I’m wondering if that’s one of the broader problems with this season. Naturally, shows become less continuous over time: Writers depart, characters evolve, and storylines change. In fact, the first point is especially relevant here, given that Allison Silverman, who wrote “Pam’s Replacement,” is new to the series: She worked for Stewart, O’Brien, and Colbert through much of the past decade and was a writer on Portlandia earlier this year. However, it makes me wonder what kind of instruction is given to new writers in terms of who these characters are, and how that might compare to our conception of those characters, and how much of Kevin’s devolution or Gabe’s growing creepiness is a product of new writers operating under particular directives.
And yet, I can’t shake the sense that this season has been operating under directives that lack any sense of specificity, that view these characters as vague cyphers onto which particular storylines can be drafted. I swear you could give Gabe’s lines during the scene with Pam in the lunchroom to Creed, and they would hold exactly the same meaning, which sort of bugs me. As weird as it might be to be frustrated by something that is more generic than terrible, this show used to feel like it had a distinctive voice, and that it was telling stories that were shaped by its cast of characters and not simply its situation. I’m not suggesting that changing that voice is in itself a problem, and it is in fact understandable given Carell’s exit, but the voice the writers have chosen needs to be executed extremely well for it to not feel like a bland copy of itself (or, if you are like me and appreciate a good Baudrillard reference, a simulacrum).
“Pam’s Replacement” isn’t the worst episode the show has ever done, but it felt like one of the laziest, which I’d argue is almost more problematic at this stage in the season. I don't think my concerns with the episode are simply that it was doing something different from what I expect: At the end of the day, I just thought this was a tremendously dull episode of television, even shifting our standards to the show's new generic identity.
- I was going to ask you folks about this, but Twitter user @hunterbp was ahead of the game and pointed me to “The Deposition” as the episode that tonight’s cold open shamelessly ripped off. They’ve officially graduated from doing storylines that they could have done with Michael Scott to doing storylines they already did with Michael Scott. And do you know what? I would have been totally fine with that if Andy had simply said that he had gotten the idea from a former colleague with a bit of a wink, suggesting that this was history repeating itself, instead of the writers being too lazy to check their own continuity. However, they’re unwilling to acknowledge Michael even existed as far as I can tell, so that’s clearly off the table.
- So, to be clear: Dwight never touches pregnant women, but he’ll touch Jim’s penis? That seems strange to me.
- I like that Robert’s friends were local personalities that the employees recognized, but it still doesn’t explain why Robert is running a national or at least multi-regional company out of Scranton so often. I get that he grew up there, but it still makes very little sense.
- After getting almost no lines for the past few weeks, Creed gets a single line tonight. And do you know what? “How did I get this long triangle?” may have been my biggest laugh of the evening. We need more Creed.
- When the camera cut to Kevin after Andy asked if Darryl thought he was up for playing drums, and Kevin was absent-mindedly tapping his chicken drumsticks on his sandwich container, I honestly wasn’t sure if the show wanted me to think this was a sign he was lost in his child-like world of wonder, or in the mood for drumming. Which shouldn’t be a question, really, but sadly is at this stage.
- In all fairness to the Andy/Kevin/Darryl storyline, Andy having lyrics for his scatting cracked me up. Would have enjoyed the storyline much more if it had more of that.