The first episode of The Office that I saw was “Office Olympics.” I was up late, unable to sleep, and was flipping through the four channels that my bunny ears were able to pick up because I was too cheap to spring for even networks in my dorm room, and there it was. And I would argue that “Office Olympics” was a good place to start, as far as the series goes: it’s a strong early episode of the series, and one that I still look back on fondly.
I bring this up because “Office Olympics” was an early example of Michael being extracted from the office, allowing the rest of his employees to go on without him. Although he returns at episode’s end, this is an example of the kind of dynamic that the show needs to rely on in the post-Carell era. Even when a new boss is installed, the show is going to want to maintain its basic chemistry, and the dynamic between the various employees is important to the show's sustainable. However, that dynamic was disappointingly scarce in “Search Committee,” a funny episode that managed to be only fitfully satisfying. I could list off an enormous number of jokes and lines that I thought were particularly funny (and will do so at the end of the post), but I couldn’t tell you any one part of this episode that will resonate next season. It was all one big stall tactic which failed to build the kind of momentum necessary to make the eighth season anything more than an endless curiosity.
Now, “Search Committee” is in an awkward spot on a number of levels. Because it’s coming after Michael’s exit, it really has no connection to the vast majority of the season which came before it: “Goodbye, Michael” already ended the seasonal arc, and this is just an epilogue designed to keep viewers engaged over the break. The episode is clearly designed to draw viewers’ attention to the search for a new boss, a search that has been the subject of much internet discussion for pretty much the entire season, and will continue to be the subject of summer speculation given that the final decision still hasn’t been made (even if, so long as news reports are to be trusted, there is a frontunner).
The problem is that, at least for me, I’ve already been privy to this debate. I knew every single one of the cameos in tonight’s episode, and I also knew which of those candidates were realistic (which is basically just Spader, Tate, and the internal candidates), and which were just one-off cameos (either due to commitments to other shows, logics of fame, etc.). Perhaps if I was entirely unaware of the behind-the-scenes negotiations, and if the entire season had not been built around the question of how the show would move on without Michael, I might have found this suspenseful. Instead, it spent an entire hour establishing what we already knew: There are a lot of candidates, the show could go in any number of directions, and we’re all going to have to wait until fall (or, more realistically, whenever they officially sign someone this summer) to find out.
I liked a number of the individual interviews: Spader got the most time to craft a character and brought to life a notably unnerving creep, while my general appreciation for many of the other candidates meant that I had a few chuckles and generally enjoyed myself. But the show seemed to be under the impression that they didn’t need to do anything else to make the episode interesting, and I would tend to disagree with this.
I understand that “Goodbye, Michael” was the season’s climax, and that everything else was the denouement, but the show referred specifically to two recurring storylines here and delivered decidedly anti-climactic climaxes. Gabe and Andy’s feud finally starts to boil over in the interview (in what I thought was a great scene for Zach Woods)…and then Jo just sort of casually sends Gabe back to Florida, and he gets a brief goodbye where they talk about how bony he is. Angela gets engaged to the State Senator, and it appears that the office is finally going to confront her…and they decide to leave it alone. There were some funny lines in both of these storylines, lines that you will see quoted below, but I just didn’t get any sense of impact from them. Maybe it was that they kept getting broken up by the interviews, which lacked any sort of narrative drive, but something about the way these stories were handled felt entirely perfunctory. While some of the comedy may have had some life to it, the actual plot of the finale had no such thing, which means that they’re missing half of the equation.
For example: As was speculated in the comments following “Goodbye, Michael,” Phyllis and Erin realize that they might be mother and daughter, but they realize this off screen and just sort of casually announce it in a talking head. And then they spend the episode casually supporting one another, setting up what appears to be a subtle new character dynamic. I’ll admit that I’m glad they didn’t take it into soap opera territory, but was that it? Was that worth building one of your finale subplots around? They tried to build it around Andy and Erin’s relationship, tying two of the subplots together, but they’ve been circling that relationship for so long that Andy’s rejection was just sort of ‘there,’ and wasn’t helped by the fact that they opened the door to him changing his mind in the following talking head. That’s not character development, or story development: That’s spinning your wheels, hoping that people will mistake the smoke for fire.
There was some fire here, but it wasn’t anything that would create actual story momentum heading into next season. Pam having to deal with Creed by distracting him from actually talking to clients was a lot of fun, and the brief scenes of Creed’s time as boss were delightful, but I spent the entire storyline wondering when they were going to get around to justifying hiring/keeping Jordan the hot blonde assistant. Her introduction is remarkably similar to Erin’s back in season five, except that Erin had a reason to be hired, and more quickly established something of a character and a connection with other characters in the office. Jordan remains a glorified extra, a fact which sort of confounds me given that they could have dumped one of the celebrity cameos and actually given her something to do besides dial a phone and smile. When I saw that she was in the image adorning this post, I presumed that it meant the finale would do something with her, but apparently that was asking too much.
The one time that “Search Committee” really came together was at episode’s end, when the job interviews were over and it was just the entire office gathered in one room talking about who Jim should choose. There was a rhythm to the scene that was absent from the rest of the episode, with various one-liners and storylines all connecting as one. Andy’s continued attempts to pitch himself as the lame choice, Darryl’s attempt to play the single father card, Meredith’s concern over penis size, Kevin getting excited at having everyone’s attention, Angela getting off on trying to have everyone’s attention in a (State) Senatorial fashion, Ryan’s attempt to justify hiring a homeless person: Even if individual lines weren’t genius, it all seemed to click together. However, it would be wrong to extrapolate from this scene that the rest of the episode succeeded in the same way, because it didn’t come together at all. There needed to be more of the overall office dynamic in the episode, and what we did get needed to be stronger than ineffectual reminders of what lingering story threads they’re going to drag out into next season despite their fading appeal.
I know there are some who will look at the score above and have trouble reconciling it with the amount you laughed — heck, when I look over my notes, I sort of have the same issue. Earlier this season, as my perspective on the show became more clear, someone commented that I should just tell you what was funny. My initial objection to this was some sort of screed about how criticism is about more than writing recaps of jokes, but upon further reflection the bigger issue with this is that I fully contend that The Office needs to be more than funny. This is because it has been more than funny, and has been this way since the second season. This is a show that has always strived towards resonance, building characters and scenarios which speak to issues larger than the comic setups within a particular episode. Are there some episodes that simply indulge in comedy? Absolutely, and some of them are among my favorite in the series’ run. But the show is at its finest when it is both funny and resonant, where the show’s comedy can make meaning and build momentum among its audience.
A season finale would be an ideal time to do this, but they failed to achieve it with “Whistleblower” last season (which I barely remember), and this season they’ve failed to achieve it beyond manufactured mystery. The eighth season appears to be built around a summer-long guessing game followed by morbid curiosity, with everything hinging on the question of “Who’s the Boss?” And given that I’m personally already sort of tired of hearing about that, and wish they’d just pick someone and get on with it, the wishy-washy nature of this finale (with just about every candidate getting sold as a potential one so as to increase the mystery) only made me less engaged with the result.
While all of this sounds fairly negative, I actually think season seven was a distinct improvement over season six: While it was still uneven, Michael’s exit provided a sense of focus that was absent last year, and the more resonant episodes were not exclusively limited to one-hour event pieces designed around Jim and Pam. And next season will be completely fascinating, given that there will be a new boss, and the entire dynamic of the show could easily change.
“Search Committee” suffered, though, by being only vaguely related to either of these things, trapped in the liminal space between meaningful events that it is unable or unwilling to connect to. With no connection to Michael (so as to avoid calling attention to Carell's absence), and a completely vague connection to next season (because they weren't willing to commit to hiring someone, and decided to turn it into a mystery to try to keep the show in the public eye), it never got to resonate as its own episode of The Office. Maybe it was the vignette-like feel to the interviews, but I didn’t think it was much of an episode at all: it was just a bunch of scenes strung together, vaguely referencing back to past and future events but never drawing out any sense of meaning. This is still a show capable of being funny, and it demonstrated that on numerous occasions in this finale, but it did little to convince me that it’s capable of telling the kind of stories that will make me actually care about it like I used to.
In a period of intense transition for the show, I would have hoped that this would be one of their priorities, and I saw no evidence of that here.
- First off, I want to thank everyone who has been reading and commenting this season: as my first major assignment here at The A.V. Club, I've been truly appreciative of everyone who has challenged my opinion with their own, even those who have vehemently disagreed with everything I've said. That dialogue is really the value of reviews of this nature, so to see that continue to thrive even as some of you dismissed me as pretentious was heartening.
- I think the biggest problem with building the entire finale around the mystery of the new boss is the fact that we are going to learn the result of his mystery from the trade papers and not from the show itself. The Simpsons' “Who Shot Mr. Burns,” for example, worked because all of the speculation would lead people to tune in for the premiere to find out the answer, and would allow the mystery to be resolved within the narrative: here, it’ll be old news by the time we hit the premiere, which will do little to sustain real excitement.
- I was legitimately sort of pissed off at how stupid they made Darryl in regards to taking the job seriously. While I can understand Darryl expecting that he would get the job based on his strong relationships with people, the idea of not even bothering with a resume seems to reduce his intelligence too far. He can still have hubris without seeming entirely unprofessional. And no, it wasn’t worth it for a Clippy joke.
- Dwight’s arc in the episode was funny, but the silliness of the whole gun incident sort of lingered over it at the same time. While the self-interview was a great bit of performance from Rainn Wilson, the whole charade and his approach to the gun issue just reminded me how they could have managed his time as manager better.
- On the one hand, I think Catherine Tate is the most interesting candidate from an acting perspective, and that her character seems the most able to be readjusted to being slightly less obnoxious outside of the context of a cameo. On the other hand, while her pre-existing relationship with Jo makes her a more likely candidate, it also makes it more likely for Kathy Bates to continue recurring, which is less than ideal (For the record, I thought Bates was better here than she's been in the past, but I still wish they had cast someone less obnoxious).
- So I suppose Gabe now becomes the new Jan/Ryan, which actually makes a whole lot more sense when you really think about it — why did he stick around for so long, anyways?
- There were some fine lines here, but Phyllis talking about bestiality needed to be reconsidered for the sake of my sanity.
- “It’s a beautiful morning at Dunder Mifflin…as I like to call it, Great Bratton.”
- “Color Code said documents. Trademark.”
- “Did you know Gabe’s last name was Lewis? I had no idea!”
- “It doesn’t hurt that I’m…Blaaaaaack.”
- “I'm probably just another Porky’s baby.”
- “There is no such thing as a product — there is only sex.”
- “I saw an episode on the Sesame Street.”
- “As a lover of elegant weddings, I’m a little excited. But overall? Horrified.”
- Phyllis Vance, Motivational Speaker: “Are you sure this is a good idea? I’d hate to see you disappointed.”
- “Shut up about the sun. SHUT UP ABOUT THE SUN.”
- “Your department’s just you, right?” “Yes, Jim, but I am not easy to manage.”
- “We never were really good at small talk, were we?”
- “The hand that reaches from the grave to grip your throat is the strong hand you want on the wheel.”
- “Um, how do I know that Robert is gay? He liked my Facebook photos at three in the morning.”
- “According to my Doctor, I don’t have another 15 years if I want to keep up the same dietary and sexual lifestyle, which I intend to.”
- “Take a whole day off from the whole Jim shtick. Try caring about something. You might like how it feels…James.”
- “Low blow, puppet!”
- “A, B, and so forth…you know…”
- “Aren’t there some things that you really want to like but just can’t seem to like it? Like Mad Men? Or football?”
- “You know how you and Jim did your ironic wedding?”
- “Thank you, Mr. Snoot.”
- “I look forward to the personal perks that he promised to me privately.” (Which gave me another Simpsons flashback, this time to “He moved me…TO A BIGGER HOUSE.”)
- “Everyone is listening to me!”
- “What a surprise, minorities sticking together.”
- “I just want, for once, a smart, professional, decisive, well-hung man in his forties.”
- “She may have a point there — would a small penis work? Small to moderate?”
- “I’m a terrific hugger. I’ve been with a bunch of girls where that’s basically all they want to do.”
- “I’ll run this branch, or I’ll destroy this branch. Or, I don’t know, something else always works out."