When The Office began its third season, things were different. With Jim at an entirely new office featuring a set of new characters, the rhythms of the show were dramatically altered. Existing dynamics were changed, new dynamics were introduced, and it began what was probably the last consistently great season of the show.
It is no coincidence, I would argue, that the best thing the show has done since then was the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, which also altered the status quo in a major way. While both storylines eventually brought things back to Dunder Mifflin, division proved to be a strong source of storyline for the writers in earlier seasons.
“Special Project” marks an effort to return to this particular narrative event, manufacturing an excuse for six members of the office to travel to Tallahassee and oversee a—you guessed it—special project for corporate. I could take some time to question how exactly the Scranton branch is going to operate without six people for three weeks, and I could also ask about the economics of a printer company establishing an Apple-esque retail presence. Like the majority of the Sabre storylines since the company’s introduction, there’s a fundamental lack of logic operating here that does puzzle the part of me that enjoys policing the show’s reality.
However, primarily, I’m just wondering why the show didn’t contrive this scenario sooner. I’m willing to accept a story contrivance so long as it is a functional one, and “Special Project” immediately breathes life into the season by giving characters motivation, purpose, and a new circumstance to challenge their pre-existing characterization. It felt like a big answer to many of the issues that have plagued the show so far this season, to the point where it was almost too blatant in its efforts to revive the season: As much as I enjoyed Dwight’s meta-commentary on Cathy’s fundamental lack of personality, at one point referring to her as “a probably not totally useless enigma,” the self-referentiality came close to that stage where it stops being funny and starts calling too much attention to the constructed nature of the scenario.
In the end, though, that construction—which sent Jim, Cathy, Ryan, and Stanley to join team leader Dwight at corporate for three weeks—was really deftly handled. By splitting up Jim and Pam, the show gets to back away from a pairing that has become more unlikeable the longer the characters are together, a criticism that Alan Sepinwall expanded on last week and a criticism that I felt building in the cold open (as Pam tries to buy off the office with cash to win the “Postpartum-Off”). By having Erin make a personal choice to leave for Tallahassee to keep from having to see Andy with Jessica, a character who has often been reduced to a joke gets to enact a degree of agency over her future. And, perhaps most importantly, by sending Cathy to Florida, the show gets the breathing space necessary to make her an actual character, building on the few morsels of “She seems to have a crush on Jim” offered in earlier episodes.
I’m not suggesting that all of these storylines are going to turn out great: I have not seen future episodes, and there’s no way of knowing how much time the show is willing to commit to this new setup. Additionally, my patience for Dwight remains limited, and his "Florida Orientation" shtick here felt like a tired exaggeration of Michael’s conference room lectures, continuing to demonstrate my distaste for the broader elements of the character. However, there is no better solution to a stagnating show than trying to make a change, and “Special Project” did a nice job of creating some momentum behind a good number of the characters making the journey.
Some part of me feels like I’m reviewing “Special Project” based solely on what it sets up, but I’d argue that both Stanley and Ryan demonstrated early dividends for the storyline. Florida Stanley was an enjoyable bit, while Ryan’s desire to use this as an excuse to get away from Kelly was a nice reminder of how fun the character can be when he is motivated to do something (even when that something is avoiding someone, or getting a free vacation). Those are enjoyable modes for these characters, and they’ll provide good support in Tallahassee, so long as the show wants to spend some time there (which it seems the writers do, given that they built sets for Dwight’s trip in “Trivia”).
As for what we’re leaving behind in Scranton, “Special Project” was somewhat light on that subject. However, I discovered that despite the storyline still feeling a bit aimless, I’m invested in Darryl’s flirtations with Val to the point where the silliness of Val’s deep-voiced mother named Brandon was water under the bridge. [Edit: It says something about my basic expectations for the show that I convinced myself that was actually her mother on the phone, as I for some reason believed that to be well within the realm of possibility. My apologies.] It’s a weird storyline in that it’s mostly just shared between Darryl and the audience; while he does have a friendship with Andy, one that I expect we’ll see more of given the new division of labor, in some ways, he has become the closest thing to how Jim functioned in early seasons, where he talks to us (or, rather, the camera operators) more than he talks to his coworkers. Craig Robinson talking about the difference between “We’re Just Friends” beanies and “Get It Poppin’ Beanies” was even enough for me to forgive the use of the word beanie to describe what were clearly tuques, so I’d be happy to see this slow burn love affair continue in the weeks ahead.
If you are going to introduce a major storyline like this, and if you aren’t going to be particularly elegant about the fact that it’s designed to shake up the dynamics, you have to commit to it. What worked for me about “Special Project” was that it never dwelt for too long in a particular moment, always aware of the end goal of getting those six characters on a shuttle to the airport. Not everything leading up to that point worked, with Jim’s texting etiquette lesson and Dwight’s Florida orientation proving comic non-starters, but it doesn’t matter when there’s a few sharp jokes and some self-awareness within the script. Without really coming out and saying it, the writers felt like they were being honest about what the season has or has not accomplished to this point, and seem to be saying with this episode that a change is necessary.
Would the season have gone differently if the show had done this from the start? I certainly feel like we’d be less hostile toward Robert California if the show had introduced him within the corporate environment, and I do wonder if Andy’s first days as boss might have been better served with a more intimate ensemble dynamic. However, “Special Project” doesn’t prompt those kinds of counterfactuals for me, which hasn’t been true throughout this season. For once, I find myself looking forward to future episodes instead of looking back, curious about where things are headed, instead of dwelling on where things have been. While I have been frustrated with the series, there is some part of me that feels like this is where my patience might actually pay off with something worth talking about… for the right reasons.
- I’m sort of hoping Pam takes over at reception, as her new job description is so vague that it means she doesn’t really have a persona in the office other than “Jim’s wife.” Fischer is a funny actress, but “Wuh-what?” was about the only joke she got here, and I hope she gets to do more without Jim hanging around.
- I realize that Angela being in tremendous shape was just because Angela Kinsey wasn’t actually pregnant, but that still supports my theory that Angela didn’t actually give birth to the baby and it was from a surrogate. And yes, I now have my own Scranton Strangler-style conspiracy theory. I am one of you.
- I would love to go sea kayaking with Gloria Estefan, but I’d be just fine going without her as well. I went once in Chester, Nova Scotia, and it was beautiful. You should all try it.
- “It’s like the nation of Islam down here.”
- “Have you ever used a chain with three weak links? I have. And now I no longer own an Arctic Wolf.”
- “I’m the only person in this office that watches Burn Notice.”
- “How many of you have seen the documentary Deliverance?”