Will all due respect to B.J. Novak, I’ve spent the past few seasons what the hell he is still doing on The Office.
I understand, to some degree, why Ryan remains as a background player despite the fact that he was once a Dunder Mifflin wunderkind who went down in a blaze of glory. There’s a nice irony here—the young hot shot elevated to a new position and then forced back into the role of the perpetual temp—which emphasizes his douchiest qualities for comic effect. The problem is that I’m still unclear what it is that Ryan does, and the one-dimensionality of the current character means that any potential ironies are left as purely subtextual. He is just another background player, whose relationships with other characters (Kelly, Michael) are rarely if ever explored — it makes Novak’s position in the opening credits particularly anachronistic, a relic of a time when “the Temp” still meant something.
“WUPHF.com” brings Ryan to the forefront for the first time in what seems like forever, and it works precisely because the story is about why Ryan remains in this position. Of course, now that he’s largely a background player, the episode is not about Ryan. It’s about Michael’s relationship with Ryan, a case where Michael is so desperate to have someone who looks up to him that he pretends as if Ryan considers him both a friend and a mentor. Michael’s bumper is the perfect representation of this, filled with nine WUPHF.com bumper stickers (I counted), where Ryan’s has only one.
The episode makes it very clear that Michael doesn’t support Ryan because he’s stupid or ignorant. As you well know, I tend to believe that Michael is more competent than many give him credit for, and that his problem is less stupidity and more a sort of selective blindness to the logical or socially acceptable. Michael supports Ryan’s reductive, content-starved business not because he thinks it will be successful, but because he wants to support his employee. He wants Ryan to follow his dreams, selfish and insufferable as he is, so that he can live vicariously through them and because he doesn’t want to admit that dreams must die.
For me, this storyline works because of the two moments where Michael’s defence mechanisms are revealed to be what they are. First we have Pam breaking down Michael’s romantic view of his relationship with Ryan and Michael sort of stumbling his way through an attempt to turn the situation into Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” in order to make things happier. It’s a sad moment, resisting the “joke” and delivering an honest look into Michael being forced to face reality. It’s why Michael so often lives in a world of fantasy, whether in his relationships or in the workplace, and Michael’s decision later in the episode really emphasizes this. Even when he admits that Ryan is incompetent, that there is every chance the idea can fail, he still refuses to sell; at the same time, of course, he is completely relieved when Ryan Wuphfs him that he chose to sell, aware of the risk he was taking and hoping against all hope that his bromantic gesture wouldn’t backfire.
Admittedly, I do have a fundamental issue with the storyline. The highlight of the fifth season (although apparently this isn’t an accepted fact, which baffles me) was the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, and this situation was quite similar in regards to the need for an immediate sale (here to the domain-seeking Washington University Public Health Fund). And yet while that arc ended with Michael negotiating away his dream of owning a company in favor of ensuring that he and his employees (specifically his employees) would be able to transition back into the company, this arc shows Michael believing in Ryan at the expense of all of the other employees. Perhaps if Michael had offered to buy their shares, I could see it in the same context, but since the MSPC arc was apparently when Ryan was returned to the office full-time, it seemed like this would be a good opportunity for a callback that never came, and I have trouble reconciling Michael’s actions in the two storylines.
Let’s be clear that this was not Ryan’s big return to the forefront of the series: This may technically be an episode about his Web site, but the character has almost less depth after the sale of Wuphf.com (and his behavior before that decision, like convincing Michael to take out a second mortgage, was some of his worst yet). Whereas the Andy-centric episodes have seemed like a sort of test for whether Ed Helms could take over the show, B.J. Novak is clearly not in contention. Let us remember, of course, that he was once plucked from obscurity for a position he wasn’t qualified for, so one never knows. Still, this was all about Michael, a sort of last hurrah for their relationship more than a big shift for Ryan’s place in the office.
As for the other two storylines, both were all about taking singular character traits and letting them loose at the expense of others. In the case of Dwight, I thought this was uneventful but avoided the most obvious pitfalls. He was taking advantage of people without moving into a completely cartoonish space, indulging in a bit of childhood retribution within his role as building owner, and without placing any children into mortal danger or anything similar. And because his selfishness had human consequences (in Angela voiding their contract after meeting with widowed Jack Coleman), it didn’t seem wholly extraneous.
By comparison, though, the idea of Jim having hit his commission cap is such a terrible, terrible idea that I wanted it to end as soon as it started. I get that people want the old Jim back, and I know where they’re coming from: He used to be fun, pranking people like Dwight as an outlet to make the drudgery of office life more tolerable, and returning to that is probably tempting. The problem, however, is that now it’s just sad: Now, Jim is a father being positioned as some sort of rebel long after he stopped embodying anything close to rebellion. It’s an awkward return to a previous characterization, and it frames his actions as childish spite as opposed to a necessary effort to survive the work day. The guy is returning home to a wife and child: Surely, if he doesn’t want to do any work, he could find something to do that doesn’t involve walking around bothering the other employees not unlike Michael. Read a book! Go for a walk! Listen to a podcast (I suggest The Tobolowsky Files)! Write the Great American Novel! Play Farmville! Do something that doesn’t annoy your coworkers and the show’s audience.
Every character has a type, as Michael’s final speech pointed out. I thought there was a real sweetness to that moment, Michael classifying everyone with playing cards. Jim is an Ace, Dwight is the King up his sleeve, Phyllis is the Old Maid, and Oscar is, of course, the Queen. As Michael lists off the various cards, though, it’s all about potential: In truth, all cards are wild in his world, which is why he has held onto his vision of Ryan for so long. The question now is whether the deck of cards can survive without their joker, and on that level, “WUPHF.com” was as inconclusive as the rest of the season has been. This did little to give Ryan additional purpose, played Dwight well within his comfort zone, and tried to take Jim back to previous characterization with little success; the Joker might have worked, but the rest of the deck remains as uneven as ever.
- It’s almost like someone told the show to go fish, and yet all they found was a crazy eight, leaving us to wait for the river. And yes, I just mixed three card metaphors and described absolutely nothing—you’re welcome.
- To save someone the trouble in the comments, Ryan’s updated WUPHF.com remains up at NBC. It has sound, if you like, you know, sounds.
- Nothing particularly complex about Kathy Bates’ voice work (her book sounds about as dull as the character), but interesting that there are two voice manipulation storylines on NBC tonight. This is, what, the third time something similar has happened this fall?
- Solid episode for Erin: Nothing too funny, but her moment of stupidity in the cold open (thinking everyone was 16 eight years and not just her) was balanced with some nice moments of indignance about Ryan’s use of color ink. Her look to the camera after seeing Ryan’s poster was particularly wonderful.
- I enjoy that green week, once the basis for the entirety of “Survivor Man,” is now reduced (see what I did there?) to Michael subconsciously thinking that he had been told to separate the trash.
- “Moving backwards, our IT guys have been Glasses, Turban, Ear Hair, Fatty 3, Shorts, Fatty 2, Lozenge, and Fatso.”
- “Oh, the petting zoo closes at 2, and the goat roast is at 3!”
- “Let’s be honest: If I can seem mushed carrots seem better than a boob, I can pretty much sell anything.”
- “Think of your commission cap as a naked old man in a gym locker room.”
- “Yes, I have a dream. … I want to own a decommissioned lighthouse. And I want to live at the top. And nobody knows I live there. And there’s a button I can press and launch that lighthouse into space.”
- “I always wanted to be hay king … but the world shines on Mose.”
- “Did I truck 300 bales of hay to a parking lot to rectify some childhood disappointment? Yes.”
- “Oscar is my Queen. That’s easy, give me a hard one—that’s what Oscar said.”
- “Toby is the instruction card you throw away.”