Before getting into the episode, we should bring into focus the recent news developments concerning The Office which seemed to replace an actual new episode last week. First and foremost, there’s the announcement that NBC is looking to launch its Dwight spin-off in spring of 2013. This would pick up where the ninth season of The Office leaves off – that is if there even is a ninth season. The other recent development is that Mindy Kaling (Kelly) has a deal in the works for her own live-action sitcom on Fox, not to be confused with the animated one which she would also be writing and starring in. On top of all that, it turns out the entire core cast members’ contracts are up this season and with everyone’s burgeoning movie careers on the peripheral and no official renewal for next season, who’s to say this won’t be the last year of The (American) Office?
That being said, we’re now all on the same page to examine what felt like a lackluster episode of a series past its prime. Was it really though, or am I just jaded? Technically, it hit the right targets: humorous interjections from the supporting players peppered throughout two separate plots that each had relatively clear resolutions which even evoked some sentimentality and were actually connected both thematically and by a specific character. So why despite all that do I feel so “meh” about it?
Perhaps it has something to do with the cold open. I don’t mean to suggest the opens necessarily dictate the rest of the episode, but I do find it interesting when they seem to speak to the state of affairs of the series at large. Case in point, Andy’s stress relieving activities in the warehouse were not only unfunny, but completely uninspired. I was reminded of “Café Disco” minus all the good parts. It was as if the writers rehashed this gem of a later episode and replaced Michael with Andy and the humor and heart with superfluous fluff as empty and transparent as the bubble wrap Andy stomped on. The opens can totally be their own thing and be completely self-contained but since Michael’s departure I can’t help but to see them as establishing a tone for the subsequent scenes and “Jury Duty” just didn’t pick up the momentum for me.
The titular plot found Jim at the center returning from a week off work under the guise of participating in jury duty and realizing that his absence actually burdened much of the rest of the staff. I loved how annoyed Stanley was at having to watch Rizzoli & Isles, a series that follows a female detective and her best friend female medical examiner which I’ve never watched because of how insipid it appears, to make up to his wife (or was it his girlfriend?) for working late to cover for Jim. Even more troubling though, was the claim that Andy would fire Jim were he to find out what Jim had done and worse yet – Dwight was onto him. I’d like to say this created a bit of actual tension, especially since Jim now has another new baby, but I never really believed Andy would terminate him. This was confirmed when Jim confessed and Andy offers a “Connecticut cover-up”. When this fails, as it inevitably had to, Dwight moved from being the driving force behind the primary plot to the driving force behind the secondary plot.
Making his way to the hospital where Angela has just given birth to her and “The (State) Senator’s” baby, a story that has been utterly ignored after being exhaustively reduced to a single running gag of being in competition with Pam’s pregnancy at the beginning of the season, to find Gabe and complain about Jim, Dwight instead learns from Oscar that the baby was conceived about the same time as Dwight and Angela apparently had sex. I say “apparently” because although it had been previously touched on that Angela’s husband is a closeted homosexual and that she and Dwight would hook up from time to time when she was dating Andy, the audience was never in any way informed of their more recent liaisons. I thought the Dwight and Angela on the sly story had been abandoned years ago. Oscar said it best when he stated that he didn’t know which thread to follow. So it feels very hastily and pretty sloppily put together that now all of a sudden we’re supposed to be invested in the fact that Angela is almost definitely going to raise her and Dwight’s child with another man. When Dwight lied about euthanizing Angela’s cat it was one thing, but this feels way more tragic than humorous. However, Dwight is a pleasure to see operate and so watching him experience this revelation made it real for me and I derived much entertainment from a man so profoundly filled with pride (“You will lead millions, either willingly or as slaves”) that at least for the time being he doesn’t even care that the mother refuses to acknowledge his status as a father and actually forgives his nemesis for what could have been an offense that would grant him that which Dwight has been after for over a decade.
Permeating these plots were welcomed bouts of subtle hilarity from the rest of the staff that felt strangely stale. I liked how poor Toby referred to his time in jury duty overseeing the “Scranton Strangler” case as “J. Duty”. I liked how an entire Dwight prank, when Jim apparently tricked Dwight into going to L.A. because he was convinced he was to be featured in an episode of N.C.I.S., was mentioned so off-handedly (what was up with the mediocre police procedural allusions?). I laughed when Creed mistook Pam and her kids for Angela and her new baby. Kevin’s birthday present to Angela’s baby, Call of Duty, was fantastically inappropriate and simultaneously thoughtful. Angela’s comparison of pain killers to a James Taylor concert as well as her rebuttal to Dwight’s recounting of evidence in his favor that the baby is his, “You kind of look like a baby”, both made me laugh as did Oscar’s claim that the new baby looks like it ate a premature baby. While all these little gags were good I think they don’t bowl me over like they used to because they feel routine instead of revelatory. It’s not that they’ve merely lost their novelty – the supporting cast is way too talented for that – it’s that they used to be the icing on the already deliciously funny cake whereas now they’re the steel support beams of straw houses.
I truly appreciate the talented writing of Aaron Shure (not to be confused with Michael Schur, aka Mose, Dwight’s cousin who’s never been “taught sex” and Parks and Recreation co-creator) who crafted a genuinely well-structured episode. I guess I just didn’t feel like Jim’s story held any actual stakes and Dwight’s just felt random. I feel like I’m hating on this episode when technically it was very well done. I think it’s just that considering everything surrounding the series, including how long I’ve been following it, I can’t help but feel it’s lost its way and needs to either drastically return to its roots, which seems basically impossible, or find a dignified path to greener pastures. The Office started as a quietly powerful and hysterical examination of the struggle to make genuine human connections in an environment so devoid of humanity and has since gradually become a character driven ensemble of silliness dedicated to goofiness and cheap love triangles rather than poignant depictions of the human condition. While this season may be fine, even great according to average standards, The Office has been such a success because of how completely it altered the status quo whereas now it seems to be doing everything it can to maintain it.